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Home Blog Alchemy
December 12th 2011

Alchemy

Written by
Floret
pouring bucket after bucket of fish guts onto the compost pile; not for the faint of heart.
A friend recently suggested that I don’t show enough of the raw, nitty gritty, behind the scenes action that goes into growing all of the beauty here on the farm. I argued that some of what we do is so gnarly, it might actually scare people away. She held fast to her opinion, finally daring me to show our newest and possibly ugliest passion.
Composting…ahem….fish waste.
Well I’m a sucker for a good dare, so, here we go.
Columbine harvest this spring.Many stems reached 4ft.
In order to get really amazing flower crops, we put a lot of effort into creating the healthiest environment possible. Starting with the soil we add in loads of rich compost, minerals and microorganisms so each plant can grow to its healthiest potential.
This season after failing to get our compost piles hot enough we started experimenting with different types of nitrogen.

Horse manure, while readily available, just didn’t give us enough heat. Neither did our chicken coop bedding, grass clipping or garden scraps. 

Finally after much digging, we found something with enough kick for the job. Fish guts!
spreading fish guts is totally gross but it sure does make you feel like a bad ass.
You know you’re a nerd when you Google “how to compost fish waste” and spend mornings calling every seafood processing company within 100 miles asking to speak with their manager about the possibility of hauling away their “leftovers”!

Finally after a dozen unsuccessful tries I found a processing plant that would hear me out. While it did take a bit of explaining, the manager finally agreed. The looks on the employees faces when we pulled away was priceless! You could tell they were totally mystified.

Chris flinging fish guts, heads and tails onto the pile

Once we had a direct line on a strong nitrogen source we then started scouting the neighborhood for additional ingredients. While our farm produces quite a bit of bulk it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy this new en devour. In order to balance out multiple tons of fish sludge we needed to quadruple or even quintuple our stock. 
Two massive piles of horse manure, a truck load of leaves, 15 bales of rotten hay and 11 heaping truck loads of weeds later we were in business.

Layering (over and over) fresh green stems/stalks/leaves with lots of dry brown material and then a thick layer of fish we made a 75 ft. long windrow of yumminess.

In my composting notes I wrote:
BE SURE TO SPREAD THE FISH IMMEDIATELY,EVEN IF IT’S AFTER DARK! THE LONGER YOU WAIT, THE MORE STRONG IT SMELLS!
Holy smokes did it reek! Especially when I put off the dreaded task of emptying the bin for 2 days during a warm week in September. I certainly learned my lesson on procrastinating ;)
‘Winter Sunshine’ Sweet Peas from the greenhouse.
It amazes me that something so disgusting can be transformed and ultimately support and nurture such beauty.
June sweet pea harvest.
The definition of Alchemy perfectly describes what I’ve witnessed: “The magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.”
 
Only two days after we layered all of the ingredients together, the pile was hovering at a whopping 165*!!

 

For proper hot composting you want to get your pile heated up to 158-180* and then turn it every three days, incorporating all of the ingredients thoroughly throughout the pile. That way all of the pathogens and weed seeds can be killed by the high temperatures.

We expected that on the first few turns it would be an absolutely disgusting experience, with hunks of rotting fish, maggots and lots of smell. 
Ok, this is the craziest part. After just 3 days of cooking, we couldn’t find a trace of the fish anywhere. Entire heads, spines, tails….gone, completely vanished.

Chris turning the pile after work
The pile has been simmering out in the back field for a  few months now. By February it will make its way into our potting soil mix, the greenhouses and new planting beds.Taking something that would have otherwise been wasted or potentially toxic and transforming it into a life giving and enhancing form is so incredibly inspiring.

So, there you have it. Reincarnation at its finest and the truth behind the beauty here at Floret .

the pile as of this week.slowly simmering and waiting for spring when it will reincarnate into an abundance of flowers :)

28 Comments

  1. Melanie on

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Live in Eastern NC and found a source for twice a week pick up of fish guts on my first ask!! Have received the course materials and very excited to be starting your Floret Online Workshop next month!

    Reply
  2. Casey on

    You mention compost tea in the notebook. Is there a specific brand that you would recommend?

