Ah, snails! If I had a bigger space I’d grow some extra crops especially for them and we’d all live happily ever after in a fecund nirvana where swathes of green were exquisitely enhanced by delicate trails of silver.

As it is, they plunge me into existential angst as I watch the tattered lace of ex-leaves disappear under a slow wave of grey slime. After much internal debate about killing pests (then externalised), I quickly became a dehumanised killing machine.

My only hope of salvation resides in my continuing guilt pangs and occasional decisions to let one go.  (Which, remarkably, after reflecting on its brush with death and considering how best to find meaning in a fleeting existence, doesn’t conclude its short lifetime would best be spent creating a great work of literature, but rather devotes itself to rampant reproduction).

This offers an excuse to post my entry into last year's Emsworth Village Show in the category of Livestock 1: Best Chicken, so that you can all appreciate how usefully I spend my own fleeting existence.

I’ve been told I should just ‘rehome’ them but, short of taking a bucketful six stops on the Piccadilly line, I’m not sure that will do the job. They actually move damn fast, so I think taking snails on the Tube might be more antisocial than getting on having not washed for some time, whilst broadcasting tinny music from earphones turned up extra loud so it can still be heard over one’s yapping into one’s mobile telephonic device, whilst one’s spare hand shoves one fistful of aromatic fast-f0od after another into one’s animated gob thus spraying oily fragments across the carriage.

(No, I don’t travel well.)

But now, for all embattled gardeners, familiar with the suspicion that snails will always find their way back, there is to be a mass science experiment to test the theory!

Swap snails with your neighbours and see if they come back. Wife swapping is so last season.

I’ve just spent a week in beautiful Devon getting my first taste of field biology, so I’m hungry for more and this sounds like great fun. There are teams and everything! Anyone else planning on joining in?

Note:  I’m also genuinely pleased to learn there is a publication called Mollusc World.

Snail stories: chapter 347. Recently, the mollusc situation has settled down a bit. They’ve had a nibble at my beans, taken out some flowers, but nothing out of control and for the most part seem happy to confine the majority of their munching to the compost bin.

But the front of our flat is unexplored territory. Next to the path is a tiny batch of bare soil under some tatty bushes (a rose and a flowering shrub of some sort; I can’t eat them so haven’t investigated further…). There’s a drain cover tucked under there too. It’s bare, not because of the shrubs, but because this is where snails rule. Not even weeds survive. It’s ill-advised to put the rubbish out without sturdy shoes as at night the front path becomes a mollusc motorway.

But I was desperate: one of my mystery squash seeds – from a mixed pack so I don’t what variety it is until it fruits – came up late, and then quickly outgrew its tiny pot. No more space, pots or mud in the garden, so I decided to enter Snail Central. Mystery squash was planted out with some of my spare marigold plants – just before some early evening rain.

I ventured out about 11.30pm to hear a noise like a distant cement-mixer. Esther had told me that she tracked down her midnight munchers by sound more than torchlight, and now I see what she means – this really was astonishingly loud. So I followed the sound, and this is what I found…

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

The hordes ascend - how many can you count?

Much of the plant already stripped bare. A healthy looking leaf left on the top-right, though? Not for long..

All in a night's work

All in a night's work

I will survive

I will survive

The marigolds had already gone – I’d planted 12. These pictures only show the half of it. As I shone the torch around I found more advancing from the edges of the bed, and further battalions positioned on the path.

All in, I picked over 30 snails that night.  The next night, about 18. Then ten, and when I got down to two, I knew I was winning. I also learned that snail photography and murder definitely attracts more interest from the neighbours when it is undertaken in the front garden. That stereotype about the British twitching lace curtains? It’s true, even if these days it’s Ikea blinds.

