Meet the French gardener who wants to save Irish soil

Tanguy de Toulgoët at Dunmore Country School. Photograph: Richard Johnston

At a time when there is much talk of rewilding our gardens as a natural means of counteracting climate change, it’s cheering to know there are people like the Laois-based gardener Tanguy de Toulgoët. This softly spoken Frenchman combines a private, deep-rooted reverence for nature with a scientific mind and an ever-inquiring intelligence.

The result is a gardener content to ignore fashionable or conventional horticultural wisdom and instead walk his own path in search of fruitful, respectful ways to restore our relationship with the natural world.

Situated just outside Durrow, in Co Laois, de Toulgoët’s potager-style family garden at Dunmore Country School, where he lives with his wife, Isabelle, and their two daughters is the physical expression of that personal quest. At first it might seem a little untended and gently ragged around the edges. But then comes the realisation that this supremely nature-friendly space is de Toulgoët’s very intentional rejection of the sort of horticultural tradition that aspires to neat, weed-free lines of flowers, fruit and vegetables, à la Beatrix Potter’s Mr McGregor.

Tanguy de Toulgoët in his Durrow garden’s produce-filled polytunnel. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Tanguy de Toulgoët in his Durrow garden’s produce-filled polytunnel. Photograph: Richard Johnston

There are very few neat lines at Dunmore Country School, no immaculately weeded flower and vegetable beds showing lots of bare soil, no pristinely edged paths or sharply shaved lawns. Instead this is a flower-filled, hugely productive family garden designed to nurture nature in all its wonderful and intricately varied forms, from the beneficial soil fungi that turn organic matter into precious humus to the honeybees de Toulgoët’s tends in their traditional Warré hives to Dunmore’s undulating boundary hedge of native hawthorn and field maple.

I doubt there’s one centimetre of this plot that he hasn’t studied intimately or one life cycle of its gloriously diverse mix of inhabitants – plants, birds, wild animals, insects, soil microorganisms – that he hasn’t carefully considered in his thoughtful, respectful interactions with the land.

An example is de Toulgoët’s increasing use of mulches of hay, straw, grass clippings, fallen leaves and other woody prunings to foster soil health and fertility as part of a French-Canadian technique known as BRF (for bois raméal fragmenté) or, in English, RCW (for rameal chopped wood). Originally developed by Edgar Guay in the 1970s to help Quebec foresters, it’s based on the idea that by imitating or replicating the conditions found in natural woodlands – in particular by spreading fragments of lignin-rich young/green woody branches and twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs on the ground – gardeners can dramatically boost populations of beneficial soil fungi and microfauna crucial to the process of turning organic matter into precious humus.

As well as saving him many labour-intensive, back-breaking hours of weeding and hoeing, adding these mulches of young, green woody material is, de Toulgoët argues, the missing link crucial to restoring Ireland’s debased and eroded soils.

Tanguy de Toulgoët. Photograph: Richard Johnston

“There was a time, not so long ago, when the average Irish soil was very rich in organic matter – as much as 45 per cent – a legacy of the Middle Ages, when the country was almost completely covered in forests. But now the percentage of organic matter in our soils is just a fraction of that, averaging something like just 2 or 3 per cent.”

For the past number of years he has been using these woody mulches extensively at Dunmore, resulting in a steady, measurable increase in soil fertility, plant health and productivity. “It takes time, but it’s striking how the plants are already responding.”

Similarly, he’s a devoted user of Soil Renew, the innovative organic soil additive, equivalent to a garden probiotic, that was designed by the French farmer Marcel Mézy in the 1990s. By naturally boosting the action of soil micro-organisms, it also encourages the rapid production of humus. Without humus, our soils slowly but surely become infertile. As Mézy said, “When humus goes, man goes…”

Dunmore Country School’s French beans are sown in dense clusters of 10-12, then covered with a mulch after germination and protected with a woven crop cover to give them extra heat. Photogaph: Richard Johnston
Dunmore’s French beans are sown in clusters of 10-12, then covered with a mulch after germination and protected with a woven crop cover for extra heat. Photogaph: Richard Johnston

Protecting and nurturing soil health and fertility is just one of the key challenges that Irish gardeners must strive to meet in this era of extreme climate change. De Toulgoët reluctantly admits to being painfully aware of the daunting scale of the environmental predicament we find ourselves in. “I would like to say that I’m optimistic but… It’s very difficult given the rapid rate of biodiversity loss over the last few decades.”

That sense of accelerating loss is what drives him to do everything he can to nurture populations of pollinating insects. For this reason Dunmore Country School’s fruit trees are underplanted with very early-flowering varieties of comfrey (Symphytum ‘Hidcote Pink’ and ‘Wisley Blue’) designed to provide food for early emerging pollinators in spring before being chopped back later in the year to provide a nutrient-rich mulch.

Likewise, the garden’s Warré hives are chosen for their ability to imitate the natural habitat of bees in the wild. Filled with the native species of Irish bees, these are tended by de Toulgoët without the use of chemicals and with minimal intervention.

“It’s so important that Irish beekeepers source the native species of Irish honeybee” – Apis mellifera mellifera – “rather than importing foreign species, because the former has evolved to survive the particularly unpredictable Irish climate.”

A bumblebee feeds on a cosmos. Photograph: Richard Johnston
A bumblebee feeds on a cosmos. Photograph: Richard Johnston

De Toulgoët doesn’t provide his honey bees with sugary winter syrups , preferring to leave them with a generous share of their own honey to get them through the cold, hard months of winter and early spring. The result is healthy bees and top-class honey. “Our hives typically suffer winter losses of only 6 to 10 per cent despite the fact that we harvest between 5kg and 30kg of honey from each one.”

As befits a Frenchman with a deep and abiding respect for organic, home-grown food, Dunmore Country School’s polytunnel, larder and sheds are filled to bursting with the generous fruits of this intriguing Irish garden. Apples – ‘Dabinette’, ‘Rouge de Trêves, ‘Gros Locard’, ‘Doux-Amère’and ‘Reinette de Granville’ – are turned into delicious home-made cider, its honey into mead or mead vinegar, its blackcurrants into crème de cassis, its broad beans and shiso into kimchi, its damsons and elderberries into sumptuous jam, its glut of tomatoes preserved or turned into sauces. In short, it’s a way of life that honours the great riches that nature can provide as long as we treat it with respect and love.

Dunmore Country School’s website has details of its opening hours and one-day gardening courses