Virsoleil is a place to restore soils, souls and society. The Centre for Regenerative Living is located in the Dordogne, a wonderful region of South-West France. As soon as you arrive here, you can feel the intent that the founders of this camp are pursuing:
To reconnect with nature and restore ourselves. To inspire, educate, heal and harvest.
In the hope of experiencing this and helping it grow, six people from the Netherlands, UK, US and Germany joined the Ecosystem Restoration Camp Virsoleil Body, Heart & Soil experience in April 2022.
There is no warmer welcome imaginable than the one that embraced the campers from the camp owners and hosts Teryl and Claudia Chapel. At the always richly laid table, dishes from the French region, which is also popular with tourists, spoil the volunteers. In the conversations about the history of the farm, which is over 400 years old, and the family history of the couple, it becomes clear that this is a holistic restoration: The polyculture farm wants to demonstrate how people can thrive with nature.
On the farm tour the campers get some first impressions of the incredible work Claudia and Teryl, the high-performance trainer and the carpenter, have already put into the project. One can see a naturalistic pond according to permaculture principles, a barn completely renovated according to the tradition of the region, refurbished as a meeting room and sleeping facility, a self-built greenhouse, a beehive set up and many more impressive projects and lovingly crafted details. In addition, the soil of a field is prepared for planting lavender.
The group of campers enjoy a welcome dinner with hosts Claudia and Teryl Chapel, in the heart of the Virsoleil kitchen
The scent of summer is coming
Lavender is planted! Here is how we did it at Ecosystem Restoration Camp Virsoleil:
First, the soil needs some preparation! At the sight of wild orchids we rake the ground.
On a site of wild orchids we rake the ground
In the process, many stones come to light, which are lovingly sorted out by hand
Now we prepare the ground with the ploughing machine – a real beast from the French 1970s!
We rake again
The beast can now till
Now we also remove tufts of grass that may prevent the lavender from growing later
Lunch time is quiche time! Our host Claudia Chapel is a gifted cook
The little lavender plants are patiently waiting to be planted
Finally, the time has come: the lavender comes into the well-prepared soil
In doing so, we maintain precise distances – the campers make sure of that!
Et voilà! Your new home, lavender. May you grow well and thrive!
Now it’s time to water well
To protect against the sun, wind and desiccation, we mulch. Virsoleil uses the remaining hay from the old barn for this.
Chillout after work – in the high tent
After a relaxing breathing and moving session with elements from the wisdom of Hawaiian elderlies, camp host Teryl shows the group how to climb on the wonderful linden of the farm
Hosts Claudia and Teryl with dog Maya are proud of their campers
Holistic sheep grazing in France
How can we manage weeds without pesticides? Holistic grazing is a regenerative practice that works with rather than against nature. The farm “Les Jardins de Condaminas” in Périgord (Dordogne) in France is applying this restorative method for biodiverse ecosystems.
Today, Ecosystem Restoration Campers visited Astrid Van Moorleghem and Michiel van Baalen on their regenerative farm Les Jardin de Condaminas in Villac, France. The Belge-Dutch couple started the farm in 2020. In vivid detail, Astrid explained their strong endeavour for a viable polycultural business model that respects nature. While they have 25 hectares of farmland, they only use seven hectares for farming and leave the rest as forest. In the future, the wood from the forest might also be sold as firewood.
The focus of the farm is lavender. From the 5,000 planted lavender plants, the couple is planning to use 3,000 plants to extract around 7 litres of essential oils. Generally it is said that lavender can’t be grown in this region, especially because the soil is rather clayey. Astrid and Michiel decided to choose cultivars that can handle the soil and climate conditions more easily, like Lavandula stoechas (depending on where you live, it’s also called Spanish lavender, Portuguese lavender or butterfly lavender).
The Gardens of Condaminas are the only producers of this variety of lavender in France, the products have a shelf life of 5 years. Lavender seedlings are also sold to other farms like Ecosystem Restoration Camp Virsoleil. Condaminas’ business model is based on tourism and products. People love to come to the certified organic farm, have a picnic and enjoy the lavender, which blooms three times a year.
Animals help to mow so called “weeds”
The regenerative approach of the farm is to work with nature rather than against it. “A weed is a plant that is growing in the wrong place”, Astrid says. She chose to leave the weeds in the lavender fields without herbicides. They found another way to solve the “weed” problem: Animals keep the field clean.
Between the rows of lavender, 50 sheep enjoy the grass and weeds. In the regenerative practice of holistic grazing, the farmers move the sheep every day to another plot to mow.
Although sheep wool has no economic value in Europe and sheep meat prices cannot compete with industrial sheep fed with soy, the sheep bring an income for the farm: The EU pays subsidies for grazing animals to stop meadows from becoming forests.
Bees are humming around their hive, happy to discover the first lavender blooms. The lavender harvest is done by hand, trimming the flowering part.
Distillation of essential oils
Astrid and Michiel make essential oils from the lavender in their distillery. The slow distillation process with low pressure at around 100 degrees Celsius takes around 2 hours. The heated water starts evaporating in the copper column. Inside, steam wanders through a serpentine and becomes liquid again.
At the end, two products come out of the separator: essential oil and hydrosol (water with the biochemical compounds of plants). They can be used for aromatherapy, as room fragrance and as a base for repellents. Maintaining a greenhouse and herbal seedbeds, the Condaminas Gardens also manufacture other essential oils like from oregano, sage, thyme, peppermint and laurel. The fragrance of these natural treasures enchant the visitors.
Managing natural cycles
Striving for real sustainability, Astrid and Michiel try to design everything on the farm as part of a circular economy. For example: the trees that block sunlight getting to the lavender plants are cut and in order to keep them in the farm cycle, the wood chips are spread on walking ways. Over time, they decompose and turn to fertile soil. To reduce the risk of illnesses killing all the plants, the lavender is planted with enough space between the seedlings.
