Phew! A Scented Garden

Clothespegs at the ready as you read about this unconventional but apparently successful 'scented' garden. But don't expect the perfume of flowers.
by Chantal et Pierre Bianchi, L'Oasis du Mas Reynes, Ch. de villeneuve, 66280 Saleilles, France
Chamaerops No.28 Autumn 1997

When people find out that I like to grow Exotics, they often ask me: "What is your garden like?" You see, our region is famous for mimosa, jasmine, and orange. These trees scent the air with beautiful perfume. So, people are usually confused and surprised when I tell them about my "stinky" garden, and they ask for an explanation, since they know that palms have no scent.

My large garden lies in the south of France, on the Northern Mediterranean coast, between the city of Perpignan and the Spanish border. Lettuce and other early produce is raised in the rich alluvial soil near rivers and streams. This soil would be ideal and require no special care for growing palms. Unfortunately, homes such as mine are often built in vineyard areas. Here the soil is acidic, dry and compact. It is full of clay, littered with stones, and has very little humus content.

The two basic elements that help me grow palms quickly are watering and improving the soil. The expense of bringing humus to a large garden is prohibitive, and good horse manure is rare. In southern France we can use the residues of grape pressings, the chips of crushed pruning wood, or the rich sludge from urban water purification plants - human manure !

Even the smallest towns produce tons of sewage sludge every week. Bulldozers push the sludge into small black mountains, where it is left free for the taking. Most gardeners and farmers are leery about using this free material. My wife, however, has convinced me otherwise. She is a hygienist who looks after the staff that filters and neutralizes the sludge. She has assured me that the sludge muds are rich in nutrients and contain no harmful bacteria or heavy metals. To be on the safe side, it is advisable to be vaccinated against hepatitis and tetanus when handling the sludge, and it is best not to use near wells or springs.

During summer, a truck dumps a load of sludge in our garden, far from our house. The dry black pile, which looks like volcanic gravel, is forgotten and left alone for the remainder of the season. When the autumn rains start, we ask ourselves, "Where is that awful stench coming from?" The black pile is now a soft heap, giving off curls of stinking gas. The grass around the heap is dark green and growing quickly. In two weeks it grows four times taller than the rest of my garden grass.

Now there is no time to waste. We gather the rich sludge as it is releasing great spirals of ammonia into the air, and we use it abundantly: two wheel barrows full for each Phoenix canariensis. Then we plough and bury the sludge in the earth. The nasty smell disappears.

In winter, in spite of the heavy rains and the clay soil, the Phoenix stay green and do not yellow as they did before. During the spring and summer they grow vigorously, setting new large fronds. By late summer, our fifty Phoenix are gorgeous and the air is pure !

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