Sustainable Living

Fertilizing Your Garden with Fish

Squanto or Tisquantum teaching the Plymouth about fish

Image via Wikipedia

Fertilizers have come a long way since the beginning of agriculture. Much of what we are putting in our soil nowadays is a combination of synthetic compounds and chemicals. Fish fertilizers offer an organic solution for effectively providing nutrients to the soil naturally.

The thought of fish fertilizer has some of us gardeners plugging our noses! While it is true that some fish products are unfriendly to the nose, they have a lot to offer the garden. As elementary students we learned of Native Americans like Squanto, showing the pilgrims to use fish (Herring) to fertilize their crops. Some stories suggest that each kernel of corn planted was put into the mouth of a fish and the whole things was planted.

In this article I am going to tell you what fish fertilizer is, the rights kinds of fish to use for fertilizer, and advantages as well as disadvantages of using fish fertilizer.

What Exactly is Fish Fertilizer?

First and foremost fish fertilizer can come from your own catch. As a child I recall a big garden covering most of the backyard, and whatever “junk fish” my father caught throughout the day would more than likely become fish fertilizer.

Next there are the store bought fish fertilizers. One form of fertilizer called fish meal, is made by grinding fish carcasses after most of the oils have been removed. The waste water left over from fish meal can be made into a slime-like gel substance made into fish emulsion which can also be used as fertilizer. Usually only junk fish are used to make fish emulsions.

Next there are Fish Hydrolysates. This form of fertilizer uses whole fish and enzymes to break down the meat and bones of the fish. Afterwards, phosphoric acid is mixed in to help control the enzymes from over digesting the fish, as a result the PH is low and the smell is not as bad as other fish fertilizers.

It is important to know that all fertilizers out there are not selling the same product. Some fish fertilizers use fillers such as seaweed, or ground up sea shells. Make sure you review product information before you buy.

Which Fish are Suitable to use?

Now that you have a background of what fish fertilizer is, let’s take a look at what kind of fish you will be using. When it comes to fish, commercially, there are two options for companies to sell fish.

Fish fertilizer

The first is the fish that people eat. These are usually all the fish that you know about like tuna, sardines, tilapia, and salmon. Now in many instances some of those fish are used in fish fertilizer in some way. This can be from a lack of demand for human consumption, or just the scraps being used like head, scales, and fins. Most of what is used in fish fertilizer is junk fish, scraps, or fish that cannot be consumed by humans because of high toxicity levels. For example menhaden spend a great portion of their lives in water that is contaminated with metals. Therefore they make perfect fertilizer, but not the perfect meal.

Fish fertilizer has many advantages for you and your garden. On top of that, a hidden advantage is the benefits it is doing for the mini ecosystem that is your backyard. Fish fertilizer is simply one of the best ways to grow quality crops and help renew the nutrients in your soil.

Fish fertilizer can also be 100% organic if you are self fertilizing or find the right brand to use. Fish fertilizers are have slower release rates than other types of fertilizer, therefore do not have to be applied nearly as often. When applying fertilizer like fish hydrolysates you are coming about as close as you can to burying a whole fish. Microbes love to feed on the organic matter and this makes for very healthy soil and very healthy plants. While fish fertilizer has a lot to offer there is also a downside.

Some Things to Watch our for

Using fish fertilizer comes with some disadvantages as well. The first thing you will notice is the smell, which unless you have the most sensitive nose in the world, can be manageable. Another common objection is the over fishing and the sustainability of certain fish used. A lot of growers are simply using only waste items and scraps from fish. Still then you can find the right fertilizers to buy just by doing a little research.

Another thing that may be a problem is toxins in fish from polluted waters. Most of these toxins come in metallic form and may even contain mercury. Fish that are more likely to be contaminated are the ones at the top of the food chain. Even still, plants that are not being consumed will have no negative effects but you still should do a little bit of background checking to see what you are putting into your garden.

Go Get Hooked!

Fish fertilizer can be an effective organic way to help grow healthy crops. There are many different forms and brand to chose from. One thing you might consider is catching a few fish and using them as fertilizer to test out the results. Beware of fertilizers advertising fish and really using filler content. Fish fertilizer can be a great way to achieve the maximum potential of your garden. Who knows, after a while you might get hooked on it!

How Well The Corn Prospered. Squanto Indian fish fertilizer

This article was written by Philip Russel. Philip helps to maintain a website that provides information and products for the treatment of Acne. In his spare time he enjoys gardening, and has planted one or two tomatoes over a fish to help his tomatoes grow.
+Shane Genziuk

35 thoughts on “Fertilizing Your Garden with Fish

  1. Pingback: Can You Use Dead Fish As Fertilizer? – Gardening Mentor

  2. So, if you bury the fish at the same time you plant, do you cover the fish with more dirt before you put the seeds in the ground? If you don’t will the seeds rot before sprouting?

