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Balkan Ecology Project

  • Joined Feb 2015
Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« on: March 11, 2016, 08:14:45 am »
There's a plethora of info out there about comfrey but not much detail regarding establishing and managing a comfrey patch so I thought I would write an article to share my experience on this and how we grow comfrey as part of our fertility strategy in the market garden.

When writing this article I could not resist to include some of the story of this incredible plant and of the people that have been enchanted by its prowess. So we'll start with a condensed story of comfrey and why I think you should certainly believe the hype.

To view the full post with photos and tables please http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.bg/2016/02/comfrey-believe-hype.html

Part 1. Introduction to Comfrey

A member of the Borage family, Comfrey - Symphytum spp. is native to Europe and Asia and there are 40 recorded species of Comfrey throughout that region. The plant most commonly referred to and used in gardens is Russian Comfrey - Symphytum x uplandicum, a naturally occurring hybrid of two wild species: Common Comfrey - Symphytum officinale and Prickly Comfrey - Symphytum asperum.
A few centuries back the hybrid Symphytum x uplandicum came to the attention of an original ecotrepreneur Henry Doubleday (1810 – 1902) and he widely promoted the plant as a food and forage crop. Years later, and after two world wars, Lawrence D Hills (1911–1991) would continue Henry Doubleday's Comfrey crusade.

In the 1950's Hills developed a Comfrey research program in the village of Bocking, near Braintree in the UK. The original trial site is on the plot of land now occupied by the Doubleday Gardens housing development. Lawrence Hills lived at 20 Convent Lane just around the corner of the trail site.



The area highlighted in red was the site of the Bocking 14 trails. Today, it is home to the housing development named Doubleday Gardens in memory of Henry Doubleday. The red dot is where Hills lived.

At this site Hills trialed at least 21 Comfrey "strains" each one named after the village Bocking.

Strain fourteen was identified as being the most nutrient rich non-seeding strain and 'Bocking 14' began its journey into gardens far and wide across the world.

As a consequence of his research into comfrey and organic gardening, Hills founded HDRA (Henry Doubleday Research Organisiation). HDRA moved from Bocking to Wolston, near Coventry at the present site of Ryton Organic gardens in 1985, where today you can find ten acres of fully landscaped organic gardens. HDRA is now known as Garden Organic and is one of the worlds leading organic gardening organisations.

It's amusing to think how the chance offspring of two wild plants can have so much influence!

Regarding the other 20 strains, it appears all but 'Bocking 4' are lost. I'll be visiting Ryton Gardens in the summer to see if I can track down "the lost Bocking strains". If anyone has any other idea where I might find them please get in touch!



So let's take a look at why these guys found this plant so enthralling.


Comfrey Uses

Medicinal Use - Comfrey has been cultivated, at least, since 400 BC as a healing herb. The Greeks and Romans commonly used Comfrey to stop heavy bleeding, treat bronchial problems and heal wounds and broken bones. Poultices were made for external wounds and tea was consumed for internal ailments. Comfrey has been reported to promote healthy skin with its mucilage content that moisturizes and soothes and promotes cell proliferation. This plant is my first port of call if ever I need to dress a wound. Simply take a few leaves brush them together to remove the hairs and wrap them around the wound and apply light pressure. It's incredibly effective at stopping the bleeding, reducing the pain and healing the wound.

Biomass - Comfrey produces large amounts of foliage from late May until hard frosts in October or November. The plant is excellent for producing mulch and can be cut from 2 - 5 times per year depending on how well the plants are watered and fed. The plant grows rapidly after each harvest.
In our gardens we have Comfrey 'Bocking 14' located next to each fruit tree in order to have a renewable source of mulch just where we need it. We also grow in patches as part of our fertility strategy in the market garden and have patches in the wildflower meadows.(details below)
We recently supplied 1000 'Bocking 14' cuttings to Oxygenisis a business in Germany who are experimenting with using this plant for carbon capture.

Mineral Dam – The Comfrey has deep roots of up to 2 m that utilize nutrients deep in the subsoil that would otherwise wash away with the underground soil water or remain inaccessible to other plants. The nutrients - once taken up from the roots - are relocated throughout the plant as and where needed with some of them ending up in the Comfrey leaf mass. When cutting the leaf mass and applying to the soil surface the mined nutrients are returned and again made accessible to shallower rooted crop plants.

