Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pruning the olive trees, 2010.

2009/2010 was a horrible winter here in Provence. Long, dull, exceptionally cold and rainy. The light, sunny days were very few and everyone seemed to be in low spirits.

It wasn't till the end of March that we started to see a bit more light and even then it was far from warm. We started to prune the oliviers round here on the 29th of March.

My neighbours were busy from morning till night with hundreds of mature olive trees that needed detailed attention.

My own oliviers are a mix of trees which emerged slowly from the ruins of trees killed by the long hard frost in 1956, and new young trees I planted in 2006. The younger and older trees need to be pruned differently. For the more established, taller trees I cut away suckers from aournd the roots to favour the three or four main charpentes and then used secateurs to remove branches growing into 'the middle' of each tree. Thinning and opening the olivier out in this way lets the sun in and olive trees love the sun. I also removed the few small branches with diseased leaves on them and little dry twigs that were dead.

For the younger, smaller trees, the first thing to do was to stand back and look at each one. Then you circle it; again, just looking. Once you've taken in the shape and balance of the tree you look into the middle and remove any superfluous charpentes, cutting at the centre where the branch begins. You should leave three or four charpentes. These will forever form the tree's basic framework. You then remove any branches which are trailing on or too near the ground and branches which cross others within the tree's centre.

Grass and weeds need to be cleared away from around the base of each olivier. The space cleared can be as wide or a little wider than a young tree. I'll put a mix of horse manure and straw down soon. This comes from a friend of a friend who keeps horses. It is entirely natural, without the weird industrial chemicals that go into commercial fertilisers. The horses graze on healthy, untreated grass in a rural area without crops nearby - no chemicals are sprayed around them. The animals aren't treated with anti-biotics. I don't treat the trees either so the olives and the eventual olive oil are pure and simple - non-traitéé.

The other task is to gather up all the pruned twigs and branches and burn them. That needs caution in this forested area. The pompiers quite rightly enforce the periods when you can't burn anything in the open.

And after that the trees need 40 litres of water each, twice monthly. That's usually provided by a mix of me dragging the extended hose up to the trees and the spectacular summer thunderstorms which often save me the hassle.

Using banks and banking in France (Can be a Hassle)

This account may just be personal experience but numbers of French and other friends recount similar experiences.

When I moved to France some years ago I chose my bank because it was housed in the prettiest building in town. How pleasant to go there once or twice a month. I don't suppose the other banks are much better in terms of service but they're in unattractive modern buildings.

The first thing I noticed is that when you ask the cash machine for a balance it prints out a ticket on which the most recent data is several days old. Not much use when you want to know if there are enough funds in the account to pay your mortgage and electricity bill tomorrow.

If you go into the bank to speak to a cashier, here's what happens. You do the usual thing of going through the two anti-bank raid doors, pressing the little buttons to get through each one. You stand in a long queue in front of a desk with three chairs for bank cashiers but only - ever - one cashier. Everyone in front of you pulls a huge dossier out of their bag when their turn comes to speak with the cashier and starts rifling through dozens of pages. You eye the clock and see it's nearly midday. Eventually you get to speak to the cashier and she advises you that, for a balance, you have to go to the cash machine.

In general, there doesn't seem to be anyone in the branch who can tell you much about activity on your account. The other day I asked if Peugeot have cancelled the direct debit I was paying for a car lease. The cashier said the system doesn't show her that. So what should I do? They have to cancel it apparently, not me. "Oh" she said breezily "wait till next month, then if they take money for a car you don't have any more, go and see them and ask them to cancel the debit." Er, OK. It could be more organised than that though couldn't it?

Putting money in the account can be as frustrating as finding out what's in there or finding out what's going out. My local branch doesn't have a cash 'depot' facility but a branch twelve kilometres away does. So I drive over there and pay cash in. You get fairly used to doing that and you get to trust the system. Wrongly. One Sunday evening I went to pay cash in to cover a direct debit on the Tuesday morning. The facility wasn't available. Depot just wasn't there as an option on the menu that day. The next day was Monday - the bank was closed, so the bill went unpaid and I got debited for the bank's work of not paying.

A few weeks late I resumed paying depots to the account as depot had reappeared on the menu. Again, I paid money in to cover the mortgage and a bill. A message appeared on the screen saying in French: "Following an incident we couldn't count your money." Occasionally when that happens, the notes pop out of the machine, but this time they stayed in it. Then the screen reverted to the other options - 'obtain a balance' and so on. My euros had been swallowed up and I had no evidence I'd paid them in. I spoke to the surveillance camera for a moment. Waved my arms around a bit. Then went home.

The next day I went to see the manager of my own branch who didn't seem to know customers could make a depot at the other branch. He was fascinated by my account of losing my money. I asked him what would happen now? "Oh" he said breezily "someone will count the money and realise there's too much and we'll sort it out." Ahah. OK. Any idea who? Or when?
He sucked in his breath. Hard to say really.
Well, who collects the cash? How often?
Um, not bank staff. Some sub-contractors. About once a week, he thought.
What's to stop them putting my euros in their pocket?
He laughed. No, they wouldn't do that. No no.
He'd make enquiries and call me to let me know when the problem was rectified.

Well he never did. Ten days later I went back to the branch, passed through the anti-bank raid doors, stood in a long queue, watched as each customer hauled a huge dossier out of their bag when they reached the cashier, looked at the clock as it got near to midday, and finally reached the cashier. I explained the history of the problem. I'd lost hundreds of euros; I'd spoken to the bank manager. (I had a medium-sized dossier myself now.) And she said breezily "Oh, you need to go to the cash machine for a balance."
"But can't you look at the system and see what's happening on the account?"
Charming smile and a further calm encouragement to go to the cash machine.
"Go and have a look" she said. "I expect it'll be all right."

So I went to have a look and, this being France, it was.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Snow in March. In Provence.

Last week, at the start of March 2010, I lay out for a couple of hours on the bain de soleil warming myself for the first time after a long cold winter. Everyone round here agrees that France had its coldest winter for decades in 2009. Finally the sun seemed to be making a comeback.

Till the 7th of March. And then, wham, a thick rug of snow hit rapidly in the afternoon, turning my car into something that looked like an igloo and the logpile into a huge snow-hump. This was not the last gentle snow shower of the year - it was a serious, unwelcome return to winter.

I visited a friend in St Remy last week, who has hundreds of olive trees on her land right at the foot of the Alpilles. When I arrived I immediately noticed branches lying beside all the trees and wondered why she'd had them pruned at the start of March instead of later in the spring as usual. "They haven't been pruned" she said. "It's all snow damage." They had 40 centimetres of snow in and around Les Baux and St Remy not long before and the branches simply broke under the weight.

I went out this morning into ankle deep snow and looked at the land. Already the thaw had begun. Large chunks of snow were thudding to the ground from the roof and the pine trees. There were deer tracks in the snow bordering the forest. A guy from the village went by on his lovely black horse, bareback. The forest was silent apart from the occasional whooshing of snow falling. The small songbirds which have arrived in recent weeks are not singing, huddled presumably in snowy nests.

The snow's a bit of a pain for the flowers and buds that were coming out. It'll hang around for a day or two. But it's also beautiful and all the more so because it's relatively rare. I just hope it hasn't destroyed the first tender shoots of asperge sauvage which should be making their appearance any time soon.

Pruning and Training Systems for Modern Olive Growing

A Taste of Provence

Holiday Walks in Provence