I do like to be beside the seaweed

November 7, 2011 § 13 Comments

The recent gales on the east coast of Ireland dumped inches of rain onto the land. Much of it ended up as floods — yet another one of those “once-in-a-hundred-years” disasters that have been occurring with alarming regularity during the past decade.

But let’s talk about that in another post. Instead, I’d like to write about seaweed — for that was the silver lining, as it were, that arrived with those dark cloudy gales. The movie below contains some energetic waves, which were laden with seaweed, although you can see only a little of it. (I’ve included some dogs to liven things up instead.)

Seaweed has been used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner in coastal regions for as long as man has been growing food. In Ireland it was added to the the poor, stony soil on the Aran Islands, and all along the western seaboard. It is especially good for sandy and light soils, as it contains gelatinous substances (alginates) that retain moisture and help bind soil particles together. The Victorians used great quantities of it, often burning it first, and applying the ash. It was recommended especially for asparagus, which originated as a coastal plant. It is still used by some people for vegetables, particularly potatoes.

Perfect for potatoes

Scotsman Alan Romans, who is the King of Potatoes in this part of the world, has used it in the past for his spuds. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me: “Seaweed is one of the best potato fertilisers. The carbon-nitrogen ratio is absolutely perfect; it breaks down almost instantly into compost at something like 1 to 14. If I were going to use it now, I would trowel in a seed potato at the right distance along the line, I would lay the seaweed on the surface and put a spadeful of earth on it to keep from drying out. Potatoes are quite happy to grow through organic fertiliser, and take the nutrients.”

Back in Ireland, in west Cork, our adopted Queen of Vegetables, Joy Larkcom, is a great fan of seaweed. She and husband Don Pollard collect it after it is washed onto a nearby beach by strong southwesterlies (see Graham Rice’s blog post here about it). “The question I am most often asked”, says Joy, “is whether you wash the salt off before using it. We don’t. We put it straight onto the ground. It disappears quite quickly, so you need a four-to-six-inch layer. I think it may deter slugs when it gets crispy.”

On Joy’s beach, the seaweed sometimes accumulates in piles as high as a person — which means it’s nicely gathered together for collection.

The long seaweed walk

On our east coast, the sea is less obliging, and one has to travel a longer distance to fill one’s bags. Collecting can be heavy work, so if the seaweed is thinly spread on the shingle or sand, walk off some distance with your empty bags and start filling them there, working your way back the way you came. You don’t want to find yourself lugging an increasingly bulging and heavy bag in the wrong direction from your car. (I dream about fitting panniers to the dogs’ backs, like those creels that Irish donkeys used to wear. I don’t think the dogs would find that as amusing as I do.)

Perseus and Medusa go to the seaside

A word of advice: don’t harvest seaweed that is growing on rocks — you need a licence for that, and a good reason for doing it. Only pick the stuff you find washed up on the beach. And, of course, be careful about disturbing wildlife, and trampling all over a fragile ecosystem.

I can’t end this post without mentioning seaweed baths. Taking a seaweed bath is one of those things you should try at least once in your life. I’ve had several, at various places in Ireland. The best are in Sligo, right next to the sea, where you can hear the waves as you lie entwined in algae. One of these businesses is at Strandhill,  and the owner’s father grows champion vegetables on his organic farm. Isn’t that nice? You can lie in a seaweed bath and dream of giant leeks.

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§ 13 Responses to I do like to be beside the seaweed

  • Kate Bradbury says:

    I love seaweed! Friends often bring me a bag after a holiday, instead of rock. Straight into the compost bin it goes, where it rockets into nothing, and takes half the heap with it. Lovely blog x x

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  • Kathryn says:

    Love to spread it not just on potato beds but also where the brassicas and beet family are going. Being seashore plants they all love it in my experience. Alas last weeks weather scoured it right off our beach rather than depositing it (and it was two days before the river left our garden, destroying our drain field and soakaways in the process)

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  • Kathryn says:

    Forgot to say that asparagus seems to go straight through even a foot of it

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  • truffles1 says:

    I like seaweed too but over on this east coast we do not have much !
    Seasol foliar concentrate is our alternative.

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  • Stephen Butler says:

    Isn’t it also great for Myosotidium – would my boss let me go off for a stroll on the beach to get some I wonder!

    If seaweed is so good, what about those awful algal blooms that hit some French coasts last year, fed by sewage and farm run off though, but surely the nutrients would be about the same, though I reckon the aroma would be a tad higher!

    Here’s a thought, is there a scale measuring bad aroma intensity, like the Scoville rating for peppers??

    Stephen

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  • Great post Jane. The other thing to mention is that seaweed put on your beds now protects them from leeching through the winter. It then just disappears in the Spring back in to the soil. Seems like the perfect mulch & compost all in one.

    Niall

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  • VP says:

    Oh how great it would be to have access to ooodles of the fresh stuff. But sadly we’re landlocked here in Wiltshire, so I make do with the liquid version instead. The smell when I open the bottle whisks me back to the ocean every time 🙂

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  • Jane Powers says:

    Kate: Thank you!
    Kathryn: I’m interested that you use seaweed on your heavy soil. I’d read on the internet that it was not suitable for clay — but I wasn’t sure whether to believe that or not. I’d rather believe you, any day!
    Truffles1/Steve: We don’t have it in quantity either, but it washes up after strong winds.
    Stephen: Yes! I used to use it for Myosotidium — which I grew years ago, but I stopped when it proved to be an expensive way of providing slug food.
    Niall: I am putting it on winter beds, but I do wonder about the nitrogen leaching out. Some people say it has lots of nitrogen, some say not. I wish I knew. There is an interesting bit about winter mulching on Nicky Kyle’s blog, here (starting at 3rd paragraph): http://nickykylegardening.com/blog/100-the-vegetable-garden-in-november

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  • Brendan Grimes says:

    Seaweed (called wore here in Skerries) was once used a lot by the local farmers. In the late 19th century there was a dispute between the farmers and Lord Holmpatrick about the rights to the seaweed. This dispute, which was known as the ‘Seaweed war” (not ‘Wore war’) ended up in the House of Lords – I forget the outcome. Armed with this historical knowledge I use seaweed on my allotment – an example perhaps of my historical knowledge compensating for my poor horticultural knowledge.

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  • Janet Sheehy says:

    I must go down to the sea again…
    And take a look for seaweed. I have collected it before in the past and was very pleased with the results. It is great as a compost activator. It worked well too as a mulch on the vegetable patch but was rather smelly when I used it during the summer. I should think that as a winter mulch the decomposition would be slower and less objectionable.

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  • I had forgotten the tradition of harvesting for the garden but i had recently begun to cook bit of it. Enjoyed especially this year the sea spagetti which was lovely with fish. Anyway your post here was a great refresher and if I wasn’t such a lazy creature I wouldn’t have far to go to bring some back for the garden, however I am more drawn to the seaweed bath to be honest!! Do try that at home:~)

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  • niki jabbour says:

    Great post! I’m on the East Coast of Canada and seaweed is an important part of my soil building.. thanks for sharing this info and the lovely photos..

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