    Also, didn’t the Native Americans have a planting method called something like ‘Three Sisters’? Where they buried a fish, then put in corn seeds, bean seeds, and potato cuttings? The corn would grow and the beans would use the stalks to climb on. I could have sworn I read that in a history book, but that would have been close to 40 years ago, and I cannot find anything at all on the interwebs.


    • Your close. The 3 sisters were white corn, beans which would grow up the corn, and squash. The squash leaves would block the growth of weeds. I used this style for my garden this year. We’ll see what happens.


  3. If you can bury fish for fertilizer is there any problem with trench composting other meats?

    If you bury fish or other meat waste in the fall will it be broken down and the garden ready to be planted on by the following spring time?


  4. I just found your article …we have an abundant supply of carp from the St Lawrence river …we buried fish last Fall and our garden was amazing this year …then it occurred to me about mercury contamination …so I’ll have to look into contamination levels here – carp being a large fish & all. We had a few coon dig some up but not much trouble with odor.


  5. EN Peru ya estamos utilizando fertilizantes líquidos de pescados, lo aplicamos por sistema de riego y en forma foliar, sirve para enraizar, antiestresante sobre todo haciendoles mas resistentes ante las sequías, inundaciones, exceso de sol, y siempre se incrementa la producción de todo cultivo, incluyendo césped, La empresa que produce se llama ECOCAMPO SAC y el nombtre comercial del producto es AMINOVIGOR


  6. Have you ever heard of Fogroff? It’s a pretty new fish fertilizer on the market, but I’ve heard some great things about it. It’s not super smelly and they use fish that are an invasive species so it helps the environment quite a bit.


    • I have an 18 acre lake and harvest a lot of fish. After cleaning the fish,I spade whats left into my compost pile. After 3 or 4 weeks it has become part of,and can be treated and used the same as the rest of the compost pile.


      • Great article! We bought a used food processor at a yard sale years ago to use just for things like this. We make a “fish tea” to water our garden and crops with. They grow like crazy and are super quality.


  7. I just started putting our carp catch into the garden beds, burying them about a spade deep. I wonder if that’ll work okay?


  8. Hi there. I live near Goondiwindi, Australia on the Qld/NSW border. Our western rivers have a huge problem with the introduced species European Carp. They outcompete our native fish for food and space in our rivers. I am a vegetarian so dont eat fish – but I do enjoy fishing for Carp and then using them as fertiliser. I have a tumbling compost bin and I put the carp into the bin and then spin the bin to cover the fish. After a few weeks the fish are gone. There is a bit of small for the first few days but that goes in time. I am about to start collecting coffee grounds again (use to do it) and think the coffee and fish together in the compost bin or worm bin will make an ideal combination. Silly thing is it is technically illegal to be in possesion of carp in Qld because they are a pest species – but on the other side of the river in NSW you can do it legally. Silly. We should encourage people to fish for carp and use them in compost and gardens. At least then they have some value. I can specifically target carp by fishing with kernels of corn on the hook. None of the native fish seem to touch it.


    • That is a great thing you are doing Hamish, as those carp are a real problem in our waterways. Out of anything you would consider ‘meat’, I’ve found fish to be the easiest thing to add to the compost, and I can confirm that it will go even better in the compost with coffee grounds. Best of luck with it mate, and pass on the word to all your friends up in Goondiwindi.


    • I dig a hole or trench about 6 inches deep. I use pumpkin seed/sun fish that I catch. I put a fish in each hole or line the trench (about 7 fish for a 4 foot row) & cover them with dirt. I then transplant plants into each hole or plant seeds on top of the trenches(1/2-1″ deep). I do the same thing in my window boxes.
      I have never had anything dig them up, nor have I ever had any odor problem. I think one of the secrets of no critters bothering them is to make sure there is no fish residue on the top of the ground. I keep them in a bucket when I am ‘planting’ them, & use salad tongs to place them in each hole.
      I often catch them prior to needing them, so I put them in a ziplock freezer bag & store them in the freezer until I’m ready to plant. So I usually put them in the ground partially frozen (no odor). I use about 250-300 fish each spring.
      I do not use any other kind of fertilizer the remainder of the season. I have beautiful flowers & very productive vegetables. The following spring when you dig up or rototill the garden, there is no trace of any of last year’s fish remains. I am 64 years old & followed this tradition from my father’s garden as a child.


  9. Pingback: Fermented Organic Waste with Corresponding Aromas… « My Shepherdstown

  10. Pingback: Eat What You Catch? : Fishing for Beginers and Advanced – General Fishing tips and Information

  11. Here in Kerala , which is a coastal state of South India, there has been a practice long in force, of adding fish around the root of coconut trees to make them give a better yield. The only thing is it makes you hold your nose for some days whenever the breeze brings in the smell.


  12. Pingback: $99 for Lawn Aeration and a Fertilization Treatment from Secure Turf ($259 Value) » Get your daily Groupon deals

  13. Well it makes sense given all the products that are derived from seaweed or fish. I use the seaweed extract on my plants to great effect and recommend it for all gardens,


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