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Grow Your Own Fertilizer

September 5th, 2016

I’m a big believer that as gardeners we grow soil more than we grow plants. That means most of my gardening budget is spent on soil amendments and good quality compost. I’m continually trying to come up with ways to lighten my work load and save myself money, so naturally this is one area I’m always trying to become more self-sufficient in. One of my favorite ways to save money is by growing my own fertilizers, mostly in the form of cover crops. Cover crops are great, but perennial dynamic accumulators are even better at maximizing time and money. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote about soil microbes for Northern Gardener magazine

“There is also a group of plants we can grow that are described as dynamic accumulators. These plants have deep roots that pull up macro and micronutrients from deep within the soil. Oddly enough, many of these have been classified as weeds, so pulling dandelion, dock, and other weeds and adding them to our compost piles is a great way to increase the micronutrient levels in our finished compost. There are a few dynamic accumulators that stand out more than others, comfrey is probably the most widely known and my particular favorite. I use it as a mulch, animal feed, and I plant it under all my fruit trees. Comfrey is a great source of silicon, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Other high value dynamic accumulators are: dandelion, eastern bracken, kelp, nettles, watercress, and plantain. Next time you see dandelions blooming in your lawn, think about all the copper and iron it is adding to your soil, when you see plantain, think about the calcium it’s adding.” 
comfrey
Comfrey is my all-time favorite homegrown fertilizer. I have a few different varieties of comfrey and am working on collecting as many as I can. I use comfrey in a variety of ways, some are more labor intensive than others. The easiest way to utilize comfrey in the garden is to use it as a companion plant. All of my fruit trees have a couple comfrey plants under them. Comfrey is tucked into empty corners in every perennial border. As it grows, dies back, and compost into the soil, it adds valuable nutrients. The large leaves provide a weed suppressing mulch as well. It is important to note that some varieties of comfrey can spread when flowering stems touch the ground, but there are varieties that are don’t (Russian Bocking 14). I haven’t found the old fashioned varieties to be invasive though. The majority of my comfrey plants have been propagated from a root cutting I got from my grandmother’s garden (it was growing in the garden when they moved into the house when my mom was a little girl).
comfrey 3
comfrey bloom (2)
I harvest my comfrey plants through the summer, most of the time I simply cut the leaves and use them to mulch around plants that I think need a little boost. Some people make compost tea with the leaves, but it has a pretty foul smell, and it takes time to make. I find that cutting the leaves and mulching around plants provides the same benefit without the extra time, effort, and with zero smell. The plants can be cut all the way back several times each summer.
comfrey 2
This summer I’ve been doing experiments with my tithonia in the back garden. Several of the plants were mulched with compost, the other were mulched with other weeds and material. As you can see, the plants on the right are much taller and are blooming much better than the ones on the left.
comfrey 4
tithonia
Another way to use comfrey is to put a few leaves into each planting hole. It really does make the plant establish roots quicker and grow faster than planting without. I haven’t tried experimenting with mulching around the plant vs. leaves in the planting hole. That’s a good project for next summer.
comfrey bloom (1)
In addition to being a fabulously useful plant, comfrey is a beautiful plant. It can be a real showstopper in the garden. It’s large, dark green, hairy leaves add a lot of interest. The purple flowers are loved by many pollinators, they seem to be a particular favorite of bumble bees. This summer I added a variegated comfrey to my collection. It’s the perfect plant to brighten up that slightly dark corner of a border.
comfrey bloom
comfrey 1
If you have a compost pile in your garden, surrounding it with a few comfrey plants is a great idea. Not only can you cut the comfrey leaves to add to your compost (they add extra nutrients and heat up the pile), they glean any nutrients that leach out of your compost pile into the surrounding soil. I’m always looking for nooks and spaces to add more comfrey, I find I can’t seem to grow enough of it here at Chiot’s Run.

Do you have any comfrey growing in your garden?

5 Comments to “Grow Your Own Fertilizer”
  1. Joan on September 5, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I have a comfrey patch that was here when I purchased my house. Every year I tell myself I’ll make comfrey tea, but never have. I love your idea of using it as mulch – I think I’ll go out today and cut some to provide another layer of weedfree mulch around my asparagus patch – the one area of my garden that I make a big effort to keep weedfree!

    Reply to Joan's comment

  2. Nebraska Dave on September 5, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Susy, I will have some next year. Any bed that’s idle will have some planted. I haven’t developed Terra Nova Gardens to that level of permaculture just yet. I’m still working on pathways and raised beds. Only eight more raised beds, a shed, and a cold frame to go. The formal part of the garden will have a brick entry, which is done, and five 25 foot brick pathways that are 32 inches wide. It’s a formidable project that may take a couple years to complete. Every year a little more gets done.

    Have a great Comfrey composting day.

    Reply to Nebraska Dave's comment

  3. Kyle on September 5, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    I planted some two years ago and have been doing chop-and-drop. This year, it came up so large and so beautifully, I let it just grow and grow and grow until it fell over in the summer heat. Then, I chopped it and spread it around as mulch. The bees just love it; the large leaves are a great contrast to other garden plants; it is dead simple to grow. I love comfrey!

    Reply to Kyle's comment

  4. PennyAshevilleNC on September 6, 2016 at 8:33 am

    I keep meaning to add comfrey and forget! I am glad you posted about it so I can put it back on the list :)

    Reply to PennyAshevilleNC's comment

  5. Chris on September 8, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I also have been meaning to add comfrey to my garden beds. What a beautiful, versatile plant! Do you have a source for seeds that you like? I’m not sure if Renee’s carries them but I’ll have to look it up!
    That varigated variety looks a little like a Hosta plant! :)

    Reply to Chris's comment

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but just recently moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine.

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