Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Posts Tagged ‘grow-your-own

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.

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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 – 109. Egging on

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Cress sprouting

Cress sprouting – spring springing

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.

 

Quail diary – 108. The End

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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

 

Quail diary – 107. And then there was one …

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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.

Quail diary – 104. The swarm II

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Quail house and overhanging swarm of bees

Quail house and overhanging swarm of bees - see arrow

The bee man is charming, quite mad – but charming. He arrives with a water cooler bottle strapped to an extendable pole, a cardboard box and a bit of net, casually swatting bees off his ears without bothering to pull on his suit. Yup, a second swarm has turned up. Apparently it’s peak touring season for bees, (a bit like Parisians in August…) This lot have draped themselves around a branch over the quail house. The quail are in a row at the wire, on tiptoe, peering up; nosy but unperturbed.

The noise was deafening when the bees arrived. Bantam Neighbour away again, of course. Sputtering texts ping in from France. By the time I’ve nipped round to her house, checked they aren’t hers and plundered her addressbook for the bee buddies’ numbers the swarm has settled in the appletree and the quail have gone back to sleep – except Harass, still standing on her breeze block, determined not to miss a thing.

Good job someone was on the ball – by the time I’d opened the camera, the beeman had nonchalantly knocked the bees out of the tree and was sitting out of range of the angry cloud, quietly drinking coffee and picking strays off his knees. For the next hour or so he repeated the process, passing the time in the sunshine with tales of other London bees, including the ones in the various royal palaces and gardens. (Appropriately, the Queen has bees, but Charles isn’t keen, he says.)

Bees turn up on high rise balconies, down chimneys and even in the Tower of London. (“As we came down a ladder after hours smoking them out, two American tourists passed, saying ‘Can’t you just smell that London smog?’…”)

Signalling bees close up

Bees - signalling.

On the upturned box in among the peonies, a row of bees are now aligned head down, bums up, signalling to the stragglers overhead that this is home. There are only about fifty diehards left in the tree. Some of the others have settled happily to work again, arriving back at the box with tiny saddlebags of pollen.

By teatime the beemen are gone, the box of peacefully seething bees now tied up with the net like some exotic party favour and shoved on the back seat with them. I hand over half a dozen quail eggs (52 so far, thank you for asking).

In the kitchen, a single lost bee buzzes crossly at the windows. The cat gets stung. Ho hum.

Quail diary – 101. Sheer lunacy

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Quail - not laying any eggs

Quail - not laying any eggs

No eggs. We’re two weeks into spring, daylight in London is up to 13 hours 8 mins, the cherry tree’s gone mental and the quail still sit spaced out in the straw, eyelids drooping. Not even dandelions elicit a rheumatic hop. It is only 5C in the quail house at dawn and the quail are contemplating their fourth (and probably final) summer – which makes them about 90, in human years. I think they may have retired.

Bantam Neighbour trots round with a box of eggs. Again. “Still nothing?” she asks, sympathetically, as if something’s died. Something may be about to. Of course, the bl**dy bantams have been laying since February. Show-offs. But the quail are still in suspended animation – and have been since October. Not for nothing are quail eggs a luxury item, you realise. By now half the neighbourhood is on tenterhooks. “Text me,” says Blog BFF as he heads off for a long weekend.

Up in Edinburgh (daylight 13 hours 19 mins) Clan florafaunadinner is hatching cute fluffy bumblebee-sized quail chicks, planting trees, growing asparagus and eating quail eggs for lunch – fresh, new quail eggs, and not just the tooth-curling last of the pickled ones from the bottom of the jar at the back of the cupboard.

Quail snuggled in straw

Quail snuggled in straw - retired, feet up, enjoying the twilight of her days? Or just bone idle

“Easter’s so late this year,” moans a school mummy, wearily counting days to some time off. Aha! Perhaps that’s the answer. A quick google reveals Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (hmm, they weren’t daft were they, those early church fathers?), and just because the supermarkets have been filling shelves and minds with chocolate eggs since the Christmas decorations came down the first moon of spring is still only just a sliver in the night sky. It won’t be full until April 18. So, in fact, the quail aren’t late at all. Apparently. “Particularly not if they’re Christians,” mutters Himself.

Of course, by Easter Sunday there will only be two months left till midsummer. Just a thought.