Biodiversity - The bell shaped flowers provide nectar and pollen to many species of bees and other insects from late May until the first frosts in late Autumn. Lacewings are said to lay eggs on Comfrey and Spiders overwinter on the plant. Parasitoid Wasps and Spiders will hunt on and around Comfrey.



Xylocopa violacea - Violet carpenter bee feeding from our comfrey patch

Pest and Disease Prevention and Control - Research indicates that a comfrey solution can be used to prevent powdery mildew. Pest predators such as spiders, lacewings and parasatoid wasps associate with this plant. Its best to leave some plants alone in order to sustain pest predator relationships.

Ground Cover – Some species can quickly spread to form a thick ground cover and work particularly well for ground cover on the sunny side under shrubs and trees. Symphytum tuberosum - Tuberous Comfrey seems to be the best species for this.
Fertilizer - Comfrey leaves contain a great balance of major plant nutrients (N,P,K) and can be feed to plants as powder, direct mulch or by steeping chopped Comfrey leaves in water for several weeks to produce a thick, dark liquid that can be diluted with water and applied to plant roots.
More on this below.
Nutritional Value of Comfrey - You can see from the below table that wilted Comfrey contains significantly higher quantities of Potash compared to other organic fertilisers. Its well recorded that Comfrey is an excellent source of potassium (K) a major plant nutrient that is required by plants in large amounts for proper growth and reproduction.



Taken from Lawrence D.Hills - The Comfrey Report

Animal Fodder - Comfrey has a long history for use as an animal feed. Lawrence D Hills dedicated books to this topic*. The leaves are best received by animals wilted. Fresh leaves can be eaten by pigs, sheep, and poultry but cattle, rabbits and horses will only consume wilted leaves.

Human Consumption - Symphytum officianale and Symphytum x uplandicum are both reported to be used for salad and potherb and are best when cooked. Personally I'm not keen on the texture but will have the occasional nibble from the garden using the new growth to mix in a spring green salad.

Caution - Although Comfrey has been used as a food crop, in the past 20 years scientific studies reported that Comfrey may be carcinogenic, since it appeared to cause liver damage and cancerous tumors in rats. These reports have temporarily restricted development of Comfrey as a food crop. In light of this, the regular consumption of Comfrey is not advisable.


Plant Description

Life cycle - Herbaceous perennial

Growth habit - Comfrey begins growth in early spring and compact clusters of young leaves are soon visible in the crown of the old plant. Around late spring, the leaf blades with long petioles have grown to over 35 cm high. Basal leaves are large, lance-shaped, stalked, and coarsely hairy. The leaves dye back following the first frost and remain dormant for winter. Many species can spread vigorously via seed and are generally not welcome in the garden because of this. Other species can spread via tubers and all species quickly regenerate from broken root pieces.

Flowering - Starts in late May or early June and continues until the first frost in late Autumn. The bell-shaped flowers with pedicels are in terminal cymes or one-sided clusters. Flowers of Common Comfrey are usually creamy yellow, but white, red, or purple types have been found in Europe. Prickly Comfrey has pink and blue flowers while Russian Comfrey has blue, purple, or red-purple flowers. Tuberous Comfrey has creamy white flowers. Vegetative growth does not cease with the start of flowering, and the plant will add new stems continuously during the growing season. Most comfrey plants can be somewhat invasive spreading via seed to parts of the garden where they are not wanted. 'Bocking 14' will flower and provide nectar and pollen but will not produce viable seed.

Roots - Some plants species have short, thick, tuberous roots such as Symphytum tuberosum. Others such as Symphytum x uplandicum have deep and expansive root systems.



'Bocking 14' root system from our market garden. Grown from a crown division. The roots extended at least 50 cm down within the first 5 months of growth



Plant Requirements

Light - Needs full sun for good biomass production but grows fine in the shade.

Shade - Tolerates light shade (about 50%)

Moisture - Some species are drought tolerant e.g Symphytum tuberosum. Cultivated plants require irrigation.

