Mulch for a potato empire

COMES now a fine letter from Donald Mainwaring, who tells of his student days in Scotland when he hied the harried haggis o'er the doon and watched old Ben Lomond toss the caber across Loch Bagel. He says the finest-flavored potatoes ever to grace his gullet were grown in Ayrshire on seaweed fertilizer, and he wonders why we, up to our ears in Maine seaweed, do not apply it to our potato gardens. Aye. A-weel, a-weel, Mon, the truth is that I want no better potatoes than the Green Mountains I grow on barnyard encouragement, laced by a slap of 5-10-10. I refer Mr. Mainwaring to his library for another look at that wise short tale by Nathaniel MacHawthorne, ``The Birthmark,'' which didacticates about perfecting perfection. As Bobbie Burns so well put it while ploughing in Ayrshire, mickel a muckel mookles a wheedly tardle. Just take ain o' my lovelies and gie it an unco bake, add a daud o' butter, and then ask what the poor people are eating! Seaweed, indeed.

On the other hand, seaweed -- rockweed in Maine -- has a salubrity when applied to sass, and its use is well understood here. More than one Highlander, and Lowlander too, came to cut fish in Maine's early days and felt immediately at home on our barren islands and along our rocky coast. A good Maine granite ledge is as good as any croft in peat-reeking Glen Uig, and the only way to sprout a seed in those days was to lay it on a rock and cover it with seaweed.

``Just like home!'' said every Scot in Maine, as he creeled rockweed. The potato cuttings could be laid in a row on the ledge, covered with rockweed, and in a day or three shoots would appear. That was it. As mulch, rockweed held the rain, kept down the weeds, and as decomposition accrued it nourished the crop. No cultivating, no hoeing. You could go to The Bank and fish cod all summer and come home to find your potatoes ready to dig. Except you didn't have to dig 'em -- just pull the rockweed away and there they were on the rock waiting to be picked up.

Rockweed gets torn by the action of the ocean, and the tides waft it to the shore. By spring a sort of windrow of rockweed lines the high-water mark, and with a pitchfork a man can soon gather enough for his garden. When used on good soil, decomposed rockweed makes excellent humus. But it is for casual gardens mostly, and those close to the water. Aroostook County, which is Maine's potato empire, lies too far inland for commercial use of rockweed. Then, coastal flavors are not always relished by highland people, and rockweed is biodegradable. As it lies moist and active in the hot summer sun, doing its all for the potatoes, the rich ooze that it generously adds to the tillage also imparts an olfactory effluvium to the periphery, so that a crow flying over will usually go around. The ungathered rockweed along the shore does the same thing, but is accepted by the tourists as oceanic ozone and healthful invigoration. Having your own tincture on your own garden in your own back yard is another matter, and a rockweed potato patch in a built-up section will likely reduce your popularity.

There's another consideration these days. Since the coast of Maine was bought up by summercaters, we regulars hesitate with some of our traditional and residual customs. I suppose there isn't a seasonal resident from the Piscataqua to the Passamaquoddy who has the slightest use for rockweed, except to cover an occasional clambake, but the appearance of somebody out front of the cottage gathering the stuff would cause some dismay. Summercaters tend to be possessive, even though private ownership ends at the tideline, right where rockweed begins. It would be awkward, I think, for a gardener to be faced with the haughty query, ``And what exactly do you think you're doing?'' Were I to go for rockweed, I think I would put my skiff in at the town landing and motor out to an untenanted island. That would take time and be a lot of work, so I'm back where I started.

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