Every savvy survival gardener knows that the key to better produce is in the dirt. Plant based compost is a great addition to most garden soils and an obvious amendment that most folks know. But some of the best natural fertilizer comes from the parts of fish and wild game anglers and hunters don’t eat. If you want to build a better garden there are a variety of leftovers from the fish you catch and critters you kill to utilize. Here are eight items you might otherwise discard that will make your garden grow.
1. Find a New Use For Fur
Nitrogen is necessary for healthy greenery, like leaves and stems. Phosphorus is required for flower and fruit growth. Potassium is one of the keys to a plant’s vigorous root growth. When you buy fertilizer at the garden center, the label will provide an NPK number. This shows the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in that order. A common commercial product might be something like a 10-10-10 fertilizer. This provides equal and generous amounts of the three main plant nutrients. You can also get a large dose of slow-releasing phosphorus from hair and fur. These animal materials can still be on the hide, or they can be loose. You might have loose animal hair as a result of scraping hides for “hair off” tanning, or you may soak hides in a bucket of water for a few days until the hair falls out naturally. When blended and buried into garden soil, animal hair will break down slowly over a period of years. This offers your vegetables a prime nutrient for flower growth, which leads to fruit growth. I know you’re trying to grow food in a survival garden, not pretty flowers, but the fruit can’t form if the flower isn’t there to be pollenated. To be a successful food grower, you need to become both a dirt and a flower grower.
2. Pluck a Bird
Killing a spring gobbler can be beneficial for your garden. Feathers are very similar in composition to hair. These can be plucked from the bird (a quick dip in scalding water will help significantly), or you can skin the bird. Bury whole skins in strategic garden spots, like under new fruit trees. Loose feathers can be dampened and tilled into the garden soil (don’t try to run the tiller over dry feathers, as they’ll all blow away). However you get them into the ground, feathers will slowly decompose and enrich the dirt. Like hair, feathers provide phosphorus and a few other trace minerals (like magnesium).
3. Sink Some Shells
In coastal areas, shellfish are an important food resource. In survival situations and everyday life, clams, oysters, and mussels provide vital protein. These shells can be useful as spoons, oil lamps, scrapers, scoops, and other utilitarian items. They can also be crushed and incorporated into your garden soil. The shell pieces will break down into the soil, releasing very important minerals and enriching the dirt. One of the key substances that shells release is calcium. This is an element that can limit blossom end rot in tomatoes, and it’s also a major player in the sweetness of fruit. Consider digging an extra deep hole for fruit trees and berry bushes, and adding a generous amount of crushed shells into the loose dirt before planting perennials. Shells provide both calcium and phosphorus to your hungry vegetables and fruiting woody plants.
4. Bury Wild Game Bones
Contributing both calcium and phosphorus to your garden, animal bones are another long lasting soil addition. Over the course of many years, whole bones and bone pieces will slowly release these nutrients (and small amounts of magnesium). These elements can be made available more quickly by crushing the bones into little bits. Try crushing them with a big hammer, using a large rock as an anvil. This can be done right in your garden beds and rows, so that every bit of bone dust and all the little bone pieces end up in the garden soil, right where you want them. Wear gloves and goggles to protect your eyes and skin from sharp bone shards. You’ll also want to wear a dust mask, as bone dust is not a healthy substance to breathe.
5. Save Animal Blood
While you can buy a bag of dried blood powder at most garden centers, this resource is not for everyone. For some folks, adding animal blood will go against their practices of faith. For other folks, it’s just plain gross. If neither of these issues are problematic for you, put a pan under wild game while butchering it to catch the blood. This can be poured throughout the garden after collecting it, even in the colder months. Although blood lacks phosphorus and potassium, it’s very high in nitrogen. This does dissipate and break down quickly, so if you can make space in your chest freezer, add your collected blood to a bucket and make a springtime application (ideally, just prior to working your soil). This will give you the maximum benefit of the blood, without wasting any of the nitrogen outside of the growing season.
6. Fertilize With Fish Leftovers
If you’re not opposed to horrible smells, then you can take full advantage of the fishy leftovers from a bountiful ice fishing excursion or early spring fishing trip. You can turn these unwanted fish parts into fish emulsion. Add thin layers of fish guts and sawdust, in equal amounts to a five-gallon bucket. Stop when your about two-thirds of the way up the bucket. Some folks will drizzle in unsulfured molasses, or layer a little seaweed throughout the bucket. The fish and the organic “brown” material are the key players, however. If it’s still many months before your growing season starts, put a lid on the bucket and toss it in the chest freezer.
If you’re one month or less away from the growing season, start the “brewing” process. Leave the fish and sawdust layers in place, and fill the bucket to the top with water and cap with a tight-fitting lid. Open and stir the bucket every few days, keeping it in a shady spot. Keep another bucket handy, in case you vomit from the foul odor (I’m not kidding). Keep the lid on your fish bucket and stir twice a week for one month. After a month, pour off the water from this reeking bucket. That’s your concentrated fish emulsion. Add one cup of this rotten liquid to one gallon of water and use it to water your plants (preferably, don’t get it directly on any leaves or vegetables you plan to eat raw). This stinking stew provides a healthy shot of nitrogen and respectable amounts of phosphorus, potassium, and calcium.
Read Next: How To Start Your Own Survival Garden
7. Bury Fish Heads
You might remember your elementary school lessons about the Native Americans teaching the Pilgrims about corn, and using fish heads and guts as fertilizer. It’s a vivid memory for me, as I believe it was the first “gross out” lesson I learned in school. This odd practice wasn’t exclusive to the Native Americans (and a few historians contradict the story entirely). We do know that the Romans used the technique of fish as fertilizer, along with other ancient cultures.
You can skip the nastiness of making fish emulsion by simply burying your fish heads, guts and bones in the garden (if it’s fenced so that nothing can dig them up). You can do this at the time of seed planting, or just prior to it. Again, defense is the key to your success. You don’t need foxes, coyotes, or even the family hound digging up your garden beds and flinging your tender seedlings out of the soil.
8. Make a Compost Pile
When you make your own compost, you’re becoming a dirt farmer. This “black gold” is somewhat decomposed organic plant and animal material. It’s not completely broken down, but it’s a potent supplier of useful microorganisms, enzymes, and fungi. Compost can break down quickly (in less than one month), with the right ratios of materials, ample heat, and just the right amount of water. Or it can take a year or more to become rich in nutrients. Compost essentially creates itself, but it does benefit from our careful guidance. There’s a little more to it than just piling up a bunch of leaves.
To get the best reaction, you’ll want to balance the high-carbon materials with the nitrogen-rich materials, in a ratio of at least 25 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. The high-carbon items are dead, dry plant parts. Straw, wood chips, certain types of mulch, and chopped dead leaves are all great choices. The high-nitrogen part (or “green” materials) are things like fresh lawn clippings and kitchen scraps. These nitrogen sources can also be animal substances, like blood, animal feces, and urine. Whatever you’re using, the compost materials should be blended well and watered until they are damp.
Form a pile, ideally inside a fenced area (to keep out animals). Stir the pile with a pitchfork every few days to keep the oxygen level high. The pile should be quite warm, if properly built. This is due to the activity of the composting microorganisms. But even if you mess up your compost horribly, it will still turn into dirt (eventually). Just skip the meat and fat when adding animal materials to your compost pile. These do little more than drawing scavengers and they can propagate dangerous bacteria. Fats, in particular, are very slow to break down. Well-made compost is capable of improving your soil structure. It also offers necessary nutrients to your vegetable plants, corrects certain pH problems, and increases the population of beneficial organisms in the garden soil.