USDA Hardiness Zone - 4-9 Comfrey crowns and roots are very winter hardy
Soil - Comfrey is adaptable to many soils, but prefers moist, fertile soils.
pH - Tolerates a wide range (6.5-8.5) Although not very sensitive to soil pH, highest yields are reported to occur on soils with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0


Part 2. How to set up and manage a Comfrey patch


Setting up a Comfrey Patch

Perhaps your're interested in growing comfrey to feed your animals, for medicine, for mulch, for compost or your're slightly masochistic and want to roll around naked in the pricky beds of biomass (not me ) In any case, here's how to do it.

The plant we use in our gardens is Symphytum x uplandicum - 'Bocking 14' , a sterile cultivar that produces copious quantities of nutrient dense biomass. The following information is based on using this plant.

Choosing the Site

We're growing for biomass and want the plants to receive as much light as possible. Accordingly, we lay out our beds on an east to west axis (we're in the northern hemisphere).
Irrigation is necessary if you want to get good yields from the plants. In a dry climate picking a place with access to reliable irrigation is of paramount important.
In areas of low rainfall using the gradient of the land to channel precipitation towards your beds will reduce the water needs of your plants. In areas of high rainfall with a high water table you should consider diverting water away from the beds.
Once established, Comfrey is difficult to get rid of, so choose a site where you want it to stay. Don't plant Comfrey in any area you cultivate as the broken root pieces quickly establish into new plants and can out compete the slower growing crops.
Positioning Comfrey downhill from where you expect leachate to be present, i.e downhill from a manure pile , compost heap, outside toilet, animal pen etc, can provide passive fertility to the plants and rescue otherwise lost minerals from draining away with the sub soil ground water.
Grow the comfrey where you want to use it. As you'll see later we may be harvesting over 1/4 ton biomass from our patch and don't want to be carrying that over long distances


Preparing the site - Raised beds are a major part of our fertility strategy and overtime retain water and nutrients very efficiently. I use 1.3 m wide beds surrounded by 50 cm paths for our crops as this allows easy access for harvesting everywhere in the beds without ever having to tread on the soil and the paths are wide enough to take our lawnmower.

Here is an example of a 10 m long comfrey bed on our site.



Diagram of a Comfrey Bed from our Market Garden

To form a bed the area should be cleared of all plants, best achieved by sheet mulching the season before. Pernicious perennials or tap rooted biennials should be dug out. After you have cleared the whole area, mark out the bed shape with string and dig out 50 cm wide paths around your beds applying the soil to the surface of the planting area thereby creating the initial rise of the bed. Fork over the beds well. If a hardpan is present take the time and effort to eliminate it before planting.



Raised beds in our Market Garden

Depending on the quality of your soil you may want to add extra compost before planting into the bed. If you have sheet mulched the area before hand all you need to do is add a good 20 cm thick of straw mulch (or some other mulch) and it's ready for planting. A good mulch to start with will help keep the weeds down while your comfrey gets going.

You can alter the depth and gradient of the paths to facilitate the required direction of water movement.

Planting Material - You can plant out with crown divisions or root cuttings best done in the spring when the soil has warmed. A crown division can be obtained from simply putting a spade through the center of a mature comfrey plant and transplanting the divided sections.For our beds I divided 2 yr old plants into quarters sometimes sixths and these established very well in the first year. Its bests not to harvest the leaf biomass in the first year in order to allow a deep root system to develop. However if you use large divisions you can start harvesting in July.



Our Comfrey Beds 6 weeks after planting

Root cuttings are a great way to plant out large areas of Comfrey. The cuttings should be grown on in small pots with 50% compost 50% river sand mix kept moist and planted out in the spring as soon as the first leaves emerge and the soil has warmed. If you are planting large numbers of root cuttings you can plant directly into the beds by creating "nests" in the straw, adding two cupped handfuls of the above mentioned potting mix and plant the cuttings into this. Keep them moist like a wrung out sponge and the success rate will be very close to 100%


'Bocking 14' root cuttings from our Bionursery

Spacing - The plants should be spaced 60 cm apart in rows and 60 cm apart at diagonals between rows. Plant the rows 15 cm from the edge of the beds.



Comfrey planting plan

Maintenance

Cutting - In the first year allow the plants to establish so that the roots develop well and penetrate deep into the subsoil. Remove any weeds around the plants leaving them on the surface. The following year the cutting can begin. You can scythe the beds for a quick harvest or cut each plant individually with a pair of secateurs or shears cutting to 5 or so cm from ground level. Watch out you don't pull any root pieces up with the leaves as they may regrow wherever they land.
The leaves are prickly so if you have sensitive hands wear gloves. Cut the Comfrey as the flowering stalks emerge up to 4 times a year. Allow the plants to flower at least once during the season to provide bee fodder to a range of native bees and honey bees. Leave the last flush of leaves before the winter so that invertebrates can find winter shelter in the undergrowth. You may need to weed between cuts every now and then but generally the comfrey will quickly cover the surface.

