The Art of Phénoculture: Meeting Tanguy de Toulgoët

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Enjoying the sunshine in Tanguy’s garden

As I mentioned in the introduction to my blog, when I launched it last year, I had many unexpected ‘hurdles’, I suppose you could call them, to manage in our family life, over the past ten years or so – not all of them the easiest to bounce back from.  In the midst of these, in 2012/13, we spent months designing a large public garden project for the village of Killea that, unfortunately, failed to get LEADER funding in the end, as the EU resources had run out. This explains, perhaps, why the garden here at Greenville, and what to do with it, was put on the long finger.  We had planted apple trees and berry bushes, some years ago, which are producing successfully and both Seosamh and I have an interest and awareness of the principles of permaculture and biodiversity – but we just did not have the time until now to implement some of these here at Greenville.

Permaculture & Bio-Diversity

While these terms are now commonly used, they are words that describe systems long in use, in fact since the middle ages. The Wikipedia definition of Permaculture is  a system of agricultural and social design principles, centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems’. The term permaculture was developed and coined by David Holmgren, then a graduate student, and his professor, Bill Mollison, in 1978. Bio-diversity refers to the variety of life on earth – its biological diversity is commonly referred to as ‘biodiversity’. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity, where each species, no matter how small  all have an important role to play.

Initial Consultation

Enter into the picture Tanguy  de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow. I was aware of Tanguy and his garden for some time so we made contact in April and invited him over to give us an initial consultation. This was probably the most important hour we spent this year, in terms of making changes to the grounds at Greenville.

Last Sunday I went back to his garden to interview Tanguy for my blog and take some photographs. We sat outside in the glorious afternoon sunshine (pictured above), sipping coffee and tasting his own (delicious) honey (below), and chatted about his life and his philosophy of horticulture.

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Delicious honey produced by Tanguy’s bees

Growing up in Paris

Tanguy was born in Paris, and has two sisters, one an artist and teacher still living in France, the other, who is multilingual, also settled in Ireland and lives nearby,  in Rathdowney. Tanguy tells me that when he was a young boy, he felt Paris was not right for him. He adored his time in the countryside, spent with his grandparents, all of whom, while working in Paris, had houses in the country and loved gardening. His paternal grandmother was a member of the French Alpine Society and would go to the Alps collecting plants for her garden. His maternal grandmother grew apples and walnuts, among other things, and had a more ‘old style’ garden in Périgord, in the south-west of France. So from the age of four or five working with his Grandparents started to shape his view of the world and indeed informed his gift and his passion for horticulture.

He also mentions that his Great Uncle was a very famous entomologist  (insect scientist) who traveled extensively and several insects he discovered are named after him – toulgoëti –  the family surname but with an ‘i’ at the end.

Phénoculture

Tanguy’s gardening technique is called Phénoculture – (using straw, hay, grass clippings or similar materials as a mulch to cover the ground where fruit, vegetables, flowers are gown). This layer of mulch protects the soil – which is fundamental to growing crops successfully.

Mainstream farming depletes the soil of so many nutrients – slurry spreading for instance, because it is so acidic, depletes the soil of worms who naturally aerate the soil and keep it moist – not to mention what slurry does to water supplies. Tanguy has a lot to say about water during the interview, which I will get to.

The method Tanguy uses hardly disrupts the earth at all. In many respects, he explains, it mimics the soil of a woodland forest – where the leaves protect the soil in spring and summer and when they fall, the bacteria in the soil, and the small creatures that live there, along with nitrogen, will naturally want to decompose the leaves, rather like a ‘digestive system’ he explains.   This resulting forest soil is rich in nutrients and excellent for growing plants. So the hay, straw, grass clippings, wood (wood can produce a type of ‘humus’ that can last up to 3000 years, he explains), that Tanguy uses, all protect the soil from UV rays, from dryness and allows the earth’s ‘digestive system’ as such, to work very efficiently.

