Quail diary

Quail for eggs — life in a London garden

Posts Tagged ‘recycling

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 – 94. Four blind mice

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Nosy quail - supervising the clearing of the shed

Nosy quail - supervising the clearing of the shed

First nip of autumn in the quail house. It’s mid August, but already at 7am you can smell it in the air. Mists and mellow fruitfulness. The runner beans hang in fistfuls, seven foot high, and the late crop raspberries are still in full tide, but daylight is down to 14 hours 51 minutes, the four remaining quail are down to one or at most two eggs a day (311), and slowly, slowly insulation is going up again for winter.

Not without casualties, though. No one warns you how much death is involved in animal husbandry. Rescuing mice from the cats (oh yes) is the least of our worries.

Unpacking the cheery red cylinder jacket from the shed under Harass’s beady eye, ready for pinning back up in the quail house roof, two dessicated little furry bodies appear – huddled heartbreakingly in death in a nest in the lagging, two baby mice who starved to death waiting for their mum.

But worse was to come when I put in the new planks. The pile for the tip was well advanced before the mother mouse abandoned her post in the discarded lagging and ran for it.  I wouldn’t have found them if I hadn’t seen her go: four tiny bald blind jellybean babies, barely a day old, nosing for warmth in my hand. They lay helplessly, too young to crawl away – but old enough to know not to squeak. Instead, they chattered – to each other, to mum, to the world? – in a barely audible clicking probably more impressive when done with bigger teeth.

Four drowned mice

Four drowned mice - a day old, too young to save

Reader, I killed them.

In the watering can. Well, it was that or leave them for the cats or the ants. The price of eggs, eh. How do Buddhists manage?

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 – 83. Eggs and beans

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Quail egg

Quail egg

Four eggs this morning – bringing the tally to 80 since Easter. Well done those quail! Dandelions all round. The surviving four birds look quite lost these days in a run built for seven (plus wellies), particularly since the wellies walked off with the hutch they weren’t using. But they seem happy enough, pottering around in their shifting pool of mirrored sunlight throughout the day, bathing in the dust or leaping up and down by the wire, nibbling small knobbly things that fly through. Sometimes they have a bit of a flutter, because they can. It must be like living in a cathedral, particularly with the cats like gargoyles hanging off the roof, peering in.

Runner beans - awaiting last frost before planting out

Runner beans - awaiting last frost before planting out

The cats are becoming something of a social embarrassment: apart from leering at the quail and next doors’ guinea pigs, and catching Bantam Neighbour’s tiny bees, they wee in the potato tower (don’t tell himself), insert themselves into any hole dug for any purpose – usually to do something unspeakable – and plunder every cat bowl for miles around. I can barely look my neighbours in the eye. Next door has acquired a water pistol to try to fend them off. I feel like a character from Six Dinner Sid, only worse, because there’s two of them. Catch mice, dammit.

Still, the garden is sprinkled with cherry and pear blossom and the runner beans are unfurling their first leaves. Compost and kitchen waste have been dug in (with a little help from the felines), pots dug out and tools sharpened. Let the cultivating commence. We’ve gotta have something to eat with all those quail eggs.

Quail diary – 72. On the house

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Quail house mark I was a customised rabbit hutch and a thing of beauty ...

Quail house I was a customised rabbit hutch, a thing of beauty ...

The tale of the quail and their mouse is big in Iran, India and Poland, and really huge (relatively) in the US and Canada, but in Australia – not so much. Overnight every night WordPress records new hits on this blog, or another red spot erupts on the Clustrmap as some quail fancier somewhere in the world stumbles on the site. The ticker doesn’t show how long they stay or how much they read, but it does log that mostly they are seeking advice on quail housing (or, bizarrely, fox and rat prints in snow).

So, with apologies to everyone who looked in vain before – and a strong recommendation to seek out some rather more knowledgeable source, here’s almost everything I’ve learned the hard way over the past year and a half about keeping  鹌鹑, ορτύκια, 메추라기 or quail.

... a thing of beauty, but not quite ideal for handling quail

... but not really quite ideal for handling quail

Our first coop was a 6ft solid wooden rabbit hutch found by the side of the road and lovingly reroofed and repainted with low-emission, animal-friendly paint in a cheery shade of sea green. It was a Rolls-Royce of coops, built like a tank to withstand anything from foxes to footballs, but the attached 6ft  knee-high run (as approved by Katie Thear, page 44 of my edition) proved crippling in every aspect of handling and sanitation. There’s nothing like grovelling head down in damp guano every week to make you rethink your domestic arrangements. The Rolls-Royce hutch was therefore duly put out on the street again, and claimed by a primary school teacher with a rescued battery hen. Well done, that man.

