Salmon In The Garden
As an organic gardener with a keen interest in wild Pacific salmon it seemed natural that I would try to find ways to link the two. Using fish as a garden fertilizer has a long, though probably quite smelly history. Stories abound of Native Americans planting a small fish such as a herring with every corn or bean seed. I can’t imagine doing it though without also attracting bears, raccoons, gulls, ravens and countless other critters. I picture them displacing seeds and upending plants as they unearth the irresistible ripe fish. Still, because fish are such a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus the results must have convinced them that this was worth the effort.
Even though I live right next to two anadromous rivers, wild fish are protected. Resident wildlife do a great job of consuming and scattering the spawned out salmon. I am not about to compete with or deprive them. So, buying a commercially produced fish fertilizer seemed like the answer. The obvious choice was a product called “Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. It is organic, natural and readily available; even neighboring Quilcene’s small hardware store carried it. With a name like Alaska, it had to be from wild fish, most likely salmon I thought.
“Ignorance is bliss” as they say. I could have continued to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer, imagining that wild salmon waste was nurturing my lettuces, broccoli, squash and tomato plants. However, a more careful examination of the label gave me reason to pause and question my assumptions. First, in small print it states that “Alaska” is the brand name of Central Garden and Pet Company; it did not necessarily refer to the place. Right below this, in larger print, it says it is “guaranteed” by Lilly Miller Brands of Georgia. ClearIy I needed to dig deeper.
As it turns out, the commonly available product sold as “Alaska Fish Fertilizer” has nothing to do with Alaska nor salmon. It took a bit of searching but I eventually discovered an article by Bill Ginn, “Marketing Coordinator, Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. If you are interested, the complete article is posted on the Rainy Side Gardeners website (rainyside.com/resources/fishfert.html). Here are the main things I learned from it.
The “fish” in Alaska Fish Fertilizer is virtually all menhaden (small, bony, oily and abundant, harvested in the Atlantic and Caribbean). The menhaden go through a process which separates the very valuable oil (which has the most protein and is used to make fish emulsion fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer) from the less valuable solids (which are made into fish meal, animal feeds and other products).
Processed menhadden fish oil is shipped across the country by rail to Renton, Washington where it is further processed (phosphoric acid added to keep pH low, chemicals to control odors), bottled and distributed to retail stores all over the country.
Salmon, as cannery waste, was part of the recipe fifty years ago when this product was first developed, some of it actually coming from Alaska. This is no longer the case because of high shipping costs, changes in the Alaskan fishing and processing industry, and the fact that it is “VERY” hard to mask the smell of salmon waste.
While Alaska Fish Fertilizer is not from Alaska, it is “natural” and “organic” (the chemicals added to control pH and odors make up less than 1% of the product and thus it meets organic labeling standards).
Oil based fish fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 5-1-1 or 5-2-2. Other products have lower ratios and are not organic because they use cheaper materials and processes as well as more than 1% of additional inputs. These products are usually called “amended fish emulsion” or “enzymatic fish emulsion”.
What to do? Is it possible to make the connection between your garden and wild salmon? The answer is a qualified yes.
While there are numerous fish based fertilizers out there, only three were promising with respect to salmon content. Alaska Fish Bone Fertilizer made in Palmer Alaska is a good product coming from the right place. However, it uses white cod as its base. I would assume it is cod from Alaskan waters, though their website did not state this.
“Alaska Salmon Fertilizer”, produced by a “team” of people based in Anchorage seemed like a good option. They promote it as “alive” meaning that “beneficial” bacterium (lactobacillus) are added. They have a facebook page (facebook.com/alaskasalmonfertilizer) and a website under development as of this writing. It was not clear how much their product costs nor how to get it. I would guess that the shipping cost alone would make it quite expensive. And the addition of the bacteria makes me wonder why it is added.
Finally, there is Alaska Bounty Farm in Naknek (on Bristol Bay, North America’s greatest sockeye salmon producing area). They are located right across from the Red Salmon Cannery and thus have easy access to lots of fish and fish byproducts, mostly salmon. They offer four “Alaska fisheries” based products (Liquid Fish Hydrolysate, Fish Bone Compost, Salmon Bone Meal, and Enriched Peat Moss). They have a phone number (520-780-7545) where one can place an order, but again, the shipping costs must be significant. If you are interested, go to their website http://www.alaskabounty.com.
On the website http://www.salmonproject.org I discovered a page dedicated to old time Alaskan’s gardening advice. It listed local garden clubs and groups throughout the state, where to find gardening know-how for Alaska’s unique climate and soil conditions. Their wisdom emphasized one important point: make do with what was locally available. They usually did not have the option of buying inputs ordered by phone and shipped incredible distances.
So, for me, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, I continue to look for a somewhat local product which is salmon based for my garden. In the meantime, I continue to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer as the most logical alternative, after all, while the fish may come from the other side of the continent, the product itself comes from relatively nearby.
And, I welcome suggestions from readers … not everything is on the internet … there just might be exactly what I am looking for nearby, maybe even in Quilcene.
Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Your writing inspires me.