Out of an Evil may come Good

This daunting title appeared at the top of an article which featured in a growers’ journal (title unknown) in 1933. It was, in fact, an allusion to a rather unpleasant problem which still continues to plague the seaside town of Worthing to this day: the piles of rotting and evil smelling seaweed! But it offered the hope of a possible solution: "SEAWEED, always regarded in Worthing as an unmitigated nuisance, may yet to be found to be a blessing". The subject of the article (which also received coverage in the local ‘Worthing Herald’ of December 2nd) was the report of a talk by my grandfather, Arthur Linfield (1885-1974) to fellow members of the Worthing Rotary Club.

As a prominent local grower in the town – his father had started a nursery business in the early 1880s – Arthur had an ingenious solution to the "intolerable nuisance caused by the weed being left lying on the foreshore". In response to a discussion on the seaweed problem which was opened by the local Medical Officer of Health, Dr. R.H. Wilshaw, Arthur made a suggestion that the valuable "manurial properties" of the seaweed "could be utilised for the establishment of an important new branch of the market gardening industry of Worthing". There were two crops which particularly liked seaweed – asparagus and seakale – and since there was a greater demand for these delicacies than was presently being met, he urged a co-operative alliance of local growers, scientists and the town council to carry out a series of experiments. Seaweed also improved the flavour of these crops, and once these experiments had proved the value of seaweed – which he was sure they would – he envisaged that local growers would start to use it for certain crops.

Arthur also made some practical suggestions as to how the seaweed could be collected. A series of south-west gales might cast 30-40,000 tons of seaweed on Worthing’s five miles of foreshore – which gives an idea of the scale of the problem. He suggested that hay sweeps could be used to gather the seaweed. It would be stacked in large mounds along the foreshore, then pressed and baled to reduce its weight and bulk. Finally it could be taken to the roadside by conveyor belt or some other method and taken away by lorries. In days past, thousands of loads had been taken away by farmers but the sheer bulk of the material no longer made it an economical proposition. However, pressing and baling should overcome such a financial disincentive.

It is particularly interesting to reflect that nowadays "seaweed extract" is considered a particularly valuable fertiliser – especially among organic growers – because of the essential nutrients, trace elements and growth hormones it contains. Arthur’s remark that there was a greater need for more organic manure is fairly prophetic: chemical fertilisers had "definite limits of usefulness" since they did not supply any humus to the soil such as stable and farmyard manure. The tremendous upheaval of agriculture during the Second World War has dictated the pattern of farming for the last 50 years; successive governments have actively encouraged farmers to adopt destructive farming practices that have relied upon chemical fertilisers and pesticides to produce larger and larger quantities of cheap and inferior food. The costs have been enormous in terms of environmental damage and pollution, and not surprisingly the organic movement has gradually developed into a formidable alternative as consumers have started to question the prevailing systems of intensive food production.

Although Arthur’s ideas received a lot of favorable comments at the time, I don’t believe any serious attempt was made to put such a scheme into practice. The Borough Engineer Mr. PE Harvey, OBE – also a guest of the club at the luncheon – welcomed his proposals but saw problems in the fact that the seaweed was not deposited in regular quantities. In other words, would there actually be enough of this "unmitigated nuisance" to enable Mr. Linfield’s plan to succeed! He also thought it undesirable to have a baling, pressing and drying plant on the foreshore because of its environmental impact – although he did have in mind another spot where such a scheme might be more acceptable.

I have no idea whether there may have been any further local debate on this subject. Nothing actually happened, but there were a number of possible reasons for this – apart from the environmental objections. The 1930s saw a large exodus of Worthing growers to other parts of the county as the building value of their nurseries soared. The rapid expansion of the town to the east gradually absorbed dozens of nurseries that had sprung up from the 1880s when Worthing became the centre of the glasshouse industry. Certainly by the end of the decade, the Linfield nurseries had been completely re-located at Thakeham where a derelict farm had been purchased in 1913. Many other nurseries moved further west along the coastal plain where they retained the advantages of the more favourable climate and the fertile brick earth.

Not surprisingly, the idea of using seaweed to build up a new centre for growing asparagus and seakale was somewhat eclipsed by events – many growers were more preoccupied with setting up their new nurseries. Following the government’s imposition of a tariff on imported tomatoes, it was hardly surprising that a large number of growers decided to put all their resources into tomato production. In fact the 1930s were the heyday of the Worthing tomato. The outbreak of war in September 1939 probably extinguished the idea of a seaweed processing plant once and for all.

The Wonders of Seakale

As something of a diversion from the main topic of this article, I would like to say a few words about seakale. This particular vegetable is quite wonderful and I feel sure that anyone who has actually eaten it would agree with me. Although it was grown extensively in Victorian times – mainly in the gardens of the great houses – and continued to be produced by market gardeners until the Second World War, nowadays it is virtually unknown. The labour-intensive nature of its cultivation and the requirement to exclude light are good reasons for its neglect by modern growers. But it is not particularly difficult to grow, and well worth the trouble to raise a few plants in your garden.

According to my 1895 edition of Sutton’s Culture of Vegetables and Flowers, "Seakale is by many considered superior to asparagus, but it is so different in flavour and general character that we think there is no more room for a comparison than there is between a broccoli and a cabbage. Only one comparison, in our opinion, can be made with advantage, and it is that of the two sea kale is the more easy to cultivate, and the more decidedly profitable if regarded solely as an article of food". In its natural habitat, sea kale is a plant, which grows along the coasts of Northern Europe. It is a hardy perennial, which for centuries was harvested in the wild by people living on the south coast of England, much of it taken to market. From the early 18th century, it was cultivated in gardens to produce the delicious young spring shoots, which are so prized. These were traditionally blanched by covering them with earthenware pots. Nurserymen adapted these techniques to produce crops on a much larger scale – certainly at the Linfield nurseries before the last war, trenches were dug out in which the sea kale was planted along the bottom. To blanch the young shoots in early spring, the trenches were filled with spent mushroom compost, which successfully excluded the light without restricting plant growth.

Whatever method is used, it is best to completely cover the plants in January. Harvesting can commence in March or April – the pale yellow shoots are best cooked like asparagus, coated with melted butter (and I like to sprinkle them with plenty of grated Parmesan and black pepper!) Seakale is easy to grow: sow the seed in Spring, prick out into pots and then plant out into a deep sandy soil which is well drained. If your soil is heavy and drains badly, then it is best to plant them in a raised bed – and add plenty of organic matter and small stones or sand to aid drainage. It is best to wait until the second year before harvesting since this will help to establish strong plants, which should produce well for many years to come. During the Summer months, the plants should be fed with a regular application of liquid seaweed.

Two to three cuts can usually be taken from each plant. The plants are then allowed to grow in full light. They will last for about 5 years before replanting is necessary, and a good way to do this is to take root cuttings. Various methods can be used to blanch the shoots: apart from the traditional (and very expensive) forcing pots, a frame covered in black polythene can be used or the plants may be covered in a foot (30cm) of peat, leafmould or sand. I have also found that using large black plastic pots is quite adequate, as long as the holes are properly blocked up.

I have never come across seakale seeds in a garden centre, but they may be obtained from ‘Chase Organics’, whose full address is:

The Organic Gardening Catalogue,
Riverdene, Hersham, Surrey KT12 4RG.

The current price, from their 2001 catalogue is £1.32 (code: SEAK), for a packet containing 10 seeds. Since seakale is a brassica and belongs to the plant family Cruciferae, it is susceptible to clubroot – so remember to lime the soil during bed preparation.

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