My beans are all kinky. I thought they’d all been struck with some horrible blight, but the internet tells me I’ve simply planted too many too close together. So there they hang, tortured souls twisted in knots by the press of leaves in their eight-foot wicker Dalek.
The neighbours all have bean-envy. Our feral stack alone is red with blossom and humming with industry. We’ve been eating them all week. Delicious. “I have three flowers,” huffed Mrs Ex-Nextdoor, who has moved up the road to pastures bigger, and who has well-regulated beans, individually supported and nurtured by the book.
The cherries from our dwarf tree too left her speechless – 8kg and still picking, though the end is in sight and the blackbirds have taken to “chuck-chucking” at me with their beaks full as I close in on the upper branches from the shed roof. Blackcurrants next, and the raspberries are into their second flush.
Even the watermelon is now 8cm across! Go, little city gardens.
There are watermelons in the greenhouse!! Five teeny weeny striped balls, no bigger than a gooseberry. Oh, ye of little faith …
A 29p packet of seeds bought in a supermarket on a whim and an un-English summer of sizzling temperatures are bearing fruit. The old paddling pool has been dug out from under a mountain of later castoffs and restored to its place of honour on the patch of scorched earth that used to be the lawn. Every towel in the house has been pressed into service and the yoof element, home for summer, has taken root. At dusk, the grey water – a soupy mix of suntan cream and crumbs and tiny floating corpses (insects, not offspring) – is scooped out and sloshed onto the thirsty waiting tomatoes, courgettes and beans. City teens who have never seen growing food before marvel at the cherries on the tree, and the spikes on the dildo-sized cucumbers.
The quail house still stands empty at the bottom of the garden. No time. Even Bantam Neighbour’s hens are geriatric by now – producing barely a handful of eggs a week. Time to wring necks and start again, but she can’t bring herself to do it. I don’t blame her: people who live in glass houses etc. So the old girls continue to totter through the herbacious borders, snapping up slugs and biting things, while BN tends her bees.
Even the bees seem to like my garden, swarming into the old apple tree whenever the spirit moves them and hanging there for an hour or two, packed and heaving like day trippers on a seaside train, until the pastel-coloured cyberman wearily appears again with a cardboard box and a large watercooler jar on a pole and removes them. They bear no malice. They’ll be back. “You should keep bees,” says Bantam Neighbour, through gritted teeth.
In the evenings, the stagbeetles fly – huge and heavy, crashing into things like bombers with steering failure. Himself, smoking peacefully in the cool on the tiny patio, often has to duck.
And in the greenhouse, their roots kept wet in an old Victorian gazunder – the melons swell, a triumph of hope over expectation.
The wall-mounted greenhouse suitable for a very small garden (and south-facing bathroom window) was bought two years ago but never erected. Gradually, snails ate the box and instructions.
This spring I tracked down a replacement copy from the lovely manufacturers in Bolton (who took it surprisingly well …) and as my wage-slavery rolled to an end after 26 years, a greenhouse rose up. Let there be light, and green shoots, and melons.
“How are you finding unemployment/ enjoying retirement?” neighbours and ex-colleagues ask variously. I’m NOT bloody retired, and certainly not unemployed. I’m FREELANCE.
It’s self-sufficiency, Jim, but not as they know it.
A year has passed. The quail house is still empty. After a hard winter, the garden is frozen – a half-finished greenhouse now huddled under tarpaulin on what the wet summer has left of the lawn. But in the kitchen, in the warmth, cress is sprouting. The TV news may still be wall-to-wall snow drifts, but the vernal equinox has been passed. Beyond the french windows, a blue tit, two blackbirds, three wood pigeons and a jay are squabbling over a fatball. The fox has reappeared. Easter is only days away.
Spring is springing. The quail are calling.
The fox struck in the night. Perspex clawed off, pegs chewed up, brand new stiff sliding door shoved open by a muddy nose. Poor Emmet, trapped by the insulation put in to protect her against the cold – how long did it take? She had only just gone outside again yesterday morning after a restive week in the loft, pacing the cat basket while the freezing nights passed over.
There’s no sign of blood. Not even a feather, just a great, triumphant dollop of smelly fox poo by the gaping doorway.
And now I am no longer a keeper of quail. I never thought the adventure would end like this… Sorry Emmet
The sixth quail died this week: Tom – last of the Tom, Dick and Harrys – popped off peacefully in the catbasket in the sickbay, aged three and a half. Ripe old age for a coturnix.
Now, only Emmet is left, ribbetting mournfully in her retirement bungalow by the back door. On very cold nights a microwavable petbed offers small comfort, but otherwise she huddles alone in the extra straw, a princess-on-a-pea balanced on layers of cardboard, peering out at the wintry garden from behind her clear plastic windbreak and extra bubblewrap. There are sunsets, and moonlit nights, daily visits from the hand bringing food and clean water – even occasionally new dandelion leaves, but mainly emptiness. This is no life for a quail. She belongs in a flock, but a new flock would bully her.
