Saturday, September 08, 2007

If you’ve ever looked at a struggling annual vegetable, compared it to a vigorous and healthy weed and pondered why weeds seem to be successful in inverse proportion to their usefulness, then let me introduce you to the wonder-weed, comfrey (la consoude, in French). Its deep taproots mine the subsoil for nutrients and so its leaves are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all great garden nutrients. It spreads like a weed but we cultivate a variety—Russian Bocking 14—selected due to its high productivity and the fact that it produces very little viable seed, so that it’s propagated by root cuttings. This means it grows where you want it too but, once planted, you’re always likely to have comfrey there, as it’ll regenerate from even a small section of root left behind if the plant is lifted, so choose your plot wisely.

Once establ-ished, you chop the leaves off 5 cm (2 inches) with a pair of garden shears and again, once it’s re-grown to 60 cm (2 ft) giving you four or five cuts in total. This was one of the lighter jobs we gave to our capable, willing and recently departed (from our smallholding, not this mortal coil) volunteer, Sam (pictured above, with the fruits of his labour). We’ve been distracted by other things, so this was our first proper cut and will be the last as well, as the plants now need to build up their reserves to over-winter.

The whole point of the exercise was to create a liquid plant feed. I drilled a hole in the bottom of a black plastic dustbin and fitted a water butt tap and Sam packed the cut leaves in and, with a little jumping around to compress the leaves, they just fitted under the clip-on lid. No water is added (that method gives a ready-to-use feed but which stinks to high Heaven!) and the leaves will eventually decompose to a black liquid: a concentrate that can be stored and then diluted at the point of use.

The third photo shows re-growth after just 6 days. Another thing that worthy of note is that the wide leaves naturally mulch the bed, so it was as weed free as you can see in the second picture, when Sam harvested the leaves. We bought our comfrey as root cuttings from Ragmans Lane Farm, in Gloucestershire and have gleaned most of our comfrey know-how from a 16-page booklet, sold by Garden Organic (previously known as the HDRA) which tells you all you need to know about growing, harvesting and using comfrey. And this link is a French site all about comfrey and its uses.

I’m very keen to get hold of another variety, Bocking 4, which was selected for its suitability as animal fodder. If you have some or know someone who has, either in France, the UK, or anywhere else in the EU, please get in contact.


Melanie Rimmer said...

I have a couple of comfrey plants on my allotment. No idea of the varieties as they were there before me. Like most allotment holders I tolerate them and use the leaves for compost and weed tea, much as you describe.

Anonymous said...

My land is so barren and over-farmed (not by me, I hasten to add!) that there isn't a single comfrey plant to be seen on my 2 hectares. I have therefore resorted to digging up the few sorry speciments that grow in the ditches here and there in the hope that one or two might survive the shock and take root at my place.
I am now going to the Ragmans site to buy in a batch lot, thanks for the tip!

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Thanks for your comment, "smallholder".
The Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales is set in a disused slate quarry, so had NO topsoil at all. They set up an experimental comparison to try and grow vegetables in three plots: one unchanged, one with just topsoil added and the other with just organic matter added each year. Organic matter is the thing to add and you thereby create topsoil. Green manure would also help, scything it to let it rot on the surface. We prefer not to dig, if possible, so anything we add to the soil, we add as top dressing, letting the worms, other bugs and rain, carry the nutrients down to the roots.
Best of luck with your soil-improving and do report on your progress on your own blog.