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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Guernsey

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Cooking the earth

Soil steaming
Soil steaming using grids
© Mr G Nicholson
The first mobile soil steriliser was produced around 1908 by Mr P F Dorey, but it required all the soil to be dug up and wheeled out of the greenhouses to be steamed. A more practical method of steaming the soil in situ was introduced in the 1920s, and for the next 50 years, from October to December, an army of men would steam the soil before the planting of the new crop, using over 100 “loco-type” boilers day and night. These “steaming men” had to be strong and hardworking, for their unusual job was not the most pleasant of tasks….

Steaming men

Various methods of soil steaming were developed over the years, the most common method probably that of using “grids”, whereby steam was piped from the boiler into metal grids buried up to 18 inches deep in the greenhouse soil. The steam escaped through small holes in these grids, sterilising the soil as it passed through it. Normally five grids were buried alongside each other across the greenhouse, and while one section of the ground was being “cooked” the next five grids would be buried in preparation. Each “cook” took about 45 minutes, and an average greenhouse could take anything up to 24 hours to steam thoroughly – it was very labour intensive.

Boilers like this one were used to produce the steam
© Mr G Nicholson
Every year, the grower would hire the boiler for steaming from a specialist company like Gilroys. These boilers were a common sight on the island’s roads in winter months, as they were towed from one grower to another as soon as a job was done, even in the middle of the night sometimes. Three men worked with each boiler – one stoker, who was usually provided by the boiler company, and two grid men. In the days of coal, a lot could depend on the stoker – “with a bad stoker you did not have as much steam, and so you couldn’t steam as efficiently”, remembers Tony, a Guernsey grower.

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