The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Comfrey for compost and mulch

Comfrey at the leafy stageHills boldly states that no other plant will produce as much biomass for composting when grow in an out of the way corner as comfrey.  In addition, comfrey is a much-lauded dynamic accumulator, able to stretch its roots deep into the subsoil and draw up calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and trace minerals that are out of reach of most other plants.  Finally, comfrey's C:N ratio is so low that it nearly melts into the soil, creating compost in next to no time.  What's not to like?

When growing comfrey as the raw material for compost, Hills recommends taking six to eight cuttings between April and November.  If you're using a highly productive Russian Comfrey variety, you can produce 100 or more tons of leaves per acre in this manner, and you could potentially double or triple that yield in heavily fertilized patches on a small scale.  The plants are cut two inches above the ground when they are between one and three feet tall, allowed to dry for 48 hours to lower their moisture content, then gathered and added to the compost pile.

Nectarine with comfrey planted around the baseAn alternative use of comfrey as a fertility plant is found in forest gardening literature, which suggests planting comfrey below fruit trees as a sort of living mulch.  Last year, I tried this out, planting comfrey around the base of our nectarine, and now I'm cutting the comfrey every week or two, allowing the leaves to drop down and produce a heavy mulch and then compost around the tree's trunk.

On the positive side, I've noticed that the under-tree area requires nearly no weeding, but I feel like the comfrey may be competing with the tree more than it's giving back with my frequent cuttings --- the nectarine's leaves aren't as vibrantly green as the leaves of our two peach trees.  Unfortunately, I have no other nectarines to compare mine to, so the data is very inconclusive.  However, Hills agrees with my gut reaction, noting that comfrey will steal potassium from fruit trees and requires more nitrogen than the tree can handle well.  I'm going to keep searching for some other literature to the contrary, but for now I'm thinking I would probably be better off planting comfrey beyond the tree's spread and cutting the leaves to drop around my tree's base.

Invent your way out of the rat race.

This post is part of our Comfrey lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Regarding the planting of comfrey with fruit trees, I plant mine at the dripline, a few feet out from the trunk. This allows the deep taproots to dive through the trees' fine feeder roots without compromising available nutrients in the topsoil. Shallow bulbs like daffodils and (comfrey) mulch fill in under the canopy to keep the weeds at bay. A ring of comfrey also provides a barrier against rhizomatous grasses and the pollinators love it...until I cut it down.
Comment by robins Wed Jun 13 14:53:51 2012

Robins --- I analyzed this issue in more depth in my post about limiting factors. Comfrey under a more established fruit tree in an area with significantly better soil doesn't seem to cause any problems, so I suspect it's worth trying comfrey under trees in similar situations.

I've also been doing a better job about cutting the comfrey frequently now that I've got a scythe up and running. I suspect infrequent cuttings was part of my issue previously as well.

Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 15:41:53 2012

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