Monday, March 9, 2009

Adventures of a Fish Head

WARNING: Some of these images aren't for the faint of heart. I probably also wouldn't show them to your cat, unless you're okay with your cat licking your computer screen.

This weekend I planted my tomatoes and a few friends. Ever since I read this post from Grow Better Veggies, the blog for Love Apple Farms, a biodynamic farm near Santa Cruz, California, I've wanted to try this method of growing tomatoes. To quote the website,
Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, with an emphasis toward balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, and animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.

All that is great. But the real reason I wanted to try this method is because it just sounded like so much fun.

It helps that I'm also not at all squeamish around fish. My mother grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and some of my fondest memories are of fishing with my grandfather. By age five I knew how to eat a fried flounder without swallowing a bone. I could also scale with the best of them. Fileting was a little beyond my reach because, well, my grandfather thought it ill-advised to allow a five-year-old to wield a fileting knife. But I did a learn a little as I got older. So when I read about fish heads in the garden, I knew I was going to try it.By the time I read the post, however, I had already planted my soon-to-be-doomed tomatoes so I just tucked away this information and waited.

This week I sprang into action. I stopped by Quality Seafood on Airport Boulevard to ask if I could get some fish heads. I guess a request for fish heads isn't all that unusual. The counter guy said, "Sure, I use them in my garden too. Just call the morning you want them, and we'll set them aside."

He also told me about a local loofah farmer who regularly buys their fish guts to spread on his beds. I was surprised. Not about the fish guts. I mean, it's really just a rougher form of fish emulsion, but about the loofah farm. Who knew you farmed loofah?
I gathered all my collected supplies: eggshells I'd been gathering for weeks, aspirin, bone meal, some fertilizer, and the fish heads. (I got my six fish heads for free; when a friend found out, he was mad because when he wanted fish heads for soup, he had to buy them. Sometimes, it's good to be female.)

Late Saturday afternoon, I started planting.The fish head went in the hole first. These heads are much bigger than I was expecting. (I don't know what kind of fish they are. After the fact, I worried that the fish are mercury-filled, and I'll end up poisoning myself with my "organic" tomatoes. Oh well, they are planted now, and I am not unearthing them.)

I dug the hole as I deep as I could but have no picture because I could not hold back the dirt and the camera. Take my word for it. The head's in there.
Next I added the hand-crushed aspirin. In a full circle moment, I used a wine bottle waiting to become part of a new edging to crush the aspirin. Next came the bone meal and the fertilizer. I skipped the RootZone and worm castings mentioned in the post. This was already enough of an adventure.
Here's how the concoction looked before I added the tomato plant.
Here's the after photo of my Early Girl. I also planted Heatwave II (bought on a whim because the label said it would tolerate heat; the reviews I'm now reading pronounce its flavor "decent not outstanding"), purple Cherokee (because Renee had such good luck with them last year), Roma, Matt's wild cherry (recommended by many), and Arkansas Traveler (a last-minute, impulse buy).

I don't have pictures of planting the others because well, when you are handling massive fish heads there's so no easy way to keep your hands clean. I'm okay with fish guts and scales on me but insist on keeping them away from my fancy Nikon dSLR. Priorities, people.

I did direct my husband to snap a few pics of the fish and love this one. Gives new meaning to a fisheye lens.
The question now remains whether these remains will make any difference in my tomato production and quality. This year is already threatening to be hotter and drier than last year.

Considering the source of the information, I remain skeptical. Not that Cynthia and her team don't know what they are doing. But that Love Apple Farms is located in northern California. I think we're all acquainted with my thoughts on gardening in Heaven.

Last year Cynthia wrote about making sure you let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. I asked her asking her secret for keeping animals from eating the tomatoes before she could harvest them. Her very sweet reply (see below*) implied she didn't have that problem. Seriously? The birds and squirrels just pass on by her tomatoes, leaving them unscathed? Seriously?** Again, no wonder there are so many Austin garden bloggers.

*Here's Cynthia's response to my question last year about keeping bird and squirrels from eating the tomatoes:

How do you keep your tomatoes free from squirrel and bird attacks while you let them ripen? If I leave mine to ripen completely on the vine, the squirrels take a big bite out of them before I can pick them.

(I do have a dog, but the squirrels seem to know when she is inside.-)

Gosh, Vertie, that's awful that squirrels and birds get your tomatoes. I have heard of using statues of owls and flash tape to keep away birds (I don't know if those work). Squirrels, though, are harder. Short of enclosing your tomato patch with some sort of light weight structure (with a top), I don't know what to do about squirrels.

Because squirrels, raccoons, and birds do visit my yard and compost piles, I added New Mexico chile pepper on the soil around the tomato plants. So far nobody has dug up the plants in search of the fish heads.

I'll keep you posted.

