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Seaweed in the Garden

How one Alaskan gardener uses seaweed to improve her soil.

The Baranof Island life of my Sitka soil-mate Florence Welsh all comes together in her kitchen garden. Since first starting the garden with future husband Pat in 1983, her primary goal has remained the same—growing good, clean food for their children. Enough produce is grown to provide the family of five with roughly 95 percent of their vegetable needs, and extras are grown to share with friends. Massive stands of delphiniums, foxgloves, peonies, poppies, and roses make a colorful backdrop for the vegetables and yield an abundance of flowers for basket arrangements that Florence gives to many lucky recipients in town.

Beyond the flowers lies the stormy north Pacific, which the Welsh family harvests extensively to further fill their pantry with pure foods. The ocean is also the source of the garden's fertility. Every year after the herring spawn in early spring, Florence and various family members spend a couple of days on the beach harvesting about one hundred wheelbarrow loads of seaweed mixed with herring roe. Then it all has to be spread and turned into the soil within a day to prevent it from turning into goo. Never a complainer, Florence describes the work on the beach as “dreamy” because of the nearby presence of sea lions, spouting whales, sea otters, returning songbirds, and mass quantities of screaming gulls.

Some organic gardeners get all righteous and make my eyes glaze over when they try to turn gardening—the art of horseplop and posies—into a religion, but Florence isn't preachy like that. The decision to garden organically came mainly from the “mothering thing” (it made sense to grow the purest food possible for her children), but the pioneer ethic played a part in the decision, too. She reasoned that it made no sense to go out and buy bags of fertilizer when she could make her own, and she knew that seaweed from a clean ocean would work.

An 80-foot change in elevation and an irregularly shaped lot meant the Welsh's land had to be reshaped considerably before the garden could be started. Luckily for Florence, Pat is a master builder of rock retaining walls. Was it love, or was it his backhoe? She wouldn't say, but I think the 28 retaining walls he built so she could have her garden says tons about his feelings for her. Their marriage is a partnership of complementary talents: he operates the backhoe while she rides in the bucket, planting arabis, aubrieta, and pansies in all those walls for the delight and enjoyment of the townspeople.

Sitka gets drenched with one hundred inches of annual rainfall, so installing a drainage system throughout the garden was a top priority. To improve soil drainage, copious quantities of sand have been added. All the beds were made with the same mix of equal parts topsoil (“wherever we can find it”), sand, and seaweed. Top-dressing the beds annually with seaweed adds even more sand, along with lots of bits of broken shells.

Born and raised in Boston, Florence found her natural home when she moved to Sitka in 1975. She says Alaska is a great place to be to satisfy her hunter-gatherer needs. Had she stayed in the big city, Pat says, she would have been a bag lady.