Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.

Bluetongue’s back

There’s was something in the woodshed when I went down to feed the chooks this morning.  A scaly tail sliding out the door.  At first I thought Snakey was back, since the woodshed was a favourite haunt of hers (conveniently close to a regular supply of breakfast eggs).  But it was someone else warming up in the morning sun.

I reckon I’ve seen that face before.

After spending a disturbingly long time counting and colour-swatching scales, I’ve come to the conclusion this is the same bluetongue, way back in 2011.

Documentary evidence of a skink psychologically scarred by a standoff with a chicken. As I recall, there was a lot of awkward staring – the bluetongue blinked first.

Apparently blueys can live for 20 years or so.  Since our place is rich with “habitat” – that is, great big  piles of rotting sticks – the guy (or gal – apparently you have to dissect them or set up a fight to find out, thanks to the male’s insignificant hemipenes… *snigger*) may have been hanging round the whole time.  It’s a nice thought.

I had attributed our pleasing lack of slugs to vigilant chickens but maybe lizards have been doing their bit as well.  This sort of thing makes being an organic gardener seem less like a sequence of indecisive moments in the “slug bait” aisle of the hardware store and more like a practical pest management strategy.

The chooks seem to have a remarkable diffidence towards reptiles.  They were completely uninterested a couple of years back when Snakey took up residence in the chook run.  The sight of a snake in this position in my bedroom would freak the hell out of me:

But the gals toddled off to sleep, completely unfazed.  It was a different story on the day a white goshawk  drifted into the trees above the chook house.  The hens bolted into the undergrowth and were very very very quiet.  Gorgeous as this bird is – the only pure-white raptor in the world – even I found it quite menacing as, in Bond villain style, it flexed first one set of claws and then the other, gazing intently around the yard.

Maybe its not a simple matter of scales good-feathers bad. I’ve yet to see the chooks handle serious snake action, despite the occasional sightings of a red-bellied black by the neighbours.  The potential for reptile-avian dinosaur show-downs is definitely not exhausted. For more updates, I’ll certainly be tuning in to the upcoming episode of Bluetongue Encounters on tomorrow’s Chicken TV.

The egg eaters

Someone’s been eating eggs.  I don’t mean us, although obviously we have been eating them, and with great relish too.   I tried and failed to take a photograph of this morning’s scramble, that glorious renaissance of the freshly-laid goog.  It seems that these eggs are simply too magnificent to be captured by mortal photographic technology.  All that remained on film was this ineffable golden glow.

Scrambled egg yellow

No, I don’t mean us, the authorised Egg Robbers.  Some other creature has been eating eggs. It could be a rat or a possum. It could be Snakey the Diamond Python – there was a mysterious predatory smell in the garden over the last couple of days, along with scattered beige feathers. Andy Ninja was looking distinctly rumpled, like an ambitious nocturnal reptile might have tried to make her, perched temptingly amidst the lower branches of the coral tree, a late-night snack .  But I fear it may be…. a Cannibal Chicken.

The kids are on the case: “We questioned each of the chickens, by showing them an egg.  Shyla and Treasure were interested, but not too interested.  But Luna went close to it… too close.  I think she tried to peck it.”  So, after this exhaustive forensic investigation, Luna is in the frame (in a possible miscarriage of justice, Abbey the elusive Barnevelder escaped questioning by being impossible to catch).

Who is the inner Luna?  Who can say, although the disturbing photograph suggests an interior vortex and a single glowing eye.  Beware, Luna, we will be watching you…

Bean thieves

I’ve been a little obsessed with brush turkeys lately, in case you haven’t noticed. As yet I haven’t set up a nanotechnology lab to investigate the remarkable hydrophobic properties of their eggs but perhaps that’s only a matter of time. In the interests of keeping them from scratching everything up, the garden is an “homage de Christo” at the moment, swathed in vege nets and scraps of daggy horticultural fleece. That’s in addition to chicken wire hoops over my garlic, rocks and tiles around the baby citrus, and a trellis trapdoor over germinating sweet peas. And my new strategy: distraction. The brush turkeys have been having a grand time digging through a recently applied layer of wood chip mulch on the garden paths. Since “tidy” is not my watchword this is all to the good, keep them from pondering on what mysteries might lurk under the sugar cane mulch elsewhere.

However, while I’ve been congratulating myself on my success, other produce snackers have been at work. A few weeks ago I put in a couple of patches of broad beans, and for good measure some lupins as green manure. I spent some time fretting that lupins could become a garden escape, spreading through the sclerophyll forest of the Hawkesbury sandstone like the blue carpeted uplands of New Zealand’s South Island.


I really shouldn’t have bothered. A week or so later I peeped under the fleece to find a neat sequence of holes in the loam. I actually wondered if I’d forgotten to fill in the divots I’d made with my dibber, but no. Apparently lupins make a fine high-protein rodent snack. Sadly broad beans seem to be haute cuisine too – though they weren’t nibbled til they had sprouted. It seems the local rats are health food freaks. Mental note: don’t bother planting quinoa or a goji vine.

There’s a lot in the permaculture literature about the virtual cycles of animal-botanical interactions. Your chickens in their upcycled chook tractor convert scrap to crap, dig up your weeds and move on to clear pastures new. They are a serious danger to your slug population and their bedding makes a fabulous mulch.

Not so much lyrical celebration of the rats that come to eat those scraps and also make short work of your seedlings.

It is particularly irking when these inconvenient animals deploy a pincer movement, the sad story of last year’s voluptuous TropicSnow peaches being a case in point. Protected by mesh exclusion bags, they were safe from fruit fly, or so I thought. But the bags were short work for the local rat pack, and once they’d had the pick of the ripe fruit, the fruit fly came in to clean up the rest.

This is where the food web shows its grimmer side, at least from the human harvester’s perspective. We could put out poison for the rats. But what if bandicoots are also fond of RatSak? And when the rats pop their clogs unobserved, what if the tawny frogmouth or Snakey the diamond python decide groggy and voraciously thirsty rodents or still warm corpses are an easy snack? The poison’s up the food chain and the next thing you know a White Bellied Sea Eagle has carked it on top of your washing line.

Snakey has made inroads on what I should perhaps refer to as our “organic” rodent population.


Unfortunately with that slow reptilian metabolism one rat a fortnight is the best you can hope for.   I like to think that Grandpa’s chook feeder with its foot pedal operation has made things a bit more difficult for the rodents, since I’ve not yet seen them jumping up and down en masse to access the delights inside.

Beans and sky

So, over the last month I’ve managed to raise my first green (and purple) bean crop for years. I’m not quite sure why the critters left them alone. There seems to be an element of the stochastic in all this. Things emerge and grow peaceably and then, bang, the satin bower birds have macerated your greenery. Are the beasties lulling us into a false sense of security? Waiting for the precise moment when everything tastes its best? Or are they just a bit flakey and take a while to figure out that beans are once again on offer down the bottom of the yard?  For all I might be a bit skeptical about the “we sow the seeds, nature grows the seeds, we eat the seeds” hippie vibe of permaculture, there is a lot to be said for stealing a march on the predators by simply baffling them with a jumble of plants: an odd collection of survivors and accidental successes.