    Reply
  3. Shawndra on

    Give your friend a big kiss, this was a great article and so helpful to see. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Julia Hails on

    Did you have any problems with flies at all during the process? Not sure if this would work in Australia, but would be keen to give it a go!!! Love these informative posts – where do you find the time!?!?!?

    Reply
    • Floret on

      Surprisingly we didn’t have too much trouble with them at all!

  5. Jonathan Leiss on

    Erin,

    I saw in one of your comments that you’re hoping to write a post about compost tea. I’d really be interested to learn about your tea regimen and how it works for your flowers.

    Jonathan

    Reply
  6. VillageRat on

    As someone who is up in Alaska, Bristol Bay, and farms,. married to a commercial fisherman, and help run a fish processing plant….I LOVE THIS!!

    Hope you are still doing this and loving it.

    Reply
  7. Hedgerow Rose on

    Speechless. And so inspired! (yes, a story about fish guts inspired me so I must be a nerd, too. )

    Reply
  8. Janet on

    Disgusting, and totally AWESOME!

    Reply
  9. megan on

    gross and amazing. You really are a badass.

    Reply
  10. Tara McHugh Flora on

    The smell of all those sweet peas must have been heavenly!! I am a new reader to your blog and loving it!

    Reply
  11. alicia.. on

    absolutely fascinating. I learned so much about composting in this post, thank you.

    Reply
  12. ykserene on

    WOW! What a transmutation! I didn't even dreamed of beautiful flowers would come from this kind of process… and vegetables. So vegetarians are not purely ingesting plants. Plants composed of some parts from animals…

    Thank you for your eye-opening post!

    Many blessings to you for making the world beautiful!

    Reply
  13. Bow Street Flowers on

    Love the disgusting parts. Composting is alchemy for sure. Bad ass indeed!

    Reply
  14. Jessica :: Delicatessen on

    Gross, but this post makes me appreciate flowers even more. High maintenance those beauties are.

    Reply
  15. webb on

    That is totally disgusting, and miraculous! Makes my little backyard pile look like an anthill. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  16. botanical brouhaha on

    One of my favorite posts ever! I just THOUGHT I respected you before…now I think you should be the President…of the world. You're amazing! Not many people could look that good on a pile of fish guts :) Can't wait to see the flowers this Spring.

    Reply
  17. Bare Mtn Farm on

    It takes real guts(pun intended)to show the unglamorous side of raising beautiful flowers. Great pictures and descriptions to a stinky but very productive method of sustainability. The dare has been completed very nicely. You all really kicked butt!!!

    Reply
  18. Clare Day Flowers on

    Fascinating! I'm not sure if it's going to give you the same level of nitrogen as fish guts, but we use primarily okara – it's the by product of making tofu. we get tonnes of it locally, all free. It smells too but it's amazing because it doesn't burn plants like many manures. you can apply it to crops, or to clean soil, or compost it. It breaks down really quickly and is one of the best nitrogen sources i've ever found. My flowers love it.

    Reply
  19. Botanique on

    A much appreciated post- it is nice to see the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes reality…. it makes the flowers that much more beautiful (if that is even possible)!

    Reply
  20. Becca on

    A whole new spin on the circle of life!!! Those fish didn't die in vain at all! :)
    I LOVE IT!

    Reply
  21. Shanti on

    I love this! Gnarly is good and you do look like badass. I wish there were more fish parts available in Arizona. Will just have to keep using other stinky compost ingredients, blood, chicken feathers, lots of animal poop.

    Reply
  22. Julie on

    WOW. I use fish emulsion in our greenhouses for the seedlings, and the smell of that can knock you flat. You are a good steward of the Earth–and you'll have the most amazing crop of flowers as a reward for all that stinky work! Love the down-and-dirty post!

    Reply
  23. K. Barber on

    If you can get your hands on shrip shells or crab those work well too. My dad used both on his garden for years and the soil still grows huge lush plants even years after. We live near the ocean so he use to go and get loads and loads of sea weed and put on the garden. The neighbors weren't so sure about the smell though.

    Reply
  24. flwrjane on

    Wow. You are intrepid.

    xo Jane

    Reply
  25. Lotte and Bloom on

    so glad you took up the dare. fascinating to see the gnarly stuff. more, please…x

    Reply

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