Quail house II was easier for sitting in

Quail house II was easier for sitting in

Quail house II (6ft x 4ft x 4ft high) rose over a brick-lined pit at the shady end of the garden. The idea was that the quail would have access to earth and insects, for dustbathing and foraging – which they love – and I would have access to the quail. Window panels in the lower roof lift out to let in food and water, or collect eggs (with a soup ladle on a long stick), or to tip out dirty bedding. The underground wall was supposed to keep tunnelling rodents out, but this proved optimistic, largely because the mice come in over the top instead, apparently parachuting off the apple tree and abseiling down the water hopper when all other avenues are stamped shut, chopped down, and otherwise nailed up. Of course, letting them raise a family once inside just because they looked cold was a bit short-sighted.

Quail house II, walk-in accommodation for seven pampered quail

... offering walk-in accommodation for seven pampered quail and room to swing a mouse

The outer house is made of wire and laths on a wooden frame, with a corrugated bitumen roof, and has a smaller, lighter rabbit hutch inside it for shelter. It is tall enough and wide enough to sit in, making it easier to muck out, and technically big enough to accommodate about three times more quail (16) than are currently in residence, but the extra space means less pecking and generally happier birds, with room for flights of fancy like the compost bin “radiator”. However, it is draughty. Which quail don’t like, it turns out. They don’t perch, and the hutch “nesting box” (though a handy seat) is rarely used, except to hide behind in piles of straw. They love the bare earth for dustbathing, but prefer to do so in patches of sunlight, and they lay their well camouflaged eggs randomly wherever they happen to be, in straw, shredded paper or earth, which makes them hard to find and easy to step on. As, indeed, are the quail.

They have a tendency to hop if startled, sometimes backwards, and explode vertically upwards if alarmed. They can fly (and do), but if they escape, they will vanish into the nearest clump of flowers and the best way to recapture them is to throw a towel over them. Like budgies they go quiet when the lights go out.

It’s been 17 months, two quail houses and 776 eggs since the quail came to our garden. They have taught me about daylight and dandelions, and the true price of food when you have to kill a sick animal. I still bear the scars – literally, in the case of the thumb I nearly lost cutting the roof, but soon days here in the northern hemisphere will be longer than our nights again, the blackbirds and robins will start to lay eggs too, and the whole adventure will begin again.

Perhaps it’s even time to improve on the quail house. I’m thinking mouse-proof roof … Get out that first aid kit.


Quail diary – 71. Lay, lady, lay

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The quail in winter - view from inside the plastic yurt

The quail in winter - view from inside the plastic yurt

The baby mice under the quail hutch have grown up and vanished. Probably into the roof. The last one, slower than the rest when Junior Teen cautiously lifted the hutch for a peek, allowed himself to be scooped up and gently warmed in the hollow of her hand. He liked it so much he began to wash his face, eventually transferring to her shoulder for a better view.  Ahhh. No camera handy, of course.

She was quite put out two days later, when her finger was nipped as she stuck it into a small tunnel in the earth floor. So much for the entente cordiale. The snow’s melted. It’s now every man (and mouse) for himself again. Let the daily stamping down of the holes re-commence.

Gammy cat, stir-crazy after three months confined to the kitchen with a steel pin up one leg, is spending his rehab pressed to the quail house door – nose glued to perspex, twitching. It is noticeable that he doesn’t climb on the roof any more, but he wants his mouse. At least, I hope it’s the mice he’s after. Accidentally let the wire flop open yesterday, and turned to find a pair of manic yellow eyes in the doorway, fixed on the quail.

So, £700 invested in vet bills and he a) kills one of the quail, or b) kills the baby mice we saved from a fate worse than … Hmm. I can see I may not have thought this one through quite rigorously enough.

Still no quail eggs. Daylight: 8 hours 54 mins, and counting. Temperature in run: 0C. Temperature in mini anaerobic digester – taken with rectal thermometer strapped to wooden spoon: 34C (shurely shome mistake?). Oeuf still has a dung ball on one toe and Glenda’s looking bedraggled, but millet seedlings are sprouting round the water hopper again and the urge to get out and dig the garden is mounting. Hark, the compost heaps are calling. Spring, here we come.