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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 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
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?

Quote of the Day: Toby Hemenway

July 6th, 2014

“Of course, we want to live in an attractive landscape. But if we can go beyond what plants look like, and examine what they are doing, we can begin to create gardens that have the health, resilience, and beauty of natural ecosystems while yielding abundant gifts for people and for other species.”

-Toby Hemnway Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition
comfrey 1
Earlier this week I mentioned planting nitrogen fixing plants in the ornamental gardens for the benefits they bring to the other plants. There’s also a group of plants called dynamic accumulators that bring up lots of nutrients from deep within the soil. Whenever I plant a garden bet I try to add a few of these to my garden, comfrey is my favorite.
comfrey 2
Comfrey is not only a wonderfully beneficial plant for the garden, it’s also beautiful as well. The bees LOVE it. It just so happens that many of my comfrey plants came from my grandmother’s house. They were passed on to my mom who passed them along to me. I use comfrey leaves for lots of things, not only do I use them as mulch around plants, I also put a few in the planting holes of anything I add to the garden. They are supposed to help the plants by feeding them and by stimulating root growth. I also dry comfrey to feed the chickens all winter. Comfrey is also nice because it’s easy propagate so you can have it growing all over the garden easily and inexpensively.
comfrey 3
There are all kinds of dynamic accumulators, in fact many of the plants we call weeds are in this group. If you are interested in learning about this kind of companion plants I highly recommend the book quoted above. I checked this book out of the library so many times I finally purchased one for my library.

What’s your favorite companion planting group?

Homegrown Medicine: Comfrey

August 5th, 2009

I grow a few herbs in my garden can be used medicinally. I’m not really into using herbs as medicine all that much, but it is an area that interests me and one that I will be researching more in the coming years. I grow rosemary and oregano to use when I’m congested and sick, I usually brew up some tea or breathe some in steam. On Sunday I gave myself a nasty cut while harvesting peppers. You see, I always use my Super Shears to harvest things, and they’re quite sharp. I accidentally cut about 1/3 of the way through my pinky finger on Sunday. I didn’t take any photos, although Mr Chiots said a photo of the bloody pepper plants would be great for the blog. All I have a photo of the scissors for you, so no need to avert your eyes (noticed the bandaged finger).
I’ve always heard that comfrey speeds healing of not just cuts and bruises, but also broken bones. I happen to have a large comfrey patch, so on Monday afternoon I grabbed a few leaves and made a poultice for my cut. I put a butterfly bandage of my finger followed by a nice smear of comfrey poultice, then a big bandage on top. I must say, the cut quit hurting almost immediately.
I haven’t had any pain since I applied the comfrey (it was throbbing before I did) and when I re bandaged yesterday it was looking quite well. I’ll probably leave it bandaged for a few more days, but from what I hear it should be fairly well healed by tomorrow with the power of comfrey.

Do you grow or use any herbs for medicinal purposes?

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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 moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.