WITH all seeds now sorted and stored for this year’s sowings, February is a good time to turn my mind to one of the most important yet often overlooked elements of gardening and growing – the soil.
There’s little point in nurturing seeds to seedlings and then on to healthy plants to then transplant into soil which is ill-equipped for the growing on and blooming or harvesting of the bounty. Soil needs to be healthy and rich in goodness, whether that comes from our own homemade compost, from bought in bags of peat-free growing medium or from well-rotted cow or horse manure, it doesn’t really matter, as it’s all good food and structure for our soil.
One lesser-known soil additive (certainly where I am in London) is one that gives a broad spectrum of micro-nutrients as well as the big macro-nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Additionally, this soil additive has important carbohydrates which together with the other nutrients it releases are essential building blocks in the plants we grow. This lesser-known soil additive – seaweed.
I guess my first memory of seaweed combining with soil is of my uncle loading up a horse and cart with fresh-sea smelling dripping-wet vraic at Fort Grey and, with the help of his neighbours, it all being hefted up Route du Coudre. I’ve no idea where the horse and cart came from, though I’m sure it would have been one member of the close-knit community around the Rue du Bordage, Rue des Clercs and Route du Coudre area – each played their part in the task and each took a share for their own gardens and growing spaces. While the horse would eat grain from the hessian food bag that hung snugly around its head, the neighbours would heave out the seaweed with long-tined forks – in my uncle’s case, he’d move along the furrows in the field behind Les Sages laying it down where seed potatoes would be planted in the weeks or months to come. I certainly didn’t understand the benefits of seaweed as a soil additive at that age – I was only about three or four at the time – though I do distinctly remember the taste of the potatoes; roasted, baked, or mashed, they were simply the best.
Big winter storms to hit Guernsey were always something to know about for our family and for two very valid reasons. The first was that for almost the first decade of my life dad had a small boat harboured off Route du Port or in ‘dry dock’ on the land side of the road, where I believe some small boats still lie today. The second reason was that storms would bring rough seas and ferocious wind-swept tides that would churn the salty brined water deep down to the seabed and in so doing tear vraic away from its moorings on deep-rooted rocks. After a good storm (a bad storm would sink boats) there would always be, and still is today, a marker across the storm-side beaches of Guernsey, that marker being all the vraic that has been churned up and dumped at the height of high tide on the seashore. Dad was a docker at the White Rock, and on the day after a good storm and after his shift, down we’d go with a small cart hitched to the back of the car, down to L’Eree to collect “the good stuff”.
As we drove down the long slipway around from Les Sablons, the cart behind would be clatter chattering as it bumped and bounced down the quietly sloping lines of cold grey granite quoins which together gave easy access to the beach for vehicles and horses alike. Sometimes, tractors would be already there loading up huge carts, and there we were with our little mini-cart, though like its bigger cousins it would be full to the brim by the time we turned back up the slipway; a duller, thumping sound now accompanying us as a heavy load of bladderwrack with some intertwined kelp made its way up Route des Adams to its final destination – our back garden at Rue du Lorier.
My days now of adding nutrients, soil improver and mulch to the soil are rather less nostalgic, though in some ways still as exciting. In west London we have riding stables some three miles away, though with London traffic being what it is that three miles can sometimes feel like 30. A few years ago, a fellow plotholder and I made four trips to the stables and back to bag up over 60 sacks of well-rotted horse manure from a huge pile and some of this pile still stands there today… it was a back-breaking job, though well worth it. This year, though, as we did for the first time last year, I’m just about to order eight full pallets of bagged soil conditioner, compost and fertile mulch. All peat-free and all organic… or as organic as one can get in terms of many of the soil additives we put in on a regular basis. There will be 450 bags of 40 litres of growing medium, though admittedly the order is for the whole of our allotment site and not just for our plot.
I’ve ordered some of each; the soil conditioner is well-rotted horse manure and great for topdressing most our beds; the compost I’ll use for repotting or with the addition of vermiculite or perlite as a seed compost – lightening the soil in terms of weight and access by sunlight; and the fertile mulch will be perfect for the soft fruit beds, both feeding the growing shrubs and blocking out sunlight and suppressing ever-present weeds from germinating.
I’ve still some bagged compost that wasn’t used last year. This will top-dress beds over the coming days, adding extra nutrients to the soil; the bed where I’ll be sowing parsnips and carrots won’t have this though. Instead, I have spent compost in a yellow builder’s bag which I’ll use for this as neither parsnips nor carrots like too many nutrients in the soil – they are prone to fork if so.
Next month, hopefully with soil warming up and more hours of sunshine, I’ll be sowing our Guernsey half-long parsnips, Nantes and London Market carrots and our Colleen seed potatoes, which are happily chitting away in our shed, in brightness though away from damaging frosts.
The closest I get to seaweed fertiliser these days is in a liquid mix, which works well, though has none of the work and joy of gathering, washing and mulching that foraging vraic from the seashore once did. I’m sure this liquid mix is better for the environment, though maybe not as engaging for the soul.
I’ve heard of a company, Guernsey Seaweed I think, that makes a natural fertiliser – thankfully, dried and bagged rather than sopping wet – though I’ve not seen it in our shops locally in west London. Maybe on our next visit to Guernsey we’ll see if we can visit them and look at all they now do. In the meantime, I’ll make do with emptying my order of bags of growing medium when they arrive at our allotment and raking their contents across the soil of our beds… daydreaming of good storms and rough seas that bring seaweed to our shores.
Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com.