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Beautiful potatoes growing just under the rich mulch

Moving to Ireland

An obvious question to ask Tanguy was why he moved to Ireland. France is such a stunning country, I comment, and their produce is so amazing. Just think of their food markets for instance. He explains that his sister, mentioned above, met a farmer from Rathdowney, who was visiting France, while she was working with the Charol Sheep Society. They married and she moved to Ireland and Tanguy and his wife Isabelle would come over because Isabelle is a keen and talented horse rider and Tanguy loved fly fishing – both of which they could do more easily in Ireland than in France. Eventually they too decided to move here and bought their home in Durrow.

Food for the Kitchen

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Sweet peas

Tanguy and Isabelle quickly got to work  developing a garden that supplies the family with almost all the fresh food they need. So no – he does not miss the great food markets of France – because his garden could stock one! Tanguy and Isabelle have two teenage daughters.  They don’t produce their food to sell, though they do sometimes take their honey to local markets. They produce food  for their own consumption, primarily. They make their own cider, mead, preserve many fruits they grow, make ketchup and chutneys. I understand their stir fries are on another level – given the freshness of the vegetables used. Several of the herbs and plants Tanguy grows are rare and many of the roses and flowers grown in the garden are also edible. I am hoping I may be able to arrange a class or two with Isabelle in her kitchen soon!.

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Edible roses

Water – A rapidly Depleting Resource

Our conversation goes back to water. Tanguy says that, in the past twenty two years, he has seen many changes to our lakes in Ireland, where he has been  fly fishing for many years. As water becomes polluted and scarce, fish life dies and Lough Derg and the other lakes on the Shannon, and more recently Lough Corrib in Galway are, in effect, now virtually dead as fishing lakes.  Lough Mask in Mayo is one of the last living lakes in Europe. In general there is not enough respect for water in Ireland, and bog depletion is also aggravating this situation.   His gardening method is geared to protect soil and keep it moist, and if you could see his garden, you would have little reason to question his logic and understand his concerns for our natural world and the damage we are doing to it.

 

Bee Keeping

Tanguy invites me back another day to talk more specifically about his bee keeping techniques. This is something he started only eight years ago. He went back to some of the principles of the Middle Ages to research the best bee-husbandry skills . It is called skep bee keeping. He does not spray for Varroa mite, for instance, a serious problem all bee keepers have to manage and one, even so called ‘ organic bee farmers’ spray against. Neither does he feed the bees extra sugar to encourage early egg laying. His honey, which we sample, is just delicious – totally different in taste to any I have eaten before. It cannot be certified organic however, because Tanguy does not have enough hectares of land to qualify – which makes little sense, given how simply and naturally he produces this product.

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Bee Hive at Dunmore Country School

Tanguy and Isabelle also use by-products from the hives such as wax, to make natural candles and Propolis ( a natural by product from bees that is an age-old antibiotic and antioxidant).

‘Just Covering the Soil’

Permaculture and biodiversity – these titles, explained above, are, I suggest to Tanguy,  ‘elaborate’ words, or theories, used to explain very old styles of horticulture. I ask Tanguy to explain, in his own words, what he does in the garden: His response:  ‘ Just covering the soil’ he says ‘ protecting the soil from sun, wind, and drying’.

Me in garden

Back in Greenville where we have started using this technique

I am so excited to see how things emerge at Greenville in the years to come. I fully expect to see a lot of hay and straw in our garden, and look forward to the many great fresh fruits and vegetables, we hope to produce – and of course to converting them into something delicious to eat and share in the kitchen.

Tanguy is, in the broadest sense, a horticultural genius with a sincere and genuine concern for how we manage our earth and protect it’s systems – some of which are frighteningly at risk of collapse, due to the stupidity of our own human practices.

Tanguy and Isabelle de Toulgoët
Swan road
Durrow
County Laois

tanguy@dunmorecountryschool.ie

Tanguy 087 1258002
Isabelle 086 0722183

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