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.