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

Top-dressing with comfrey

Comfrey mulchAlthough I'm dubious about the benefits of planting comfrey underneath fruit trees as a living mulch, I've had great luck cutting comfrey from standalone plants to mulch the vegetable garden.  The high nitrogen leaves break down nearly as quickly as grass clippings do, so they act as a combination of top-dressing and weed control (with a bit more emphasis on the former than the latter.)  This shot was taken about a week after adding the leaves to the ground, but it rained for most of the week and the comfrey didn't wilt until last Friday.  The softest parts of the leaves are already starting to disappear into the soil four days after wilting.

I estimate I'd need about 600 comfrey plants, or a square planting 37 feet on each side, to grow all of the mulch for my vegetable garden.  If I had a better way to harvest them than cutting with scissors, I might be tempted to devote the space to these dynamic accumulators.  As it is, my dozen plants are all I can handle.

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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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You could try a sickle or a scythe. I just got one of each, with Austrian-style blades. It took a little adjusting and a lot of learning--especially with the scythe--but it's great for harvesting things in stands such as rye-grain or mint.

Of course, the scythe was fairly expensive, but you can find used sickles on eBay for under $50. The sickle is easier to learn to use, too.

I love both tools... especially because they don't require parts and gasoline like a lawnmower or a weedwhacker!

Comment by Faith T Tue May 24 10:52:40 2011
I am intrigued by comfrey but have never seen a plant (that I know of.) I wonder if you could mow it? It appears to grow fast so that would probably need to be done often.
Comment by De Tue May 24 11:57:52 2011

Faith --- learning to use a sickle and/or scythe well is on my list for the next year or two. However, I don't think they would work for comfrey, since you need to cut very close to the ground, and would have to lift up the leaves to get a blade in there. I could be wrong, though --- like I said, I'm still very new to those tools!

De --- That's what I've been thinking --- using the mulching mower with the blade set as high as it would go. Mowing it once every week or two would be awesome.

Comment by anna Tue May 24 12:41:15 2011
I second the mowing. Get yourself an electric mower and goto town on it... A nice shred mulch that will process faster.
Comment by tad Tue May 24 16:46:57 2011
I've coveted electric mowers --- maybe one of these days!
Comment by anna Tue May 24 19:17:26 2011

I use a Japanese rice knife, also called a kama. It's like a sickle, but smaller and with serrations along the inside curve of the blade.

It's great for cutting grass along edges, harvesting stuff like comfrey for mulch or chicken feed, hacking back foliage for chop-n-drop mulching, etc.

You can see a photo of one on this site:

(I bought mine from them, but have no other commercial connection to that site)

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Wed May 25 22:45:06 2011
In theory, the scythe is supposed to be able to mow to ground level. This is according to the experienced mower at Maine Scythe Supply. However, as an amateur, I find it difficult to get the really, really close mow that a weedeater can get, for example. Still working on my technique. It's easier in "soft" things like clover.
Comment by Faith T Thu May 26 10:38:17 2011

Darren --- Interesting! Now I have yet another tool I want to see in use... :-) Clearly, you should make a youtube video and post it on your blog --- I'll bet I'm not the only one who hasn't heard of it.

Faith --- I think that you'd have an easier time cutting grasses or other things with vertical stalks at ground level than comfrey. Since the leaves arch out in a vase shape, I would think that a scythe would get tangled up before reaching the stalks. But I could be wrong!

Comment by anna Thu May 26 13:12:19 2011

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