Comfrey is a dynamic accumulator that improves your soil, prevents disease and provides free mulch for your plants as well as livestock fodder. Comfrey is also a powerful compost activator and will get your compost pile off to a quick start.
Do you have a plant in your garden that gives free mulch, compost activator, and a potent plant food?
It has long taproots that harvest nutrients from deep within the ground. The dynamic accumulation of minerals and nutrients is what makes comfrey leaves an excellent natural source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The NPK ratio of comfrey leaves is 1.8-0.5-5.3. Comfrey is also rich in calcium and many other valuable plant minerals it mines from deep in the subsoil.
Comfrey is a member of the family Boraginaceae or Borage Family also known as the Forget Me Not Family.
The species that that most commonly is referred to by permaculturalists as wild comfrey is Symphytum officinale L. It is native to Eurasia. Symphytum is derived from symphis meaning growing together of bones and phyton meaning plant. Officinale derives from "official or standard medicine" There is also a Prickly Comfrey also native to Eurasia or Symphytum asperum L. The comfrey most used by permaculturalists is Russian Comfrey. It is a cross between S. officinale and S. asperum known as Symphytum x uplandicum
The species also known as wild comfrey in North America is Cynoglossum virginiatum L. This article will refer to the Symphytum species but the Cynoglossum species has similar properties and uses.
Comfrey leaves have been used as a food source for thousands of years. See warnings in medicinal section however before consuming. The leaf contains 26 to 35 percent protein which is higher than any other known vegetable source. Young leaves can be prepared as a cooked green similar to spinach. The hairiness is greatly reduced upon cooking. Older leaves may be bitter and require one or more water changes while cooking. If so I would consider saving the rinse water to use as fertilizer once cool. A tea is prepared by steeping dried leaves in boiling water.
Comfrey makes a great fodder supplement. It can be used as part of a fodder mix for goats, sheep, cattle, chickens, geese, pigs and rabbits. It is probably best to limit it to less than 20% of total feed just to be safe. Safest way is to allow animals to occasionally freely graze on comfrey since the seem to know instinctively how much they need. Small amounts of dried, ground leaf added to chicken feed yields darker, richer more nutritious egg yolks. Geese love it and will occasionally take a comfrey plant to the ground.
Comfrey is notorious in permaculture circles as a prolific producer of biomass, and as such, is often used chop-and-drop style.
Comfrey produces large amounts of foliage from late May until hard frosts in October or November. The plant is excellent for producing mulch and can be cut from 2 – 5 times per year depending on how well the plants are watered and fed. The plant grows rapidly after each harvest. In our gardens we have Comfrey ‘Bocking 14’ located next to each fruit tree in order to have a renewable source of mulch just where we need it. We also grow in patches as part of our fertility strategy in the market garden and have patches in the wildflower meadows (details below). We recently supplied 1000 ‘Bocking 14’ cuttings to Oxygenisis a business in Germany who are experimenting with using this plant for carbon capture.
Freshly cut comfrey leaves make good mulch because they're high in nitrogen, so they don't pull nitrogen from the soil while decomposing, as high-carbon mulches like straw and leaves do. And comfrey's high potassium content makes it especially beneficial for flowers, vegetables (such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers), berries, and fruit trees.
Use freshly cut comfrey leaves (but not the flowering stems in this case—they can root) as fertilizer in planting holes. The leaves break down rapidly and provide nutrients right at the roots.
Comfrey is famous for this! If you have lots of dry brown material and the pile is slow to heat up. Just layer the fresh comfrey leaves and stems in as you add other material to your pile.
Liquid fertilizer ("Tea")
One of the best ways to tap your fertilizer factory is to brew comfrey tea. Fill a barrel or trash can about halfway with fresh comfrey, add water, cover it, and let it steep for 3 to 6 weeks. Comfrey tea smells foul, so brew it away from sensitive noses (yours or your neighbors). The tea may be used full strength or diluted to about half strength—to the color of weak tea. Use it whenever you water your plants. It's great for watering stressed plants to help get them back on track. You can also make liquid fertilizer concentrate by packing fresh-cut comfrey tops into an old bucket, weighing them down with a big rock or a plastic bag of water, covering tightly, and waiting a few weeks for them to decompose into a lovely thick black goo. Some gardeners put a hole in the bottom of the bucket and collect the concentrate in another container as it drips out. Dilute this comfrey concentrate about 15 to 1 with water, and use as you would comfrey tea. You can seal this concentrate in plastic jugs until you are ready to use it.
