Saturday, June 18, 2011

Comfrey, One of The Garden's Hardest Workers

 Many of the jobs that plants perform are hidden from view.  Three important jobs plants perform, mulch maker, nutrient accumulator, and nitrogen fixer, are described below. 

  1. Mulch Maker:  These plants provide debris (leaves, flowers, bark, etc) that falls to the ground, providing humus to the soil.  Soft-leafed plants, including Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb, comfrey, nasturtiums, make mulch the fastest.  ‘Green manure’ cover crops, including sweet clover, vetches, and grains such as oats, wheat and barley, provide chop-and-drop and living mulches.
  2. Nutrient Accumulator:  Nutrient accumulators draw specific nutrients from deep in the soil and concentrate them in their leaves.  Yarrow, chamomile, comfrey, fennel, lamb’s quarters, chicory, and dandelion are well-known nutrient accumulators.  These plants reduce the need to purchase fertilizers. 
  3. Nitrogen Fixer:  These plants harbour bacteria or fungi among their roots, which extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to plant-available form.   Many plants in the pea or bean family (the Fabaceae, commonly referred to as legumes) are nitrogen fixers.  Common nitrogen fixers are alfalfa, broom, chamomile, chives, clover, collards, comfrey and the fava bean. 
As you may have noticed, comfrey falls into all three categories.  Comfrey (symphytum officinale) offers a range of uses that is tough to match. 
  • Bees and other beneficial insects buzz deep into the purple/pink tubular flowers to extract nectar and pollen, assisting with pollination.
  • Comfrey is a stellar nutrient accumulator.  Its roots reach deep into the soil and pull potassium, calcium, and magnesium up into its leaves.  These can then be composted or used as mulch.
  • Comfrey can be chopped down 2 to 4 times during its growing season.  The chopped top growth can be either composted or placed where the fertility and cover is needed most.  In addition, this chopping back may cause some root dieback, leaving the roots’ organic matter deep in the soil to decompose and nourish the underground 'microherds'.
  • Ecological orchardists often plant a ring of comfrey around a fruit tree, creating a living mulch.
  • Comfrey’s vigorous taproots can break up hardpans and heavy clays. 
Bee working with comfrey
Put this multi-talented plant to work in your garden! 

*Information gleaned from Gaia's Garden:  A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway, available at our Powell River Library. 

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