In Brittany, on the coast of France, you’ll find what some call the sweetest, best onions grown in all the world.
There, a world-renown tradition is hanging on in an age of renewed interest in small-scale farming. The “Onion Johnnies” are Breton farmers who string together their onions and travel to England, where they hawk their popular pink onions the streets, often wearing their famous striped sweaters and berets. Sure, the look has become familiar the world over, but without a great onion, they couldn’t have created their onion empire across the English Channel.
What is the secret behind these world-renown onions that are so sweet and savory that one can eat them raw, like an apple?
The old farmers will tell you it’s the kelp used to fertilize their crops.
A natural bounty
I live walking distance from the incredible northern Pacific Ocean, where kelp beds thrive. It’s not unusual to go down during windy fall or spring weather, or shortly after the wind dies, and find kelp-harvesters scoring freshly-blown in kelp.
Just last week I visited the seashore as a young chef and hobby gardener scrambled over the rocks in his orange Crocs on a kelp quest, brandishing a plastic garbage can and a machete. It’d been a windy morning and the coast was strewn with fresh, slimy kelp whips.
A good kelp harvester knows the machete is a must-have, because the whip-like kelp is ripped from the seabed by rough seas and the stormy westerlies, which cast them landward here. They hit shore in a knotty mess, making the machete a necessity for all the hacking. Much is needed for a decent-sized garden and it gets heavy, so the garbage can is a pretty goo thing to have too.
Listen to the elders
I’ve seen old men and women down there, too. Last year the older fella pictured here told me his neighbor had been swooning over and marvelling at the heights his plants attained. So full and rich and colorful, from flowers through to food, his garden was the envy of the neighborhood.
He told me of his plan to split his seaweed bounty with her. It would be a big surprise. He planned to prepare her fall beds for a successful spring of growing. His modus operandi included rinsing, then chopping the kelp into small pieces, and scattering it whole on the topsoil, where it would dry and decompose. The land would need some tilling come spring to work it all around, but the soil would be rich and filled with nutrients.
There’s a process
The young chef explained how he would only work with the freshest algae, not stuff found already dried further up the shore. In his view , he figured they sit there in the frequently-windy weather along our coast, with salt-spray landing on them, which then dries. Think about it — layer on layer of salt, all concentrating into the algae.
If that salt went into the soil, it’d be awful for pH balance, he explained. Too much salinity makes for unhappy earthworms, and unhappy earthworms don’t make for good soil. He said he’d fill his garbage cans first with kelp, then with water, and would let it sit overnight so extra salt would be drawn out.
More than one way to skin a kelp
I’ve never been blessed with a yard suited to gardening, but had I one here, I’d be all over seaweed. I’ve since learned people use it in different ways. Some partially burn it to create char, which they claim brings additional nutrients to the party. While everyone seems to rinse it first, others then dry it before cutting it up and spreading it around. Still others just rinse, hack, and spread the nearly-fresh algae all over, allowing nature to do its thing.
I used kelp-fortified soil I bought once, the last time I had a good herb garden, and my herbs grew taller, faster, and more lush than they ever had. It was the first time I learned how much difference the right soil could make.
Behind the magic of kelp
Nature is a mystical thing. We don’t always understand why magic happens, but in this case, we do.
Kelp is packed with awesome, that’s why the magic happens. Things like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium make kelp sort of like fertilizer on crack. These components generally are what you’re looking for in any fertilizer, but kelp has high levels of all three. It’s also filled with micronutrients and “bioactivators,” which help break down the soil so the plants absorb more goodness and quickly grow up big and strong.
This page tells us, for instance, that kelp even breaks down faster than grass and leaf clippings.
Growth of kelp
The best thing about kelp is that it’s among the world’s fastest-growing plants. In ideal conditions, it can grow a whopping two feet per day. Two feet per day! Typical growth is about three to five inches, though. Either way, you can relax if you’re gathering kelp from a beach because it’s one of the world’s most sustainable species. The only caveat is that some areas may have laws about what can be removed from seaside, so check with your coastal authorities.
Kelp is also totally organic, so you’ll be able to safely enjoy eating the fruits of your labors.
What’s not to love?
Organic, sustainable, often free — what’s not to love? From France’s legendary onion growers to the little old guy down the street, kelp is the ocean’s best kept secret your garden’s been dying to taste.