Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

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Gone to seed – 2. Curl talk

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Runner beans - all curly

Runner beans – heatwave, plenty of recycled water, but not a straight one in sight. Don’t they like suntan cream and crumbs?

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.

watermelon 8cm across

The main melon – 8cm across.


Gone to seed – 1. Green balls and so much hot air

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watermelon growing London

Watermelon growing in sub-tropical London

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.

cucumber growing

Cucumber growing on the vine in the kitchen doorway – they have spikes. Who knew?

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.

window greenhouse

Window-mounted Elite greenhouse from Bolton, Lancashire – which comes with clear, simple and evidently tasty assembly 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.

Quail diary – 90. Hot, hot, hot

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Quail dossing about in the heat

Quail dossing about in the heat - Eggs? Lay 'em yourself

The quail are resting. The arrival of the flipflops in the run elicits no movement beyond a raised eyebrow (they do so have eyebrows). Eggs? Lay ’em yourself.

It’s too hot. Even the mice have pulled their loungers into the shade. The last of the quail house perspex came down weeks ago, allowing a zephyr of wind to play through the wire, but not even the permanent addition of a towel over the skylight can stop the temperature in the quail house rising to 30C at midday. The quail lie around in drifts in the dust. Only lettuce triggers any animation, and mealie worms, of course. And fresh water. Should I give them a paddling pool, I wonder?

Beyond the wire, the cherry tree drips ripe fruit, the french beans dangle in the first delicate fingers outside the back door, and new young raspberry canes are marching on the scorched earth where the lawn used to be. The waterbutt is long dry and any rehydrating of pots at sundown is from the tap, which the blueberries really don’t like. By now, there’s a promontory of tiny green apples around the quail house as the thirsty Bramley sheds some of its burden in little plops on the roof – it’s going to be a busy autumn for the freezer. All round the garden, frogs, butterflies and stagbeetles shuffle in the cool undergrowth. The cats are having a field day. Horrid creatures.

The foxes too are quite brazen, sauntering in and out of front gardens in broad daylight in mid afternoon, blatantly ignoring passersby. Got a gun in that shopping bag? No – just a cucumber? Well, push off then.  Of course, that’s London for you. Little Brother, who lives “out,” has a country garden hopping with cute, destructive bunnies and not a predator in sight. His beans, tomatoes and courgettes are growing up behind bars to keep the little teeth at bay.

His bees are feistier too – St Trinians to Bantam Neighbour’s little Madelines. Oh yes. Bees. Very now. He’s finished his bee-keeping course and been given a delinquent swarm to tame in a homemade hive. Some ask for a novice, you’d think. On the other hand, his Asbees may spit gum and buzz unprintably when inspected, but the frames are dripping honey after only a week… Go Little Bro. I’m drooling already.

Quail eggs: 244.

Quail Diary – 89. Cherry ripe

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The cherry tree - a very good year

The cherry tree - a very good year

The cherry tree is crimson with lush ripe cherries, its spindly branches bowed by the plump bounty like a child proudly staggering under heavy shopping bags. The cherries are delicious, mouthwatering, and we’ve never had this many before. Usually the pigeons take them before I realise they’re ripe. So what’s made the difference this year? Was it the cats, finally earning their keep on the shed roof? Or the bees, humming busily in their hives beyond the fence? Or have I simply not noticed the little tree growing up? There’s a lot of it about. Even Weeny Teen now has a job, sitting other people’s babies.

Cherries, apples, raspberries, black currants, tomatoes, beans, olives: the tiny garden is bulging with goodies. The pollinators are being wiped out, the papers say. Well, not here, they’re not. From the slender foxgloves comes the puzzled buzz of fat bumblebees too broad to turn round inside the flower. In the tangle of creeper along the fence, every blossom has its own furry bottom. Bantam Neighbour’s little Italian jobs don’t bother with us, they’ve enough choice in their own garden. These are visiting bees.

In the hives, nectar and pollen are being banked for winter. Yup, yesterday was the longest day. Break out that toboggan. Only 185 shopping days till Christmas …

In the quail house, the worm has turned. After months politely ignoring the intrusion, looking the other way while generations of mice weaned on stolen layers’ pellets (?) swing from the rafters and scamper up and down sheer walls (how do they do that?) the quail are striking back. Those beaks are sharp, but the mice are shameless.

The cat - transfixed

The cat - transfixed

These days mucking out the quail house involves ploughing up the earth floor to find the spun straw balls of mouse nests in the network of tunnels beneath. Cute little black eyes watch as you dig, popping up at your feet and running round until they find a way out. It drives the cats demented. They hurl themselves at the wire and crash on and off the roof in pursuit. The quail look on with restrained interest.

The other day a very young mouse lost its grip on the ceiling and trapped itself in an upturned pot. I took it to the park, lugging the pot through the rain, and watched it scamper off along the river bank (mouse, not pot).

Two down.

The mouse - legging it

The mouse - legging it. (How do they do that?)

