Fish fertilizer or emulsion is a wonderful product for promoting plant growth. You can buy fish emulsion at your local gardening store. I prefer to make my own, it’s easy, cheap and has more nutrients and beneficial bacteria than the commercially produced products. The disadvantage is that when made properly it stinks.

I have a two acre plot with several flowerbeds and make fish emulsion in a five gallon container, twice a year. This is more than enough for me, so if your yard is smaller you can cut this recipe to fit your needs or give some away to a friend whose yard could use a boost.

Everything you need can be found at your local gardening center, grocery store or yard:

Two five gallon containers with lids, you can do this with one, but trust me, get two

Fine mess screen, 12×12 will do

Enough manure or sawdust to fill one bucket half way or leaves to fill it two thirds of the way as this is not as dense

Blackstrap molasses, seaweed and epsom salt are optional

One to one and a half pounds of fish, more on that later

Something to punch holes in the lid

A large strainer


Start by preparing one of the containers. The fish emulsion is a byproduct of biodegrading and as such it sought of brews. The result of the brewing is a buildup of gases so you want to punch small holes, about a dozen in the lid of the container. Since it is going to stink you will use the screen to keep the flies out of the bucket. You can either cut the screen to fit the inside of the lid and attach it with glue or a sturdy stapler, anything that works for you or you can simply let it overlap the lid of the bucket and tighten it in place when you screw on the lid. That’s it for container prep.

Fill the bucket half way with a compost material, you can use any combination you want. I prefer manure, but I most warn you it adds to the smell of the finished product.

Next you are going to need some fish. You can use about ten cans of something cheap like herring or anchovies. You can also buy or catch a whole fish, about a pound and a half, get the least expensive. If you use a whole fish chop it up, bones and all, the more surface there is the quicker it will decompose.

If you really want to speed up the process, by about a week, you can make a puree out of the herring or anchovies first. Add the fish to the container.

Finish filling the container with water, leaving two or three inches from the top (you are going to have to stir and you don’t want to splash). That’s the basic recipe, yet some gardeners use additives.

Seaweed – two to three cups fresh or a cup of dried (you can find it at an Asian market if its not at your usually place) – is said to boost the effectiveness of the mixture.

Blackstrap molasses – a quarter to a half cup – will provide sugars and minerals to the fermenting process. The sugar will also help with the odor, but if your fish emulsion doesn’t smell you did something wrong.

Epsom salts – one tablespoon will add extra sulfur and magnesium, have your soil tested to see if your yard requires it.

My friend Maddy, owner of At the Garden’s Gate in Lindley, SC, puts in lavender from her garden and swears it makes a difference. I don’t smell it, but she’s convinced and you might be too.

Stir thoroughly and cover. Stir once a week thereafter. It will be ready in a month.

Whatever you do don’t ladle the mix directly into your garden. Before you use it you must separate the solids from the liquid. There are several schools of thought as to how to use your fish emulsion. You can fill some cheese cloth and squeeze it over a funnel inserted in empty soda bottles. Now, I like to get dirty, but even I’m not getting that into the process. You can use a small strainer over the funnel, less messy. But for me it’s still too much work and too time consuming.

This is where the second bucket comes in. Take your large strainer, one that can balance on the bucket without the need to be held. Slowly pour the liquid from one container into the other. Scoop the solids into the strainer and then go do something else while gravity does its thing and the liquid drips into the container. When it stops dripping compress it to get as much liquid out as possible. Don’t throw the solids away, put them in your compost. Repeat the process until you’re done.

To use the emulsion mix two tablespoons per gallon of water and drench the ground around your plants or add it to a disperser attached to your hose and water the lawn. Use a quarter tablespoon to a gallon of water and spray it on the leaves. Apply every two to four weeks.

It may be time consuming, but for a little work and money your lawn will be the envy of everyone that drives by.