Pest prevention and control. Scientists at Moscow State University in Russia observed that powdery mildew spores that landed on wheat seedlings sprayed with comfrey tea did not germinate, and the wheat seedlings did not become infected. The researchers concluded that the comfrey tea sprays had activated natural defense mechanisms in the wheat seedlings, making them more resistant to disease.
To use comfrey tea or diluted comfrey extract as a foliar drench or spray, add a few drops of liquid soap (it helps the spray stick to leaves) and apply it to your plants. You can use a watering can with a fine rose, but you'll get better coverage with a garden sprayer. Be sure to strain yourliquid very carefully (let it drip through a large coffee filter) before you put it in your sprayer, or you'll clog up the nozzle before you even get started. When you spray your plants, don't coat just the tops of the leaves; reach under and spray the bottoms, too, at least until the liquid starts to run off.
Easy to Grow
If you're not yet ready to put comfrey to work in your garden, wait until you find out how little it expects from you. Russian comfrey is a hardy perennial (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9) with large, hairy leaves; long, fleshy roots; and clusters of small cream, pink, or blue flowers. Unharvested plants grow to about 3 feet tall and wide. Comfrey spreads rather enthusiastically both by self-seeding and sprouting from even small sections of severed root. You can prevent this by planting only sterile cultivars such as 'Bocking 14' and not digging or cultivating around your comfrey.
Comfrey grows best in full sun or partial shade. It thrives in clay soil with plenty of moisture but tolerates a wide range of conditions. Once established, it is difficult to get rid of, so choose a site where it can stay. Six plants is enough for most gardeners, which means allowing a planting space of about 6 by 10 feet or 3 by 20 feet. Don't plant comfrey in any area you cultivate, as breaking off bits of root will create oodles of new plants. Remove any perennial weeds in the bed. Plant root cuttings or plants about 3 feet apart either in spring or fall, and keep the soil moist until plants are well established. Don't harvest the first year, and cut off any flower stalks that form, as your plants need to establish a good root system.
If you have a small yard or you're concerned about comfrey taking over your garden, grow it in large trash cans. Just cut drainage holes in the bottom of each can, fill with a soil and compost mix, and plant. Comfrey produces huge quantities of leaves during the growing season (4 to 5 pounds per plant per cutting) and will happily soak up any nitrogen-rich fertilizer it's given, though it grows just fine without extra feeding.
'Bocking 14' Russian comfrey is sterile but individual plants will expand, so divide them every few years if your patch is getting crowded. Don't even dig them up; just slice through each one with a sharp spade while its in the ground. Replant the sections you remove or share them with friends, but don't put the roots in your compost pile, or you'll have comfrey plants popping up everywhere next year.
Keep comfrey beds clean, cut and fed for best results. Clean: Remove weeds and grass from beds Cut: Cut established plants about 4 to 5 times a year. For best results do not allow flowers to set. Feed: Provide adequate nitrogen fertilizer such as organic compost , compost tea or composted manure. Vigorous growth requires nitrogen but comfrey also then adds minerals to the leafy goodness. The nitrogen can then be recycled and used elsewhere to return surplus. In a polycultural setting the above objectives can often be met by running grazers through quickly in pulses. Goats, sheep and geese work well for this. Spacing in a grazer pasture, orchard or food forest should be less dense, about 3 to 4 feet apart New plants can be propagated from root cuttings about pencil size in diameter and about 2 inches long. The cutting should be planted about 2 inches deep and set horizontally to maximize hair root growth. Crowns are the nucleus of a new plant coming off the parent. They are with the obvious side up and the roots down.
Comfrey is ready to harvest when it is about 2 feet tall or starts to form flower stalks. Depending on your climate, you will probably get four or more harvests a year. Cut off the whole plant about 2 inches above the ground with pruners or a sickle. Be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting comfrey, as some people find it irritates their skin. After harvesting, give your comfrey a good watering and renew the mulch layer.
Comfrey has been cultivated, at least, since 400 BC as a healing herb. The Greeks and Romans commonly used Comfrey to stop heavy bleeding, treat bronchial problems and heal wounds and broken bones. Poultices were made for external wounds and tea was consumed for internal ailments. Comfrey has been reported to promote healthy skin with its mucilage content that moisturizes and soothes and promotes cell proliferation. This plant is my first port of call if ever I need to dress a wound. Simply take a few leaves brush them together to remove the hairs and wrap them around the wound and apply light pressure. It’s incredibly effective at stopping the bleeding, reducing the pain and healing the wound.