Protecting Trees and Bushes with Bone Salve

The main threats to our woody perennials in the winter time are deer nibbles on the tips of branches and voles girdling the bark at the base of trees and shrubs.  For almost all of our young fruit trees we protect the base of the trunk with either hardware cloth or window screen guards.  However, guards can only protect so much of a trunk and heavy snow pack sometimes makes the level of vole travel above the gaurd.  Also, multi-branched shrubs such as blueberries can’t really be wrapped with gaurds, leaving them vulnerable to hungry sharp toothed rodents.  We are trying another approach to deter browsers above and below: bone salve.  This stinky goo made from the fire roasted marrow of bones is an old time Austrian practice brought to the attention of gardeners recently by permaculturist Sepp Holzer.  He claims that a tree painted with bone salve will deter browsers for up to 10 years without repeated application!  That is a strong claim.  I’ll be happy if it works for 1 year and becomes an annual ritual.  We made some bone salve in 2014, but didn’t get around to applying it until there was already some deer browsing and too much snow on the ground to get it painted on the tree bases where it was really needed.  It did seem to stop deer browsing, but it was a challenge to tell for sure where tips had already been nipped.  So this year we have made a fresh batch, and have it fully applied to branch tips and trunks and we’ll see if damage is decreased or stopped over the winter.  We invited the NEK VT Permauclture Group over for the bone salve making process, and several other participants will be trying out the bone salve on their own properties as well.  Here is the basic process of making bone salve:


Dig a hole in a fire safe spot and sink in a heavy pot (you will need 2 matching pots for this, we have 2 dutch ovens for this pupose only as they get stinky)- put a little water in the bottom, about 1/2 cup


Fill the other pot with fresh bones, preferrably bones with lots of marrow (these are beef leg bones).  Cover the pot with hardware cloth, then flip it over on top of the pot in the ground, so the bones are suspended in the upper pot



Seal the the area where the 2 pots join with clay.  We used some kaolin clay mixed with water because it is what we had on hand, but probably any kind of clay will do as long as it is sticky enough to stay on 



Push soil around the juncture of the 2 pots


Build a fire on top


We tried to have a fire burning for several hours, so when this original tepee burned down we did add some more wood.  Sepp Holzer cautions not to build too huge of a fire and to be careful adding wood, not to knock the pots because there is hot fat under pressure inside that could possibly explode.  After the fire died down we threw soil over the mound and let it rest over night.


In the morning the pots were excavated and charred bones taken off the top, stinky goo collected in the bottom pot


The yield was around a little less than a quart of bone salve smelling like charred grill/ bottom of a dirty trash can


Bone salve jarred up for distribution.  Add oil, around 1:1 to thin out (any vegetable based oil will do, we usually have some rancid herbal oils around that get used for things like this)


Using an old paint brush we painted all the trees and bushes, except raspberries.  We focused mostly on the trunk of trees then just dabbed a bit at the tips of branches.


Painting the bases and dabbing the tips of blueberry bushes.


We’ll let you know how the experiment goes come spring!

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One Response to Protecting Trees and Bushes with Bone Salve

  1. Deborah Hartt says:

    I was sorry to have missed this event, but what a concise and interesting write up! Thank you for all your efforts and hard work. It is so interesting to learn things like this. Peace, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

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