The quail - unimpressed

The quail - politely unimpressed

Quail diary – 88. Mean, broody and magnificent

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The quail don't do broody

The quail don't do broody. Much too undignified (Eggs: 217)

The bantams are broody. Two of them. They squat in a single bad-tempered heap of grey feathers in the nesting box, unmoveable, fluffed up to twice their size – two bald bums jostling over one hot egg. When I reach in to shoo them out, they fight back, pecking me and each other, scaly legs braced against eviction. Oh dear. Bantam Neighbour is away on holiday (again) and the hens are revolting.

It’s not even my watch. Gangling Yoof is in charge, his palm crossed with silver to juggle homework and sleep round the demands of one tortoise, two cats, five hens, a patio full of young beans, and about 20,000 bees. Only the tortoise seems unhappy with the arrangement.

At the first sight of me one hot afternoon last week, she came scrabbling across Bantam Neighbour’s shimmering patio, remorselessly crushing a bed of dessicated alpine strawberries under claw. Don’t tell me tortoises don’t smile. She beamed, she fawned, she frisked, beaky gob wide with anticipation, scrawny turkey neck ululating with excitement. After ten years of guerrilla warfare – throwing herself into the pond as soon as I wasn’t looking, wedging herself under fences, lying about waiting to be mugged by the foxes – suddenly I’m her new best fried. If she had a Facebook page, we’d be “in a relationship”. Though, of course, it could have been the cucumber I’d brought …

The tortoise

The tortoise - not as slow or as helpless as you might think

The tortoise is like Andy from Little Britain. She may look like a lump of masonry, but turn your back and she climbs stairs, scales walls, or hides in impossible crannies. Minding her requires popping in on hot afternoons to check she’s not lying helplessly on her back, frying in her shell, and going out with a torch last thing at night, hunting her among the patio pots because she’s refused to put herself to bed. She has to be sung to sleep in autumn (OK, I exaggerate – a bit) and coaxed back to life in spring, and I bet Gangling Yoof doesn’t tie himself into knots on the concrete, hand feeding her calibrated slices of cucumber and mango to stave off dehydration.

Oh, yes, I do.

Poor Gangling Yoof. Last thing I heard, he was out the other night, searching among the pots… beating off the hens. Inner city gardens, eh? It’s a jungle out there.

Quail diary – 87. Oh, dungballs

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Panic! Opened the quail house door this morning to find Tom struggling on the floor, milling the dust with her wings to get away. Dear God, no. Not another one I have to kill… She seemed to be lame on one side, much as poor Glenda had been, and I wondered if there was perhaps disease in the soil. Or had she been bitten by the mice? There was no blood, but as always there was a tell-tale new hole in one corner of the run. Images of the final pull of the scrawny little neck and the agonising twitches of the feathery body flashed into my mind, I saw the empty hutch even emptier with just three little ribetting souls left, wondered if I might be strong enough to put this one in the freezer this time, and felt an overwhelming desire for a stiff glass of wine. Which is not my usual practice at 9am.

So, girding my loins – and my dressing gown, for I was not dressed for extreme bird husbandry – I stepped inside and scooped Tom up.

Stupid birds … she’d only gone and hobbled herself with a dungball – two bony toes cemented by a rock-solid blob of guano to a wisp of straw. And she wasn’t at all grateful while I untangled her, by hand. Yuk. Amazing the depths of feisty determination those beady black eyes peering at you upside down can convey. That dressing gown goes straight in the wash.

Eggs: 187

Quail diary – 86. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am

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Mellow quail - Oeuf and Tom, dozing

Mellow quail - Oeuf and Tom, dozing

The quail have mellowed. Even Himself has noticed. They’ve taken to snuggling up together, two in the dustbathing corner, and two in the whirl of straw where they are currently dumping their eggs. (178 since Easter!) They’ve never done this before. Usually they squabble and bicker, or sit spaced out yards apart like nine-to-fivers on the Tube, aloof, each in her own personal bubble engrossed in her book. It could be the cold, of course – flaming June, hah. But I’m afraid it is age. They are nearly two years old, and frankly staid.

There’s no excitement to report here. The bees are buzzing, the beans are snaking up their strings, the cherry tree has acquired its annual bread bag sleeves to keep off the blasted pigeons (more effective than CDs, which as far as I can tell the birds only ever used to admire their reflections) and even the urban fox seems less incontinent this year, if not less noisy.

Dull, dull, dull. Fortunately, things are much more exciting chez Wallfishwife, who, having branched out from ferrets into quail of her own, has been enjoying a month of untrammeled sex and violence. Boys! Why didn’t I think of that?

Quail collectables, collecting dust

Quail collectables, collecting dust - Crown Derby paperweight, Johnson Bros plate, Red Wing Bob White cocktail server and unknown

Adding a chap to the quail house would evidently stir things up. Quail don’t do wooing, apparently. (“No chocolates or flowers,” reports Wallfishwife.) In fact, they don’t hang around long enough to say “hi”, much less exchange telephone numbers they then fail to ring. It’s wham, bam, thank you, ma’am and on to the next.

I don’t think my elderly maidens would take kindly to that sort of thing; they chastely avert their eyes even from the randy robins. So, I guess we’ll just have to stick to the quiet life, eating lots of healthy quail egg salads and dusting the growing collection of quail bibelots from eBay… Must get a hobby.