Luckily, the squash was determined. I pointed it towards the rose stem, and it has shot for the sky. I’ll have some very strange looking rose-hips next month…

The picture above shows the first delicate bloom, which looks and feels like tissue. I’m hopeful it’s a cucuzzi, or ‘Sicilian serpent’ – I think curling fruits, over a metre in length, will look lovely in the rose – and provide a good meal.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

OK, so the Burgess Buttercup are pretty, just more robust than 'mystery squash'. Here, they are shown enjoying the fine weather of a British summer.

The flowers are quite unlike the bolshy, gaudy yellow, coarse flowered winter squash (Burgess buttercup) I have elsewhere. I’d normally describe it more favourably, but it’s irritated me.

I was thrilled to start with: I love the way it romped through the garden like a triffid, hooking on to pots, tables, cracks in the stone, fences and me, if I stood still for more than a minute.

Bu then it got mildewy in the weeks of damp weather that have constituted the ‘barbecue weather’ forecast for July, and I cut back the yellowing leaves to slow the spread. Long  stretches of stalk, bald except for yellowing leaf-stumps, don’t look so jungle like.

Success and failure

Success and failure

Then, despite an abundance of bees, the first ten fruits did not set. So I had to initiate some early morning sex sessions, with the aid of a paintbrush to transfer pollen manually. All round satisfaction resulted, with both the fruits I assisted now fattening – the picture on the right shows the difference between bees and brushes!

But now, the plants are producing nothing but male flowers. I hope they haven’t given up – I’m still holding out for a glut of squash that I can store for winter meals. And I’d love to save seed, following Mr H’s excellent instructions, but I need more than two fruit if I’m to bother.

burgessbud

Male burgess buttercup bud. Better looking like this than deep-fried - when it resembles like the sort of fast-food chicken products commonly sold in 'buckets.'

The next reason I resent them is really my fault, but I’m blaming the Burgess. I’ve been cooking with my male courgette flowers quite a bit – mainly adding to frittatas.  So when I had this annoying surplus of the Burgess flowers I decided to be  a bit fancy in the kitchen. I don’t normally like fiddly cooking, but I’ve seen the flowers on sale at Borough market for a pound a piece, so thought I should use them well.

So I made a herby ricotta stuffing, fiddled about picking the bitter stamens and greenfly and ten other forms of insect life out of the flowers and then fiddled about putting the stuffing into the flowers, and wrapping the fiddly ends up, then fiddled about making batter, dipping fiddly flowers in flour then batter, then deep-frying them, while also reducing some balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the finished masterpiece. It was all a bit laborious, and even providing my own pretentious chef-fy commentary didn’t remove the feeling that precious minutes of life were being forever lost to me. But then the big moment:  I presented my work of art to He-who-lives-with-me with a flourish, and he made all the right sort of admiring noises. Until he started eating, and then he went rather quiet and seemed especially focused on mopping up as much of the artistic (and sweet) balsamic drizzle as he possibly could. “This balsamic is really nice” he said, very keenly.  “Is there any more?”

If only I’d found out before all the fiddling that winter squash flowers can be incredibly bitter. Now I’m incredibly bitter, and that’s the end of fiddly-stuff for me.

Which is a shame, because I think the recipe would be very nice – with summer squash. I found it here, if you fancy fiddling – with summer squash.

Renewed vigilance seems to have got the molluscs under control, with peas and beans finally clambering, unmolested, over one of my bodged constructions on the back-fence.

I have blasted a million aphids with the power of vegetable-based soap product, before the ladybirds turned up in the nick of time – a bit like all those scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies: just when all hope is lost (but the heroes are still fighting the forces of evil until their dying breath) dawn breaks and reinforcements appear on the hill-crest to save the day. (Note: though dramatically satisfying, it’s not much comfort to all the casualties of their tardiness, the deceased elves and peppers that would have preferred the said reinforcements to get going a bit earlier).

But I digress. The point is it seems that all that this effort has achieved is to free up space for a predator previously reluctant to pass within my borders, the pigeon. At least that’s my assumption, after my luscious basil babies turned to tatty stems in the course of one sunny day.

