It’s a couple of years now since I first decided that we really needed to do something about our outside dining area at the mill. After all we spend most of our lives out there from April through to October. (Not just eating and drinking you understand!) We’d been so busy renovating the inside of the house since we moved in that we hadn’t really had time to even think about it, but we were getting a bit embarassed about inviting friends over for lunch and basically having them dine in the middle of a vast concrete yard.
Let me explain a little. Although le Moulin de la Roche has existed since 1020ish, the building itself has undergone many modifications in its lifetime. By the twentieth century it had become a successful industrial mill.
But the site restricted the expansion of the business and when the last miller sold it and moved to bigger premises, the ugly concrete extension on the right hand end in the picture above was demolished, leaving just the concrete floor. This part of the building straddled one of the two mill races and so the floor was raised on concrete piles. (Think multi-storey carpark.) That was our terrace.
The redesign of this area into a patio garden and outside eating area started with a whole load of problems; not least being the miniscule budget available. Apart from that minor consideration we were also faced with:
- We couldn’t just dig up the reinforced concrete because there is nothing underneath. (Not that we could have faced doing that or afforded to get it done)
- Although the mill stream which used to run underneath this end of the building has been blocked off, the river floods regularly in the winter and the water table rises right up under the yard.
- There is no drainage, so when it rains this walled area fills with water – not quite swimming pool level, but certainly enormous puddles
- This is also the only way to access the rest of the garden, which is actually an island in the middle of the river, so we needed to keep enough room and a reasonably driveable surface to get the tractor mower through.
- This end of the mill is north-facing so some of it never gets any sun – great when you want to be cool in summer-but the end furthest from the house is in full, scorching sun all day, so not so easy for gardening.
What I wanted to do was break up the space and provide an area where people could sit and have lunch in comfort, shaded from the midday sun and which would be lit at night for lazy dinners and spending un petit moment convivial with friends, where everyone would have something nice to look at no matter where they sat at the table.
Working from home as we do, it’s also nice to take the laptops out into the garden and work with the sound of birds and the river gurgling over the little waterfall under the old stone bridge.
And just to ruin the atmosphere completely – I also need to have my washing line there!
The problem of the puddles was quickly solved by noticing that the water collected in the middle of each rectangular section of the concrete floor. Colin got his big drill out and drilled a hole straight through the centre of each section and voilà, no more puddles. The water drains through to the old mill stream underneath.
We found ourselves an inexpensive (129€) aluminium pergola kit from the local E Leclerc supermarket and went home to erect it, (then went back to the supermarket because they had forgotten to give us one of the boxes).
This should have been quite easy – they’re not complicated structures for goodness sake, but standing it up (yes, the instructions told us to fully construct it lying on its side on the ground, and then stand it up!) with just him and me on opposite sides (and on a fairly breezy day) was a bit hairy, I’ll tell you. Have you ever watched the Highland Games in Scotland and those big brawny guys in kilts staggering back and forth trying to balance a tree trunk in their hands before tossing it as far as they can? Well, that was pretty close. But finally it was up and bolted into the concrete.
Once we had decided where the table and chairs would go, there was the problem that although the concrete surface looks pretty flat from a distance, it’s actually a patchwork of slightly different levels and all the furniture wobbled. Yes, we could have levelled it all with a screed coat but instead we decided to go for a rather nifty system of recycled plastic plots, and I don’t even know what they are called in English! They support the very basic concrete slabs and are really easy to level. Plus, it gave us a small space underneath to feed the electrics through.
The next job was to add some planting. We built some raised beds from a job-lot of bargain concrete kerbing stones and filled them with a layer of building rubble (to provide drainage) and compost.
That was another piece of luck. I’d popped into town to get some milk at the supermarket and found they had a ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offer on compost. I was so excited I forgot the milk!
Then came the fun bit – adding the plants. I wanted a calm colour scheme that would feel summery when it was hot but would give interest all year, so in the end decided on a mix of green and white with accents of mauve and silver foliage. Each bed gets different amounts of sun and consequently dries out at a greater or lesser speed, so I needed a mix of drought-tolerant, full-sun loving varieties and shade-loving beauties that didn’t mind sitting in soggy earth during the winter.
By this time we were in COVID lockdown #1, in France. All but essential (ie food) shops were closed. Luckily the seed section of the supermarket was considered essential, (I guess because so many people grow their own food in rural France) so an awful lot of things were grown from seed. Others were donated by friends or cuttings taken from their gardens (by prior arrangement, obviously!)
I love those little beds surrounded by box hedges that the French do so well but I couldn’t afford box plants. (and there has been a plague of box moth caterpillars in France which has ravaged so many beautiful hedges and topiaries in the last couple of years). So instead I took cuttings from a lonicera bush that I already had and rooted them in pots over the winter before planting out. They look a bit puny here but they make a lovely little hedge now.
Colin added waterproof spotlights and a waterproof electricity socket under the table, so we have all mod cons, and I fitted additional roller blinds on the two long sides of the pergola, which can be lowered as required for blinding low sun at breakfast or apéro time.
The end of the terrace was open to the grass slope down to the river and we wanted to create a ‘room’ without totally blocking the view of the old stone bridge and fabulous weeping willow. The answer was to dig up an elaeagnus hedge which the previous owner had planted in completely the wrong place and rehome it along the open end of the terrace. The hedge was already quite mature so it put up quite a struggle before it finally agreed to be moved! A wooden arch with climbing white roses, that wouldn’t visually ‘fight’ with the natural greens beyond was added to give access to the island.
As the house walls will eventually be repointed, we didn’t want to start putting climbers along it (although we have inherited a beautiful, mature white clematis, which I keep cutting right back to the trunk every year, until I can let it run wild), so to give some temporary interest against the gable end of the house, I wanted shade tolerant shrubs in large pots.
Gulp! Why are large planters so crazily expensive?! Even plastic ones need a mortgage!
OK, a quick search on Pinterest and a couple of days later I had bought the required large black plastic dustbins (8€ each from the supermarket) and Colin crafted me some timber ‘cache-pots’ from floorboards and skirting boards to slip over the functional-but-ugly bins.
This area will be a work in progress for some time to come. The final stage will be to lay gravel around the raised patio to hide the tatty concrete, but as we have building work planned at the back of the mill in the next twelve months, there didn’t seem much point in laying it, only to have it messed up by cherry-pickers and other assorted construction equipment. So you’ll just have to imagine that bit – but here’s where we are at the moment…
So, what do you think? Any ideas for tweaks? Suggestions for planting? Do leave a comment with your ideas or thoughts – I’d love to read them. Hopefully the bad weather that so many people (including us!) have had to put up with this summer will soon pass and we can all get out and enjoy our gardens to the full!