Luckily, Bantam neighbour has offered temporary respite. When the weather gets warmer Emmet will move (winter palace and all) two gardens down, into the hen run, where she can lean on her zimmerframe and watch the antics of the six survivors there through her picture windows.
Poor old soul. It’s not as if I can park her in front of the telly and turn up the sound. Will she lay again this year? The days are getting longer already, 8 hours 35 minutes and counting. Will she live to see the spring equinox? Or will she die of boredom.
The quail are old, and cold. It is more than three years since the little flock moved into their first converted rabbit hutch in our weeny London garden.
There were seven of them in those days; seven indistinguishable little brown birds peeping coyly out from under an ankle-deep layer of straw. At dusk they would refuse to go to bed but huddled in a sleepy row at the wire in the run to watch the family soap opera playing out in glorious technicolor at full volume beyond the lighted french windows.
That first quail house and run was a thing of beauty – fox-proof, football-proof, quadruple insulated and weatherproofed in tasteful aquamarine bird-friendly low-emission paint. It had perspex glazing and a tailored tarp cover. It would have withstood a tank assault, never mind ping-pong balls and visiting hordes of teenagers high on their own hormones. The quail loved it. Sadly, it lasted barely a season before being put out on the street. Animal husbandry lesson number one: knee-high housing is hard on the knees.
Quail house Mark II rose in a patch of shade at the end of the garden, big enough to stand and sit in, easier to muck out – and it turned out, wildly popular with every damn mouse for miles around. When they weren’t tunnelling in, they were raising rodent nations in the lagging in the walls and roof, commuting up and down the water hopper rope for supplies. The quail didn’t mind. It staved off the boredom as the teens grew up, went “out” and the kitchen sink drama became more Waiting for Godot.
But the main problem was the cold: dappled summer shade turned ice-box in winter. Despite (or possibly because of) lagging, double-glazing and mountains of straw and cardboard the temperature inside QII remained resolutely 6 degrees colder than the outside air, even in a blizzard. The quail were OK, but I was a nervous wreck watching the thermometer in their run plummet and the water freeze. “Quail like 16C-23C”, advised the book, pointedly. Hmm.
Heating was what was needed. (“They’re birds, for heavens sake,” hissed Himself, preparing to repel boarders from his nice warm kitchen. “Birds. As in outside.”) Pet shops don’t do heating, it transpires. And garden centres, which do, don’t do greenhouse heaters suitable for occupants that get out of their pots and fly about. Also, there was no power point. A solar lamp on the roof kept the cats amused briefly, but LED lights don’t give off enough heat to warm a mouseling much less five (by then) very cold quail. For a while I crunched across the frozen lawn with a hotwater bottle, which the quail quite liked – until junior teen plaintively demanded it back. And I never got the hang of the microwaveable cushion thing several readers recommended. Then there was the mini indoor compost heap constructed from stacked Celebrations tubs, which appeared to raise the mercury 3C (!triumph), until I twigged that the main heat generator was me – lugging in my daily bucket of kitchen scraps and lingering for a chat. The little heap itself never got going, even the worms needed mufflers.
So it was clanking home with a shopping bag full of empty coke tins for a DIY solar-powered hot air convector design found on the internet (don’t ask …) that commonsense finally struck.
QIII is now nearing completion – a bona fide solar-heated winter palace for the last two surviving quail. A retirement bungalow in the sun. Lagged, windproofed and portable enough to FOLLOW THE SUN ROUND THE GARDEN.
And the empty run? Well, if anyone knows of a couple of ex-battery hens looking for a home in south-east London, I might be in the market…
Today is the longest day, and yesterday two of the quail were found dead in their run. Harass and Oeuf. Harass was still warm, stretched out in a comfy hollow in the grit. Lost in eternal dust bathing. There was no blood.
Oeuf too lay at peace, further back, out of the sun. I don’t think her death was as easy – she was very thin, but then she had had two months beyond her span. Maybe I should have wrung her neck way back in April, when she first lost the use of one leg, but she seemed perfectly happy hopping about on one wing. The others didn’t bully her. She groomed the bits she could reach and I bathed her bum, which she couldn’t. Perhaps she wasn’t eating the dandelions and lettuce I threw in beside her. But she was drinking and calm. I let her be.
All the books say hen quail don’t live that long, two years is average. These were a month short of three years old. Geriatric. Between them they’ve laid me nearly 2,000 eggs. It is time to stop. (Even Katie Thear has died since I started this experiment armed only with her excellent guide. Thank you, Katie. I couldn’t have done it without you and all the other sage coturnixers.) Now there’s only Emmet and Tom left – calling sadly at the bottom of the garden.
The hutch looks horribly empty. “We are seven…” as the poet said.
Do I start again?