Sunset

If life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and if life gives you sardines, you make fish emulsion, right?

I’ve been working on a story on cooking fresh sardines and other little fish, and had every intention of cooking each fish I bought. But Celebration Weekend came along, with 20,000 people to welcome to our campus. So on Sunday evening, I found myself with 15 pounds of fish that were way beyond fresh. Not wanting to waste them, but unsure of the plan, I naturally brought them home.

My cat was positively frisky at the possibilities. My human family, on the other hand, complained. Loudly. I needed to get those fish out of the house fast.

It would take way too long to bury each fish Squanto-style.

Squanto, teaching the Pilgrims to grow corn

Why not try making fish emulsion, I thought, that gooey brown paste that’s such a good source of nitrogen for garden plants? It sounded easy, based on instructions from GardenWeb, and best of all, I had everything I needed--including an airtight container--to get it started.

So here's my version of the project so far. Be warned: This stuff stinks when you're working with it! And you’ve gotta let it rot at least 2 weeks. Mine is sealed up tight in a far corner of the garden. I’ll let you know how it comes along—and who—or what—comes to check it out.

Homemade fish emulsion

Based on the instructions from GardenWeb. This is a big batch, but I'm guessing it would work fine to make less. The final emulsion needs to be diluted at least by half before you apply it to soil or foliage.

Large airtight container*

3 parts (by volume) brown compostables like shredded leaves to help control odors and capture nitrogen from the fish

1 part (by volume) small whole fish, fish trimmings, and guts; I used about 15 pounds

Molasses to speed up microbial growth and help neutrialize odors; I used a 15 oz. bottle of blackstrap


Ingredients for fish emulsion

1. Working outdoors, fill the bucket about one-third of the way with brown compostables.

2. Add the fish, molasses, and the rest of the compostables, plus a little water if it looks dry.


I attempted to stir with a stick before adding more compost, but couldn't turn the fish.

3. Seal the bucket tightly, then put it in a garden bed (to catch any stinky drips) and turn it over briskly several times to mix everything well.

4. Each day, repeat those brisk turns and open it to let some air in, continuing until all the fish are broken down, about 2 weeks depending on temperature.

*I used The Vittles Vault, purchased at a pet food store.

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