Though I wouldn’t expect a pigeon to choose basil over the juicy pot of pea-shoots sat alongside, I cannot think of another culprit.

How to proceed? Do I have to net everything, until my garden looks like a giant cobweb has landed on it? And could there be something worse than a basil-loving pigeon? If I deter them with some device or other, what will move in to take their place? Orcs? Vegetarian golden eagles? 6ft slugs?

I’ve been working long hours lately, so had planned a quiet Friday night in to recover myself. Instead, I have been on a murderous rampage.

Rest in peace, little bastards

Rest in peace, little bastards

When we moved here, back in February, the owner had left their beer-traps in the garden for us. That should have been a sign.

I gave it a go for a bit of fun, though father-of-frugilegus has always been cynical about their effectiveness. The first morning I checked the traps I counted 50 corpses before I concluded the total was ‘a lot’. That should have been a sign.

Despite that body-count, every seedling I planted in the beds disappeared overnight, the only indication it had ever existed a memorial trail of slime. I took that as a sign.

I ordered nematodes after that, and I have to say they were pretty effective. After a week, some seedlings survived. They certainly didn’t thrive, but the old nibbled stalk was actually visible here and there.

I kept up the slug-traps, trying old orange juice that had been lost in the back of the fridge instead of beer, and shook a few bodies into the compost bin once a week. I sprinkled some coffee grounds around seedlings every now and then. Though nematodes are only effective for about six weeks, I thought I must have taken out the hordes, and could control the rest with various fermented juices.

So, I planted out borage and strong cucumber plants. I positioned a climbing frame for the cucumbers to play on and, that night, dreamt of their fruit. The next morning, I went to welcome them to their first new day, and found just a few slimy stalks. That should have been a sign.

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Friends or foes ... or utter bastards?

Still,  I was distracted by compost. The bin in the garden is not a good one, and when we moved in was full of organic matter that showed no interest in decomposing. I had given it a stir, added lots of brown matter and the contents of a bokashi bucket, then later a few worms, in the hope of getting it going. Things were looking good. An ecosystem developed: woodlice, wriggly things, beetles and the odd snail. I smiled on it benevolently, thinking that a wriggling bin is a healthy, decomposing bin.

Just as a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, I decided a snail is only an evil murderous bastard when it is in the wrong place.

Pah!

A compost bin is no more than a base from which vast hordes are unleashed under cover of darkness. It provides a mollusc with snacks during the day, but one mustn’t eat too much in the bin – one must save oneself for the night raids on pots of beans, tender cucumber shoots, and if one’s feeling adventurous, following the trails of shelled-scouts and slimy outriders into the herb bed.

Tonight it rained. Though the young basil I put out might find it a bit of a shock, on the whole it was welcome because the water butt is empty and the lawn is sulking (the lawn is a whole other story). I wandered out with the torch, thinking vaguely that I could check whether it was snails nibbling at the runner bean bucket.

But, upon finding a full-scale attack underway I was overtaken by bloodlust. Arming myself with a plastic bag on my hand, I grabbed and dropped, grabbed and dropped, each victim clunking into my bucket of water. Haha!

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

For the pernicious fault of gluttony, as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

I can’t kill beetles, but it seems I can kill molluscs.

Though apparently not that easily. Putting snails in cold water doesn’t work. They squirm about and take turns to crawl on each other and then crawl out. It seems I should have used very hot water. An hour ago, I’d have said I wouldn’t have the stomach for it, but seeing as I’ve spent much of my Friday night sprinkling salt on antennae as they break the surface like little periscopes I don’t know if that is true any longer. I’ve never fancied salting slugs before, and it was expensive salt too, but none of that bothered me for a second when I found a speckled slug making a break for freedom. Later, overtaken by guilt, I poured in a can of beer too. So some died horrifically, but hopefully others died happy.

Tomorrow, more nematodes. And a new zero-tolerance policy. They had their chance with the compost bin and they’ve blown it.