V’Ile Fertile is a play on words, as the French love to do. L’Ile Fertile means Fertile Island, and Ville Fertile (which is what it sounds like) means Fertile City. An appropriate name for this oasis of urban fertility.
Urban Gardening in the Bois de Vincennes
The V’Ile Fertile is an urban micro-farm at the far eastern edge of the city’s Bois de Vincennes forest, located on the grounds of the intriguing Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, which houses several non-profit agricultural groups and scientific research centers amidst the overgrown ruins of the 1907 Colonial Exposition.
Created in 2014, this volunteer-run organic micro-farm sells its produce to the public every weekend from 2-6pm. Anyone can register to be a member of the group and volunteer as little or as much as they are available, no experience is necessary since there is always at least one “regular” there to show what needs to be done.
After reading that they were looking for new volunteers, I signed up to be a member this month (there is a recommended donation of €20, but of course you can donate more or less) and made my first visit last Saturday. It’s a very informal group, with about a dozen regulars who manage the farm as a committee and another few dozen volunteers who come on weekend afternoons when they’re available. There are no requirements and everyone seems quite easygoing. Which suits me perfectly because as a freelancer I have an erratic schedule, and as a beginner gardener I’m relying on their patience and tolerance as I learn the ropes.
I should say that I’m not a complete beginner. I once had a house with a Mediterranean garden when I lived in the South of France which I was very proud of. But most of those plants were succulents and other hardy plants that needed very little attention. I had never grown food before, unless you count my pathetic attempts at keeping potted herbs alive in my Parisian kitchen. The fact that I don’t even have a tiny balcony to give these plants fresh air and rainwater is one of the reasons I decided to join V’Ile Fertile. And it just seems that knowing how to grow food should be one of those life requirements. It will certainly come in handy when the inevitable zombie apocalypse shuts down my local Franprix supermarché.
I arrived at about 3pm at the little V’Ile Fertile cottage, which is the former Gardien’s house at the far end of Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, just past the restored Pavilion de l’Indochine. It’s the only farm plot in the garden, so it’s not hard to miss. I had arrived just as three of the volunteers were cooking up a late lunch, specifically to taste their own home-grown Shiitake mushrooms, which I discovered Jean-Bernard frying up in the kitchen.
I introduced myself and was asked to join them at one of the picnic tables for the tasting, then showed me and three other new volunteers around the farm. The small house is used for educational presentations and meetings, and to house all of the gardening materials (tools, gloves, seeds, etc). Outside is the main farm plot, a large greenhouse, a compost area, and below the cottage a cellar where the mushrooms are grown.
The modern green house, built next to the historic Grande Serre, is where the tomato plants are grown and seedlings are raised. It is completely automated so the windows open or close depending on the temperature. The watering is automatic and on a circular recycling system to preserve as much water as possible. The garden plot outside is also automatically watered. In keeping with the goal of producing organic fruits and vegetables, compost is used for fertilizer, a copper spray is used to treat the tomato plants, seeds come from small organic suppliers, and weeds are kept under control with ground covering tarps (I’m sure there’s a proper word for that, but I’m still learning, so you’ll have to excuse my newbie lingo).
Hazing of the New Volunteers
Our first job of the day is to shovel gravel into a basin-shape so it can be covered with a tarp and filled with water to make a pool for a stack of small logs. These are special logs that have been carefully inoculated with Shiitake mushroom spawn (I had to Google “growing mushrooms on logs” to figure out what that meant) and have to soak overnight to start the fungi-growing process. Jean-Bernard joked that it was part of our bizutage, or volunteer hazing.
The second part of the hazing process was to turn the compost heap. We traded our shovels for pitchforks and walked around the back of the greenhouse to find the composting area, where the youngest of the three bins needing a good stirring. Each bin is about 1.5m²/5.5ft², and about chest high. The five of us took about 20 minutes first pulling the compacted garden waste out of the bin and making a large pile. Then we had a water break. Then we went back and put it all back in, loosening it up as we went along and pulling out random bits of plastic. Good compost doesn’t stink, but it does have an odor. Which doesn’t easily come out of running shoes, so next week I’m definitely wearing boots that will be used only for the garden (and stored on my window ledge).
With aching muscles that I forgot I had, we once again returned to the picnic table for the afternoon snack break known in France as le goûter (usually only kids get a goûter, but as we had all broken a pretty good sweat, we felt we deserved the slices of brioche with home made jam). One of the regular volunteers, Brigitte, was showing two women how to plant onions in the main garden plot, which already had beets, chard, lettuce, squash, and several other unidentifiable (to me) vegetables sprouting up through the soil.
Throughout the afternoon there were curious visitors from the gardens who stopped by to ask what we were growing, to take photos, or to purchase some mushrooms. In about two more weeks there should be a few varieties ready to sell. All of the produce is sold on-site, so it’s super-fresh. But you have to come and get it! The prices are fair (about 20% below the “recommended pricing” for organic produce, according to Jean-Bernard), and you get to discover a part of Paris you probably haven’t seen before!
How to Get There
The official address is 45 bis avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle, Paris 75012. It’s at the far eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes. The closest station is RER A Nogent-sur-Marne (direction Boissy-Saint-Léger, NOT Marne-La-Vallée-Chessy), just two stops past the Château de Vincennes. Then it’s just a five-minute walk: turn left coming out of the station on Avenue Marronniers, then immediately right onto Avenue des Châtaigniers, the garden is tat the end of the street. You can also walk (35 minutes) or bike (10 minutes) from the Château de Vincennes if you have time, energy and a good map/sense of direction. V’Ile Fertile is at the far end, past the Pavilion de l’Indochine.
More about V’Ile Fertile (ie Better Photos)
I’d like to blame my crappy photography on the fact that the farm is still in its sprouting phase (I’ll post more as the season progresses). Kristen Beddard of The Kale Project wrote a post last fall about V’Ile Fertile with some lovely photos of what the farm looks like in full harvest mode. http://www.thekaleproject.com/vile-fertile/