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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Guernsey

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Soil steaming c 1918
© The Peter Brehaut Collection
Cooking the earth

Horticulture has always been a mainstay of Guernsey’s economy, thanks to the island’s favourable climate. In fact, at one stage Guernsey became a veritable “glass island”, with 7% of its total surface area under glass by 1950. For much of the 20th Century, the island’s growing industry was dominated by one product in particular – the tomato, or the “Guernsey Tom”, as it is more affectionately known to locals.

A young boy picking tomatoes c 1920
© The Peter Brehaut Collection
At the industry’s height, millions of baskets of tomatoes were exported from the island each year and special “tomato trains” were even laid on at Southampton and Weymouth during peak periods, to cope with the sheer volume of tomatoes arriving from Guernsey.

Safe to eat?

Brought to Europe in the 1500s, the tomato probably arrived in Guernsey in the late-18th Century. At first it was grown merely as a decorative garden plant, as many people thought the fruit was poisonous. It was not until the 1860s, when medical practitioners began to extol the tomato’s medicinal properties, that demand for the fruit increased. Guernsey’s growers were quick to respond, and by the 1870s the tomato was being grown commercially on the island, soon replacing the more traditional vine in many Guernsey glasshouses.

Man on bike
Wicker baskets used to transport tomatoes were reused by growers
© The Peter Brehaut Collection
But Guernsey’s new crop was soon beset by problems, as soil-borne diseases like “Verticillium Wilt” took hold, causing plants to wilt and die. A remedy was quickly needed to stop the spread of these diseases, and several methods were tested in the early years with limited success, from “drenching” the soil in carbolic acid and water, to pouring boiling water over the ground.

The real breakthrough came in 1902, when Guernsey grower Mr Poat, inspired by what he had seen in nurseries in America and Norwich, made his first experiments in soil steaming - by baking soil in his mother’s oven! The plants subsequently raised in this soil were healthy, and over the next few years, through trial and error, developments were made which allowed larger quantities of soil to be sterilised by heat.

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