April 16, 2010

Comfrey For The Compost

One thing I never seem to have enough of, is ready-to-use compost. It seems to take a long time to make, mostly due to our shortage of manure. While we can hope to get some from our little flock of chickens and the goats we plan to get as soon as the fence is up, it won't be enough to make all the compost I need for our various gardens, fruit trees, etc. This is why I was delighted to find a source for comfrey.

Comfrey as a medicinal herb is quite controversial. (If you're interested in that discussion, see links at the bottom of this post.) As an aid to composting however, there is no dispute. Here are my quick comfrey facts:
  • High in nitrogen, making it a great compost activator.
  • Deep rooted (8 ft) dynamic accumulator, tapping deep soil for nutrients like potassium
  • Contains 2 -3 times more potassium than barnyard manure
  • Low in fiber, so that it has an extremely fast decomposition rate
  • Carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is lower than well rotted compost, meaning it be tilled directly in the garden with no wait-time before planting, nor the need for added nitrogen.
  • For the same reason it can be used as a side dressing
  • Can be used to make liquid fertilizer. More info on that here.
  • High in protein, making it an excellent supplementary feed for livestock
  • Source of allantoin which is curative and preventative for scours
  • Can be dried to like hay
  • Also a general nectary plant for bees and beneficial insects
  • Grows quickly (2 ft / month) and can be cut frequently. This makes it a high yield plant for feed and especially that compost!
This is a crown cutting of Symphytum peregrinum, Russian comfrey, Bocking #4 strain, which makes it especially suitable for livestock feed, as well as composting. I ordered 25, but received 5 extras plus 3 root cuttings.

It is perennial, and likes a fairly rich, sweet soil. I decided that a good home for it would be last year's garden, where the strawberries and almond tree are planted. Last summer's mulch has decomposed quite a bit, enriching the soil, plus I have been dumping wood ashes there all winter, so the pH should be better for it. It prefers sun, but can grow in partial shade. Whether or not the almond tree shades it too much in the future remains to be seen.

I planted the crowns on a grid, 3 feet apart. Hopefully I should see first growth in about a week. This first year will be for establishing the plants, with a few leaves for the chickens. Next year I will be able to harvest leaves for the garden. I am looking forward to that.

Before I forget, here are the links I promised:

The Organic Gardener - Growing & Using Garden Comfrey - How to use comfrey in compost

Comfrey Central - A Clearinghouse for Symphytum Information - a balanced and objective look at current comfrey research.

Henriette's Herbal Homepage - things to consider when reading claims about comfrey
University of Maryland Medical Center - uses and cautions of medicinal comfrey

Mother Earth News - Comfrey For the Homestead

Alternative Field Crops Manuel - Comfrey - University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension

Comfrey For The Compost photo & text copyright 


Woody said...

I have been hauling in loads of crap for years. Old round bales, spoiled hay, leaves, landscapers looking for a place to dump, and any other material that can be composted. The livestock sale barn is a great source.

Katrien said...

I have the same problem: not enough compost. I had to have composted cow manure brought in (12 cubic yards). I've been thinking of asking the neighbors - most of whom don't compost - to save their kitchen scraps for me, want to ramp up the Starbucks coffee grounds deal, and need to get going with the horse manure around the corner. Comfrey is also on the list and I'm picking up a divided plant at the end of the month (thanks to Freecycle).
What was your source?

Leigh said...

Woody, that's what I need to develop, local resources. Thanks for the ideas.

Katrien, I got my comfrey from Coe's Comfrey in North Carolina. No website, but you can email them and ask for a brochure - coescomfrey@yahoo.com. They are very helpful and my root crowns are very healthy. They offer a choice of roots, crown cuttings, or plants. I would definitely recommend them and their comfrey.

Julie said...

That is in our plans to make our own compost and we are lucky enought to have cow manure pretty close.

m said...

On a small scale, we have three compost heaps, each just under 1 metre cubed, at the bottom of our garden. A few years ago I started bringing home the used wood shavings from the two studio guinea pigs. This has accelerated the speed with which our compost matures. We have a council compost bin (emptied every fortnight from March to November) which we use for the more woody material which we don't have the space to compost.
We have never got round to growing comfrey, but do have some nettles next to the compost heaps. We add that in when they get too intrusive.
Look out for Bob Flowerdew, an organic gardener who uses comfrey to produce liquid fertiliser. He champions getting good food from a garden.
The latest BBC gardening series by Alys Fowler "The edible garden" has some good tips too.

Benita said...

You must spend hours doing research. You turn up more tidbits of useful information than I ever could. Comfrey. I have to remember that.

So, when are you going to write a book on all of this? :)

Woolly Bits said...

just be careful where you plant it! once it's established every bit of root keeps going - and it spreads too! I planted one plant years back and it has multiplied in all different corners - even where I don't want it. (btw - I've dyed with leaves too:)) depending on amount and picking time, anything from beige to yellow to spring green:))

Leigh said...

Julie, that is fortunate. It's hard to make compost without something like that!

Mary, I've heard that nettle is good for compost too. Thanks for the recommendation of Bob Flowerdew. I will have to see if I can find his books at the county library.

Benita, I love doing the research. Blogging about it helps me remember it. But about that book. I'll get to writing as soon as someone offers to publish it, LOL

Bettina, there are two types of comfrey, common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) which is more common in Europe, and Russian comfrey (Symphytum peregrinum) which is the main species grown in the US. Russian comfrey is sterile, so it does not spread as rapidly as common comfrey. Still, the area I put it in has a concrete border, so hopefully it will not get out of control.

gavgams said...

Do the green manure crop for dig in. Even better than spreading compost
Check out this
for a guide to a blend:

Also I keep 6 guineas in three cages for great compost base.

Comfrey is a great tonic for chooks.

Leigh said...

Gavgams, thanks for the info and the link! Digger's looks like a wonderful resource. Makes me wish I lived in Australia.

The planting information that came with the comfrey recommended interplanting clover in a year to two. Evidently comfrey likes the nitrogen. A standard clover for a living mulch is Dutch white, here in the States. But you've got me thinking that I need to research different types of clovers.

Rebel Fan said...

Wondering how the comfrey is doing now, three years later. I've been growing it 18 years.

Leigh said...

Rebel Fan, I appreciate the question and have to say it hasn't done as well as I'd originally hoped. I've moved it to a better spot and replaced the plants that didn't make it. My soil is acidic and poor, so it does best if I sweeten it a bit and keep it well mulched with compost. I've changed my plans for it too. I'm now growing it for my goats!