The Comfrey plant is one of the most useful plants to grow in an organic garden. If you are interested in taking care of our planet, its people and wildlife, and creating a way of life that is truly ethical, green and sustainable, this is one plant to include in your growing scheme. In this article, we will discuss this useful flowering perennial.
Why Grow Comfrey in Your Garden?
There are many reasons why the comfrey plant, also known as Comfrey symphytum, Symphytum Officinale or Common Comfrey, is a great plant to grow in an organic garden. Here are just some of them:
- Great for wildlife – it attracts bees and other pollinators, which is good news for organic growers.
- Also attracts predatory insects, which can help keep pest numbers down and maintain natural balance in an organic garden.
- Has very deep roots, which can help to stabilize soil.
- Great compost activator, and can speed up decomposition in your compost heap.
- Contains selenium, which is usually deficient in our soil. This plant also helps the soil by drawing nutrients up to the soil surface. Chopping and dropping the plant material on the surface helps to maintain the fertility of the topsoil.
- Mulching with Comfrey symphytum, which produces an abundance of organic matter, can not only help maintain soil fertility but can also reduce moisture loss.
- Using Comfrey to create a liquid plant feed is also very effective.
- The comfrey leaves can also be used as a supplemental feed for chickens or other livestock.
- Comfrey leaves have a range of applications in herbal medicine.
- Has attractive flowers, and can look good in an ornamental garden bed or mixed polyculture planting scheme or forest garden.
Comfrey in an apple tree guild in an organic garden.
When choosing comfrey, it is important to select a strain that will not propagate by seed, such as Bocking 14. By doing so, you can ensure that the comfrey will not spread from wherever you place it. This means that you can enjoy the benefits without worrying that this deep-rooted plant will begin to take over. Seed producing strains have become a ‘weed’ in some parts of the world.
Where to Grow Comfrey in Your Garden
Comfrey feeding a forest garden area.
Once a comfrey plant has established itself in a certain spot, its deep roots mean that it is almost impossible to remove. Plants will regrow from even the smallest of root fragments. This means that it is vitally important to select the location for your comfrey plants carefully. Whether you choose to grow your comfrey in a dedicated comfrey patch, or in amongst other plants – make sure that you are sure that this is where you would like to grow your plants, and that the location will not only be suitable right now, but also long term.
Comfrey is tolerant of very wet conditions and shade and can therefore be grown in a place not suitable for many other plants. It can also be a great option in forest gardens or fruit tree guilds, or in mixed polyculture beds of perennial plants. However, comfrey will thrive in a wide range of different soil and environmental conditions. This is one more reason why it is such a useful plant.
Comfrey is usually sold as root pieces or crown offsets. The root offsets should be around 2.5 cm in diameter and though they take a little longer to develop than the crown offsets they should create equally productive plants. You do not need to buy more than a few root pieces or crown offsets, even for a large garden. Once your plants are established, you will easily be able to propagate more plants by dividing the original ones and using crown offsets and root offsets to make more comfrey plants.
Root pieces and crown offsets are best planted in the spring. You can plant these directly where they are to grow, or start them off a little earlier in pots or other containers before transplanting them to their final growing positions.
New comfrey plants can also be created simply by dividing an existing plant. Simply use a spade to slice the plant clump down the centre, and divide again as required to make new plants. Fall is a good time to divide this and other perennial plants in your garden. Before you buy new comfrey plants or root pieces or offsets to plant, consider simply asking friends or neighbours whether you can take a division from their existing plants.
Caring for Comfrey
This is an incredibly easy plant to care for. When planted in the right place, it will pretty much take care of itself. Once established, it should not require excessive amounts of water and may not need to be watered at all, though this will, of course, be dependent on the rainfall in your area.
The main task will be managing the abundant foliage – and the best way to do that is through harvesting. If you do not choose to harvest your comfrey regularly, then you may prefer to simply remove dying or damaged leaves as the season progresses, to keep things looking neat and tidy.
Comfrey can generally be harvested twice over the summer months. After you cut down the plants to the base, they will regrow and provide a second yield. The plant is generally harvested in late June/ early July, and again towards the end of August when it is being used for one of the applications described below.
By late June, comfrey should have grown considerably, and produced its attractive purple flowers. You could choose not to harvest then if you would like to attract the wildlife. You could also consider harvesting some of the plant while still leaving a few flowers for the bees.
Harvesting comfrey simply involves cutting off the portions of plant that you would like to harvest close to ground level. You can do so using a pair of secateurs or a sharp gardening knife. It is a good idea to wear gloves as the plants can be prickly and may irritate the skin, especially if you have sensitive skin.
If you have a patch, you can also consider simply mowing or strimming over the area. This is fine if you have not included other plants in your planting scheme. You can then simply collect up all the stems, leaves and flowering parts to use in one of the ways described below, or just drop them to the ground to feed the surrounding area.
Mulching With Comfrey
Comfrey is fairly balanced in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which is why it is so useful in fertilizers. Mulching with comfrey is one way to return those nutrients to the soil, where they can be taken up by other plants.
Simply chop up the stems and leaves into smaller pieces and then lay these around other plants. These will quickly rot down and their nutrients made available for other crops grown in the vicinity. The potassium content in comfrey means that it can be a particularly good mulch for tomatoes and a wide range of other fruiting plants.
As mentioned above, a thick mulch of comfrey can also conserve soil moisture, and reduce watering needs for a range of crops. What is more, it can also help to reduce the incidence of weeds – making gardening easier. Mulching, with comfrey and other organic matter, is a key practice in ‘no dig’ gardening – a gardening system which involves disturbing the precious soil ecosystem as little as possible.
Making Comfrey Liquid Feed
Comfrey liquid feed
Another way to use comfrey to aid other plants is to use the leaves, stems and entire above ground portions of the plant to make a liquid plant feed. Sometimes, this is referred to as ‘comfrey tea’.
Comfrey tea is made by placing the plant matter in a large container and covering it with water. Be sure to place a lid on the container as the brew really reeks! Leave this mix to rot down for 4-6 weeks, after which time you can decant the liquid, dilute it with ⅓ of this fluid and ⅔ water and use it to water your plants.
Of course, you could also harvest comfrey to feed your chickens or other livestock, or use smaller quantities for healing herbal remedies.
However you choose to use comfrey, you should now begin to see why it is such a useful addition to your garden. So why not try to grow some comfrey where you live? Russian Comfrey is another variety that can be grown for healing or medicinal purposes.
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.