Right about now is a good time to dig up bits of comfrey root and redistribute it wherever you need, but do not yet have, good soil. Garden path edges, forest garden path edges, places where you want to plant fruit trees next year, and so on.
Comfrey is the ultimate multitasking plant. It shades the ground from late spring through to autumn. Its deep roots break up the soil and draw up minerals to the surface. Its leaves can activate compost piles, become liquid fertilizer, and knit bones as well. We need more of it!
Dan Harris Pascal at our last urban forest garden course, with just a little bit of comfrey for re-planting
Comfrey in the Milkwood kitchen garden – photo by Floyd Constable
Comfrey root cuttings starting to flourish along the swale paths of the Milkwood forest garden last spring…
And by mid summer, the comfrey is was up and into it. This growth is typical in our soils for first-year root cuttings – next year these clumps will be twice the size. In an area with better soil, they would flourish even more – photo by Dan Harris Pascal
As such, comfrey has become one of the primary tools in our soil building toolkit at Milkwood Farm, where we have plenty of areas with not-yet-great soil fertility. We were growing a bit in the kitchen garden, but it was Dan Harris Pascal that really started the comfrey rocking at Milkwood.
As part of the forest garden development, last year in early spring Harris planted chunks of comfrey root all along the forest garden paths, and over the ensuing summer it flourished.
This year, we’ll be planting it with our new heritage apple trees, along the swales where we’ll be doing future tree plantings, and around the woolshed where we’re developing gardens.
The planting of comfrey is pretty darn simple. Break off a section of root at least as long as your thumb, and plant it horizontally, 10cm below the soil surface. We don’t tend to water ours, but you can if you like. One of the easiest planting exercises on the farm.
I have been told by some people (with enviable soil fertility) that comfrey can take over a garden, but I struggle to see how this can be true, becuase its just so darn useful. Too many comfrey leaves? Cut them off with a rice knife and use them as mulch, chuck them in your next compost pile, or make some comfrey tea (liquid fertilizer):
We make this by taking a bucket with a lid and packing it full of comfrey leaves, adding rainwater to fill, then putting the lid on and leaving it for 4-5 weeks. 40 days later you have a dense, anaerobic brown slime in liquid which, when mixed 1:15 with water, is a powerful organic liquid fertilizer, full of potassium and other goodies.
There’s lots of other ways to make comfrey tea, but this is perhaps the simplest.
We’re also using comfrey as an edge accelerator for our forest garden establishment. Because comfrey is so hardy and self-sufficient, we’re planting it in clumps in the areas we’ll develop into forest garden next year, and the year after. It’s the avaunt-guarde of forest gardening, literally.
Comfrey flourishing throughout the forest garden, helping create soil and feed both the understorey of edible herbs, and the overstorey of fruit, nut and pioneer trees – photo by Dan Harris PAscal
Pioneer plantings of comfrey where we’ll be extending the intensive edge of the forest garden this season
Comfrey in winter – down but not out
Comfrey roots, ready to be broken into thumb-length chunks and re-distributed throughout the farm…
Earlier this year when I went to dig up a heap of comfrey root cuttings to give to students of a forest garden course, I was surprised by just how much abundance lay beneath each comfrey plant – it was wriggling with worms and had so many, many huge roots, all sitting in great-looking humus. Pretty impressive.
One of our favorite permaculture designer teams, Aaron Sorensen and Dan Deighton of Living Classroms, use comfrey extensively in their school garden designs, for similar reasons – it’s a great edge plant, tough, useful and fertility building.
Comfrey as garden edge in Living Classrooms’ permaculture garden design for Warrawong High School (April 2001)
Comfrey as garden edge in Living Classrooms’ amazing school permaculture garden design at Cringila Public School (April 2001)
More comfrey at Cringila Public School, this time in the food forest section (April 2001)
Comfrey also has many medicinal uses and , when it flowers in late summer, the bees just love it. Ahrg. Such a great plant. Are you convinced yet?
Edible forest garden skills + workshops: edible forest gardening is about creating resilient, year-round food supply by gardening like a forest – every niche stacked with useful plants, from sub-soil to canopy. By focusing on perennial edibles, rather than plants that just last one season, a forest garden can build up a huge stock of different food plants that are much more resilient in bad years, and ensure that there’s always something fruiting, flowering and seeding through all seasons..