It is so beautiful outside right now that I find it hard to concentrate on anything. No matter how many times you’ve seen maples turn gold, cranberry, and florescent pink-orange in a New England autumn, it’s still a breathtaking show. There’s one particularly fine specimen tree in one of the yards that runs down to the cove, and I was staring at the pattern it made against the deep blue of the sky when I should have been minding my footing, which explains why the seat of my jeans is muddy before I’ve even made it down the slope to the water. I was expecting to get mucky and wet, just not so soon. The tide is out, so the seaweed is exposed. I set to work.
First I collect the loose bladderwrack, the stuff that’s been yanked off the rocks to which it was anchored and washed up by the tide. When I’ve collected as much of that as I can, I’ll start cutting knots of weed off the rocks. Three years, ago, the last time I collected seaweed for my compost, I brought along five-gallon containers, which I filled and lugged (with much huffing, puffing, and swearing) to the car. Five gallons of wet seaweed is darned heavy, so I have already decided that this year I’m going to play it smart and collect by the half-bucket. It will mean more trips up and down the slope to the beach, but, theoretically at least, I won’t end up shaped like a pretzel tomorrow.
I could, of course, avoid this whole exercise. Organic seaweed fertilizers are available in every garden center here. Neptune’s Garden products are excellent, and I use them for foliar feeding during the summer months. However, they are pricey, so I try to use them where they’ll do the most good, on seedlings and later on heavy feeders like peppers, tomatoes, and squashes. If I add seaweed to my compost, though, I can get the minerals and other nutrients contained in the marine plants right into the soil as well, something that would be prohibitively expensive with a commercial product. Seaweed is a terrific compost activator, too, and that’s just what I want in the fall, when I have a lot of carbon-rich leaves to break down and not enough nitrogen-rich green stuff to balance them out.
I have learned by hard experience that, contrary to much of what is published on the internet, I can’t simply layer the seaweed on top of my cleared-out raised beds and let it break down over the winter. Item: Winter is coming. Everything freezes. Item: Little microbial activity happens when stuff is frozen. Those microbes are not stupid. Therefore: The seaweed you spread on the garden beds at the end of October will still be intact on the garden beds in April. Worse, it will be a frozen, matted mess which stoutly resists the feeble sun’s efforts to thaw it, meaning the ground beneath it stays frozen, too, meaning the peas do not get planted by Patriots’ Day (April 19th), meaning you will not have peas by July 4th. Upshot: You will not be a gardener. Not a real one. And the people next door will know it.
Plus, by the second week of May your garden will smell like the bottom of a lobster boat. And the people next door will know it.
In the interest of good community relations, therefore, I’m adding the seaweed to my compost bin in a layer on top of the pine shavings and chicken manure I cleaned out of the hen coop last week. Next, I’ll add a layer of shredded leaves, and on top of that, more seaweed, kitchen scraps, and chopped comfrey plants. The top will be another layer of carbon-rich leaves. The compost pile should be insulated enough by the leaves on top to maintain some microbial activity until Christmas or so, and after that it will freeze solid and still be frozen by April, so I’ll not be using the contents of this bin to top off the seed beds at planting time. (I have finished compost stored in a trash can in the garage for that.) But the seaweed-laden pile should have cooked down nicely by the middle of the summer, just when the veggies and flowers will need a boost as they begin to fruit and blossom in earnest. For the price of some manual labor to collect and haul a free natural resource, I’ll have added some trace mineral elements and marine organisms to help my plants combat molds and mildews, withstand cold temperatures better, and grow more vigorously.
It’s important to note that if you’re lucky enough to live in an area close to the ocean, you should check local ordinances about collecting seaweed. I know that other locales are stringent about leaving any seaweed in place as part of fragile intertidal ecosystems, especially on sand beaches. Here, though, where our beaches tend to be cobblestone and gravel rather than sand, the rocks themselves provide protection against erosion, so we’re allowed to collect both dried and fresh wrack as long as we leave the roots and at least an inch of the plant still attached to the beach stones when we cut it so the weed can regenerate. Other municipalities have different regulations, so you’ll want to check first.
Late in the afternoon, the school bus goes by as I’m heaving the last bucketful of seaweed into the car. My muscles are already stiffening, and I reflect that my Irish forebears must have done this chore hundreds of times as they worked to build up soil out of sand, seaweed, and peat.
No wonder they were fond of a nip of whiskey afterward. It sounds like a terrific idea right now…