Soil building toolkit: Comfrey

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):

Comfrey Tea:

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?

>> More posts on edible forest garden design, establishment and plantings

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..

19 Comments

  1. Natalie Stewart
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink | Reply

    Apparently Comfrey is great for chooks too. Good for their health and produces golden yolks in their eggs. Where can I get me some Comfrey in suburbia?

  2. Natalie Stewart
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks Kirsten

  3. Fraser
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink | Reply

    Best not to feed it to chooks but plant at the edge of their run and they will self medicate. I’ve found at certain times of year they will hit it hard but mostly they will take a bite only every now and then. Same as cattle but with the cattle you need to ensure they have enough pasture. In dry times or winter if there’s not enough feed and they have access to comfrey they can overdo it. And that is not good.

    • Posted August 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yep we give the chooks a very small amount of comfrey once every other week and dont let them self-medicate on available plants for that reason…

    • Posted October 21, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I bought some comfrey from Bunnings a couple of weeks ago. (Western Melbourne)

  4. Nathan
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Great tip. I’ll be sure to plant this stuff all around some day!

  5. Posted August 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Kirsten,
    Perhaps you should plant comfrey in the holes left by chipping out the Serrated Tussock? It will take over and shade out any seedlings that dare to emerge.

  6. Posted August 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

    We tried to grow comfrey from seed but it didn’t grow. We live in Hill End, do you know anywhere locally where we can get some? We go to Mudgee or Bathurst semi-regularly for food shopping. Otherwise I guess I’ll try the Green Harvest website.

  7. Posted August 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

    We often plant a clump with each new fruit tree that goes in our food forest on our five acres. As so many of them can be shallow rooted (particularly the citrus) we think comfrey helps draw up nutrients. And they thrive in any conditions. We also have a clump next to each compost bin to toss in each week. The chooks get some from time to time. So clearly we love comfrey as much as you!

  8. Miriam
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have to say I’m a bit afraid of comfrey despite its benefits as everything I read about it mentions it’s incredibly invasive and once you plant it you have it forever. I’m surrounded by bush and I would feel pretty awful if I started a local comfrey invasion!

  9. Posted August 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Our prized comfrey (finally got some to plant!) was hit hard by early frosts this year and died off totally… no leaves at all. I mulched over it and I hope it will come back now that the weather is warmer. Or do you think it’s gone for good??
    Or maybe I should dig it up and separate it now while it has no leaves?

    Just found your site and am drinking it in! thank you!

  10. Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink | Reply

    @Miriam: Look for the “Bocking 14″ cultivar of comfrey, available from places like Diggers and Greenharvest (I think!). This one is sterile, so won’t spread by seed. You can propagate by root cuttings, but you’d have to be doing something deliberate to get it to spread into bushland.

  11. Jeanfromfrance
    Posted September 6, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi friends,
    I just had a pdc with robyn francis some weeks ago, she told her ducks loooove comfrey and will prevent any kind of invasion…, they could even prevent its good establishment (of comfrey). So if you want to calm down your comfrey’s spreading, just bring some ducks. To control and move her ducks she was just moving a little children swimming pool in which they like to bath and putting it where she wants her ducks to be/work.
    (just another thing about ducks, they’re not that good for the ecology of an establishing ponds because they pull off all the roots of your aquatic plants…)

    As u can see, no issue about invasive comfrey! :)

    Sorry for my english:)

    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

      good tip! Tho where we are you’d want the ducks inside a decent fence each time you moved them, or you wouldn’t have ducks for very long once Mr Fox sniffs them out! :)

  12. Angela
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink | Reply

    We’ve had comfrey in our small organic backyard (full of fruit trees and organic veg) for many years. It tends to stay where you plant it unless you want to dig up some roots and plant more. Our soil was terrible when we moved in but is gorgeous and friable now, giving us bigger comfrey leaves but still not spreading or becoming invasive. Mint, now that’s another story. But not comfrey! :-) So I wouldn’t be concerned about planting it and think every garden should have a few clumps. We also are allowed to have up to 6 chooks in our suburban neigbourhood in Sydney and we throw them a few handfuls here and and there.

  13. Angela
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink | Reply

    Oh and katepickle, they die down every Winter and come back in the Spring. Although hopefully you already found that out over summer!

  14. Trish Spillane
    Posted May 3, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink | Reply

    A useful tip I read recently about this wonder plant, is to plant it around a citrus orchard. Citrus are shallow rooted, and the comfrey roots which can grow to a depth of two to three Metres draw valuable minerals up through the plant. Simply cutting leaves and mulching under the citrus feeds these hungry plants creating a self sustainable orchard.

4 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Soil building toolkit: Comfrey « Milkwood: permaculture farming and living. [...]

  2. [...] is the focus of this weekends second project. Simpleunhookedliving along with Milkwood have both recently had excellent blog posts about Comfrey that are well worth the [...]

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  4. By Permaculture in our garden | gather and grow on March 17, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    [...] nutrients Comfrey – an all-around great plant to have in your garden – read more about it here Mustard – a fast-growing annual, acts as a weed barrier Marigold – insectary plant Mint – [...]

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