**On Saturday, I staffed the master gardener plant clinic at the Sunshine Community Gardens plant sale. A woman from California came up and said that when she lived there, she never had any problem with birds or squirrels eating her tomatoes. When she moved to Austin last year, the birds ate a lot of the tomatoes. I went through the usual spiel of possible solutions (many mentioned by Cynthia above), commiserated, and mentioned the effect the drought was having on all animals.

Her husband then walked up and said they didn't have birds eating the tomatoes in California because he put Sevin on them. After I pushed my eyeballs back in, I gently nudged closer to him the city's Grow Green publication on pesticide toxicity and asked if Sevin is labeled for tomatoes. As a master gardener, I am not supposed to recommend organic techniques over chemical pesticides. I am just supposed to offer information, which I did. I think I might have also mentioned that one reason I grow my own tomatoes is to control what chemicals are used on them.


  1. There's no way this can be a short comment, Vertie. Sure hope you don't mind my jabbering about your fine post.
    Good luck with the new fertilizer plan! And congratulations on scoring some free fish heads! When I was a kid in school our history books said that Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to put fish heads in with their corn & beans. The idea is fun so please keep reporting!

    I won't try it myself because a)there's no way in the world I could dig the garden two-feet deep like the one in California and b)too many neighbors allow their cats & dogs to roam. Even if the pepper kept animals from digging up the beds, they might like the aroma so much they'd hang around and poop even more than usual.

    I've never lived anywhere without an assortment of beasts and birds trying to eat our tomatoes. And the zucchini, strawberries, cherries, peaches, pecans and melons, too - if we want to eat it, so do they. Is California really another planet???

    What is it about 'Arkansas Traveler' tomato? I bought one last weekend, too.

    Time for lunch and I sure am in the mood now for tuna salad.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  2. I was all, "Oooh, that's an idea I have to try!" And then I remembered how I've just spent months battling a raccoon problem and realized I'd better stick to stealing bagged leaves from the neighbors. ;P

    I hope it works, though! I wonder if maybe you could spray the plants with diluted garlic water or something that didn't smell good but wouldn't hurt anything. Do critters dislike garlic?

    Or maybe you could just put a bird feeding station somewhere else in the yard so they're distracted by the free food?

  3. I *love* this post.

    I'm with Lori, though, on being dubious about the fish heads. I think fish heads are a nifty idea and I'm not at all squeamish about trying it myself. But if the raccoons are tearing up my wood chip path to get to the grubs underneath, just imagine what they'd do to my tomatoes if I put a fish head underneath. I can't imagine it would be pretty.

    As for California...what magical planet is that on? It sounds like Eden before the fall--the lion lying down with the lamb and all that.

  4. First, those are wonderful pictures of those fish heads. My Dad always fished for bass and blue gill and buried the heads in our garden whenever he had some. I'm still at least two months and a week or so from planting my tomatoes (I haven't even started them inside yet!) so I might just scout around to see if I can find someplace to get some fish heads! Thanks for the idea.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  5. WOW... Points for the most interesting fertilization idea I have ever heard.

    To share a recommendation on tomatoes... try this product.

    Its a "better mousetrap" for staking your plants... though its so much simpler than everything else out there.

    Good luck and Happy gardening!

  6. That is a great post if only for the fish head photos. I wonder if the heads will attract MORE wildlife. Only time will tell- keep us updated.

    I put row cover over my tomatoes when they aresmall since I had some birds nipping off leaves. Then I decided to go ahead and cage them to possibly keep the air marauders from flying in. I also read about putting little strawberry baskets from the grocery store over them but all of my strawberries come in those clear plastic containers, not the old time baskets.

  7. renee (reneesroots)March 14, 2009 at 2:44 PM

    What fun, Vertie! Can't wait to see how your tomatoes respond. I bet they're going to love it!

  8. "I am not supposed to recommend organic techniques over chemical pesticides"

    Leaving aside the fact that I have no idea what a 'master gardener' is (sounds impressive though), I have another query:

    Help me out here, Vertie: I don't understand the above paragraph.

    At least I hope I don't.
    If I do, then this hullabaloo about Mrs. O and the crop association lady is beginning to make sense.

    Are you telling me that companies making pesticides have that kind of power??
    Even in this day and age??
    In that case we need a new Jane Dunlop or Rachel Carson.

  9. Hey, I was looking for posts from people who had tried the fish head method, and lo and behold- a fellow Austinite, talking about Quality Seafood, one of my favorite seafood places.

    Thanks so much. I'm going to read the rest of your blog to find out how it turned it. :D

  10. I do this every year and it works I first saw it on Martha Steward and I was skeptical at first but i yeild extremely large tomatoes. I had to threaten my father in law about wanting to pick them to fry, they were larger than a slice of bread I had one that you could take one slice and make two sndwiches out of it!! and that is no joke.

  11. I think I'll just use frozen Gorton's Fish Sticks. Less smelly. :)