Jonathan: Fetching seaweed from the shore is, properly, work for fair-weather days in January. That’s the season for the wild and unrelenting storms that tear the weeds from their rocky hold-fasts, toss them around, tear them up and finally cast them up at the high tide line in a tangle of browns and greens. For the last couple of winters, however, winter storms have run one into the next without marking the handover with anything more than a change in wind-direction and humidity. And even if the weather declares a unilateral truce (whilst of course it reloads its heavy weapons) a few hours of quiet is barely enough to repair the worst storm damage and restock the pantry shelves! Last year, 2015, it was early spring before the weather was good enough to even go on the beach, let alone spend hours barrowing seaweed up to the garden … and by then, of course, it was too late: the remaining drifts of seaweed had lost their essential quality as a mulch, and the emerging plants too tender to tolerate a briny blanket of seaweed.
But if there’s one thing can be said, oh so predictably, of Hebridean weather – and Outer Hebridean weather in particular – it’s that it is unpredictable. For better or for worse. And this week, it seems, it’s for the better. Sunday was fair, Monday fine, but today, Tuesday was fabulous! Certainly not warm – a cold breeze meant that it was better to bear a hat than bare the head; but the soft sunshine, cerulean blue skies, and above all the hopeful singing of birds of every description made it the best of days to get out into the world and make the most of it. So after preparing Eight Askernish for guests arriving from Stornoway, and an early lunch, I hitched up the trailer and loaded it with wheelbarrows and heavy forks, pulled on my boiler suit and other outdoor working gear (which, admittedly, apart from the wellies, I’m as likely to be found wearing indoors), and set off down the road to the beach onto which the last storm had driven banks of seaweed out of the south east.
It has to be said, gathering of seaweed certainly would be a great deal easier with a tractor and trailer … but then, equally, it would also have to be said that we’d have to grow – and sell – an awful lot of carrots to buy a tractor, and keep it in running order. An Eriskay pony with creels would be nice! – but even more temperemental than an old Fergie!
So, I content myself with slipping and tripping amongst the banks of seaweed and hidden rocks at the foot of the beach access, and the struggle to push a heavily laden wheelbarrow up the steep and stony bank to the van and trailer waiting up by the roadside, the ramp a minefield of ankle-turning stones and slippery patches of seaweed. (I cannot fathom why our daughters keep telling me I need more exercise. Is it really me they are thinking of – or their inheritence? Perhaps they are they trying to kill me off early with a heart attack or stroke?)
As the afternoon progressed, pauses for breath and rest became longer and more frequent, so after 24 barrowloads of seaweed I decided that I really did not want to risk overloading the trailer (ahem!), and set off home for a mug of warming tea and home-baked cake. And then to offload the seaweed back into the wheelbarrow and spread it on the ground.
This first trailer load – for there will be at least one more – went to feed the east side of the garden: as a deep mulch over still-dormant rhubarb and artichokes, and spread under the branches of blackcurrant bushes. By early summer it will have decayed into a deep litter of black crumbly fibre full of life.
Seaweed mulch or compost is relatively poor in nitrogens and potassium, better in potash. It is however an excellent source of ‘trace minerals’ essential to good growth. But best of all is it’s amazing effect in restoring and improving the quality of soil, increasing humous and attracting and feeding the enzymes, bacteria, and invertebrates that make up a complex, healthy and thriving ecosystem. Living within the bounty provided by the sea is a profoundly sustainable way of life, and it’s the sustainable maintenance of soil fertility that’s the fundamental point of the organic movement.
The benefits of spreading seaweed onto the land to improve soil fertility was realized in the late 18thC and early 19thC, the age of Agricultural Improvement. Landlords with coastal estates – the length and breadth of Great Britain – started to reclaim upland heaths and moors for agriculture with seaweed and lime-rich shell-sand brought from the shore. The term they used for these goods was ‘seaware’. At Bude, in Cornwall, a canal was built – requiring both great expense and innovation – to carry this seaware to the uplands. The lower section of the Bude Canal – built for small ships – still exists to this day, and the smaller ‘tub-boat’ canal with its inclined planes and reservoirs can be traced throughout its length of 35 miles and up to its summit of 132m above sea level.