Keeping a farm like this up and running is not easy, Astrid admits. “Farming is like a gambling addiction. It’s not under your control. Weather and other risks can screw all efforts”. The dedicated couple learns every day and keeps their efforts high. They welcome visitors, reservations under email@example.com
The website is currently (as at April 2022) under construction and will be available later on
Astrid Van Moorleghem explains to the Ecosystem Restoration Campers how she designed the lavender farm with her husband Michiel van Baalen
The soil is supposed to be to clayey for lavender – but the lavender still blooms
Over 5,000 lavender plants were planted by Astrid and Michiel in Villac, France
Beehive in Condaminas Gardens
Early lavender blooming
Sheep grazing holistically near the lavender fields
Laurel cut freshly from the laurel tree for distillation
Chipping of the laurel in preparation for distillation
Distillation of essential oils, in this case from laurel
Lavender babies: Seedlings to be grown in fertile earth
Pregnant sheep in the Condaminas Gardens in Périgord, France
Planting of another 200 lavender plants back at Camp Virsoleil
Hey Hay Guy! We need some mulch over here!
Teatime! Campers in between of lavender planting
1001 bees – agroforestry for biodiversity
We visited the nature conservationists Valerie and Philippe in their project 1001 Abeilles (1001 bees) in Boisseuilh (Dordogne), France. With their association, they practice natural beekeeping, environmental education and permaculture – and they have just started an agroforestry project too.
The couple lives in a self-built, octagonal, sustainable house. Most of the elements in it are made of upcycled materials – for example, the doors are made of chestnut wood that other households have discarded. The foundation is on stone and lime, and old tires provide good insulation. The soil lends itself to sustainable building, but not so much to gardening. That’s why many of the beds designed according to permaculture principles are raised beds.
Well-designed water ecosystem management
When they bought the neglected property, they first began to build a good water management system. It takes the longest time to develop a pond as an ecosystem, so Valerie and Philippe started with that first. From the fact that there are now small snakes living there, you can see that the ecosystem has fully matured: these animals live at the top of the food chain. There are enough frogs and snails for them to eat. These animals, in turn, find enough plant food.
Permaculture principles also in the greenhouse
In a greenhouse, the couple grows many plants for themselves, as well as friends and acquaintances. Some of the plants grow vertically, providing pleasant cooling and shade, so that it doesn’t get too hot in there in the summer. The water supply to the beds is provided by clay pots, which gently release filled water over a long period of time.
Stories from the bee expert
The 1001 Bees Association got its name because there are over 1,000 species of wild bees in France alone. Worldwide, there are just over 20,000. The honeybee is a livestock animal as are cows or sheep, and it is only one of thousands of species of bees. It originated in Europe and Africa. It was not until colonization that it made its way to the Americas. Winnie-the-Pooh, the little honey-eating bear and his fellow wild bears, are certainly happy about the introduction of this “invasive” species….
Valerie is an absolute bee expert. She told us many great wonders about these little giants. Male bees are born in the spring and die in the fall. Female bees live 1.5 months (those born in spring) or 6 months (those born in fall/winter). The queen bee lives about five years and always stays in the hive. She leaves it only for mating and when the swarm splits. New queens can only be created when the so-called “royal jelly” is fed to new eggs.
Is there such a thing as “fair” honey?
Honey, which tastes good to us humans, is actually the bees’ winter food. In conventional beekeeping, the bees are deprived of their honey and given industrial sugar instead. Valerie, on the other hand, only takes the honey that is left at the end of winter – if there is any left.
How to fight the Varoa mite naturally
Danger for the bees comes from the Varoa mite. It lives on bee eggs, as a parasite. The occurrence of Varoa mites decreases when:
- the swarm splits, because the queens do not lay eggs for 3 weeks during the reorganization of their colony, so the Varoa mites do not find food
- enough honey has been produced in summer and fall, so the queen stops egg production. But in conventional honey production, beekeepers are constantly taking honey away from the bees, which is why they are always producing new eggs to replenish the honey supply.
The bee paradox
We live in a bee paradox, Valerie explained. There are not enough, and yet in some cases there are too many. As in agriculture, size matters in the honey economy. To make a living from honey production, a beekeeper needs between 200 and 400 hives. However, the density of the colonies puts the bees under stress. Especially in cities, this can become a problem. All insects benefit from a growing urban flower diversity, with blooming balconies, urban gardening, and parks. On the other hand, Paris alone has over 1,000 honeybee colonies covering an area of 87,000 square kilometres – an overpopulation that leaves little food for other pollinator insects in particular.
Naturalistic hives help honeybees to live as close to nature as possible. Valerie and Philippe make such hives from wicker and raffia and showed us how to protect them from weathering with a special compound. The mix of lime, milk, cow dung and fire ash dries quickly. In an almost meditative, sunny workshop, we applied this natural protection to a beehive at Camp Virsoleil. Soon the first colony will be able to move in.
Environmental education in practice
In order to establish agroforestry, Valerie and Philippe buy a neighbouring green space. They use the lush blackberry bushes there as sustainable raw material for their beehive production. We Ecosystem Restoration Campers were also allowed to try out how to carve pliable, unbreakable willow sticks from blackberry branches.
With their association, the two natural beekeepers raise awareness about the value of insects, give courses on building natural beehives, help relocate bee colonies and call for participation and donations. More information about their dedicated work is available at
The greenhouse, the seed beds, in front: the natural bee hive
Bee expert Valerie with an opened “Cathedral”, a hive for natural bee keeping
Production of the bee hive protection compound
Campers get their hands dirty for the beehives, using a wicker frame
Our super supporter and blogger Tina Teucher