Life and death in the veggie patch
Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
[Note: a ‘chook’ in Australian English is a hen or female chicken]
The figs are falling, and it’s chook Christmas. A chook will kill for a ripe squashy purple fig, with their speckled red seedy centres. I pick them up off the driveway each morning and throw them into the chook yard, where they charge in and scream off with whatever they can grab before another chook wrests it from them. The rains have begun falling too – early this year – as the first day of autumn arrives, and it’s time to review the summer harvest.
One of the great things about being a gardener is that one gets to follow the rhythm of the seasons, and these come and go at least forty times in the life of a gardener. So one has the chance to reflect on ones successes and failures – none of them life threatening – and to plan new and better ways of doing things next year. Of course, if you’re a cabbage, then birth to death is measured in months, not decades, and therein lie the lessons for the ancient Homo Sapiens who tends them.
This year I feel a certain sadness in the garden, because of the almost total failure of the tomato crop, and because I don’t understand why this has been so. Yet the watermelons have thrived, pumpkins for our winter soups have been prolific, and eggplants and capsicums have been strong and healthy. The sweet corn has yielded up big cobs steadily over some months, and there are more to come. Cucumbers have been slow, but are picking up now.
I’ve had some rare delight from a melon-like Italian cucumber that came up by itself from seed, and which I left to run its course. Somehow this single seed found its way from the collapse of our neighbour’s garden to our place, and the plant has produced prolifically, and given us a new taste in our salads – something I can carry forward into future years by saving seeds from one fruit which I will let run to seed.
Over in the bean patch, the heirloom beans have produced our first-ever purple beans, and from these too I will save seed, and will gradually work out what tastes and grows best in our veggie patch. Some of them turned out to be climbing beans, so I’ll have to treat these differently next year, and grow them on tall fences of wire mesh, which they are sharing this year with the cucumbers and grapes. The birds had the grapes, but we’ve had our share of the apricots, plums and peaches. The asparagus have flourished, and next spring we will pick our first full harvest after a three-year wait.
In the chook yard, life too proceeds apace. Of the half-dozen hens I inherited for my neighbour’s garden, two survive. These old battery hens had been de-beaked in their previous life as units of production in the egg factory, and so don’t peck up grains and grasses easily. The top beak is shorter than the bottom one, to prevent them pecking each other out of boredom or natural aggression in the close proximity of battery birds.
This business of a “pecking order” is very real in chook society, and so it was almost cruel of me to introduce two new young hens (fully beaked!) into the company of these old boilers back in spring last year. The old girls gave them hell. So I moved those two young virgins – along with our magnificent rooster – into a new pen under the lemon tree, where they very soon found out what he was about!
Speaking of newly married ladies, I have to confess that the lemon tree – and now the rooster – are a goodly distance from the old chook yard beneath the window of the newly-weds in the house down the back. Something about his crowing causing “coitus interruptus” and poor nights of sleep in her new home…
I don’t think any of the chooks enjoyed the new arrangements either. The old girls were always breaking out of the bottom yard to come up to visit the old boy, who’d prowl up and down the fence line (with them prowling on the other side) emitting low grumblings that must amount to foreplay in the rooster world. The young virgins were wishing there were more hens about to spread the load – roosters in the wild like a harem of at least a dozen. As for the old fellow, he was frankly bored, getting on a bit, and becoming somewhat solitary and above it all, preferring a quiet dust bath in the sunshine to all the fuss kicked up by the females around him.
Yet nature took its course, and we stopped taking eggs. Each day we’d number the newly laid eggs, and after two weeks, started to throw away the oldest eggs. One of the young hens found the strain all too much, went into convulsions before my very eyes, was attacked simultaneously by the other hen and the rooster, and died of (I can only imagine!) a heart attack. Only one young hen was left to be wife and mother. On day twenty-two, nature and hen hormones kicked in at last, and the small brown hen turned broody, took to her nest and sat tight on the dozen eggs, coming out briefly in the heat of the morning to look for food and water.
Twenty-one days later, just like the textbook says, there were little fluffy chickens peeking out from under her wings and body. Within days they were walking and scratching, and mum would lead them in a dive to any beetle crazy enough to try and cross the chook yard. The little ones would race in and she’d let them take the spoils. They grew rapidly.
But the drama of adolescence unfolds also in the chook world. The half-dozen chickens were half-size when those old girls down the back escaped once again with conjugal bliss on their minds. By now I was fed up with chook-feeding all over the landscape, so pushed the two old girls in with the rooster, the young mum and the six chicks. Chaos! Mum was coming down with nerves from being harassed by the older hens that were now higher up in the pecking order. But when she spotted the old boy doing the deed on one of the old girls, she fiercely rushed in, bumped him off the job and pecked her rival clean out of bed! Suddenly, from being a mother with only her brood in mind, she was available once again to the attentions of our chook-yard Lothario. This brought about a strange change in her attitude towards the six chicks – suddenly they were competitors for the food that she would need to grow the next generation of chickens as she came back into lay. Kitchen scraps or grain would come flying over the fence, they’d rush in as usual, and she’d drive them off with sharp pecks at full run. Their only advantage lay in their unclipped wings – they took to roosting nightly – not with mum, dad and the old aunts in the chicken coop – but in the lower branches of the lemon tree, just like jungle chickens.
And so the rains have come, and life moves on. Rains came also back there on New Years Day, and against the grey rain clouds overhead suddenly came the slash of sharp wings and a pair of the fastest raptors in Australia – Little Falcons. At that moment I was glad that my small family of chickens lived under the lemon tree out of sight from the skies above, and that those beautiful falcons would find plenty of prey further down the avian pecking order among the starlings and blackbirds who’d fed so well from the garden and its produce. As the rains of autumn begin, the teenagers have a huge new chook yard to themselves and perch nightly in the grapefruit tree that we built their enclosure around. Under the lemon tree, the pressure of ten chooks in a small space has been relieved, and the young brown hen is once again laying fertilized eggs that will carry-forward the rooster’s genes, though he himself is entering his twilight years.