Feeding - After you have cut the Comfrey, mow the pathways between the beds and empty the trimmings around the base of the Comfrey plants. Any trimmings from lawns and hedges in the surrounding area can also be used.

We are experimenting with growing a nitrogen fixing hedging and ground cover plants adjacent to the patch in order to feed our comfrey. We call this the biomass belt and we'll be publishing the design of this polyculture along with species lists and how to establish and manage this in the near future.

A most excellent comfrey feed is undiluted urine applied at a rate of approx 500 ml per plant twice per growing season. Click here for a previous post on using urine as a fertiliser.

Irrigation - Comfrey will produce more biomass if irrigated and in dry climates it's essential to irrigate. Comfrey plants wilt very fast in hot conditions and will stop photosynthesising at this point.
20 L m2 per week of drought should be more than adequate. The beauty of biological systems are that, if managed properly, each year the soils improve and the ability of the soil to store water will improve over time.

We use a passive irrigation system diverting water from a mountain stream into the paths around the beds. The paths fill with water, we raise the level by blocking the low points with sacks of sawdust and the water is drawn throughout the soil via capillary action.



Passive irrigation in our market garden.
The paths fill with water and the water permeates throughout the soil via capillary action
How we use the comfrey

As Mulch - Freshly cut Comfrey leaves make good mulch because they have high nitrogen content, and don't pull nitrogen from the soil while decomposing. Comfrey's high potassium content makes it especially beneficial for vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, berries, and fruit trees.

With adequate feed and watering we've seen yields of 2 - 3 kg of biomass per plant per cut.




Comfrey beds establishing well. This bed was planted with divided crowns 5 months prior to this photo being taken


If you would like to stay informed about our comfrey trails and receive our new articles please email us. For more of our posts see our blog - http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.bg/

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cloddopper

  • Joined Jun 2013
  • South Wales .Carmarthenshire. SA18
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #1 on: March 20, 2016, 01:28:13 pm »
 Lawrence D Hills bok on Comfrey was in excess of £35 for the hard backed book last time I looked.
 It is however available as a Kindle eBook from Amazon .. I paid about £ 9.50 for my eBook copy four or five years ago .

 I have eight established crowns  that I've grown from cuttings given to me by a site member.
 If anyone wants me to start a couple of cuttings for them please PM me  over the next three week or so & I'll take the cutting then grow them on into small viable plants .
 I hope to be having a replacement knee around the middle of April so won't be able to do any cutting after that for a wee while .
« Last Edit: March 20, 2016, 01:32:43 pm by cloddopper »
Strong belief , triggers the mind to find the way ... Dyslexia just makes it that bit more amusing & interesting

Dan

  • The Accidental Smallholder
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Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #2 on: March 21, 2016, 09:48:00 am »
I hope to be having a replacement knee around the middle of April so won't be able to do any cutting after that for a wee while.

If anyone's reading this after mid-April, we're happy to send root cuttings to any members.  :)

waterbuffalofarmer

  • Joined Apr 2014
  • Mid Wales
  • Owner of 61 Mediterranean water buffaloes
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #3 on: March 21, 2016, 11:46:05 am »
I have about 3 plants and tons of seedlings from them every summer. If you grow one plant you can be sure of it spreading, it is almost as bad as mint for spreading :)
the most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, loving concern.

Dan

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Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #4 on: March 23, 2016, 11:37:07 am »
I have about 3 plants and tons of seedlings from them every summer. If you grow one plant you can be sure of it spreading, it is almost as bad as mint for spreading :)

That sounds like wild comfrey WBF, which can be very invasive.

Bocking 14 is the particular variant you want for growing in the garden - it doesn't spread by itself, only by root cuttings.

Blondie

  • Joined Apr 2014
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2016, 10:12:37 am »
The OH was hoping to grow a small raised bed of comfrey to produce feed for this veg patch.

Haven't been able to find any seeds in local shops and reviews on line show poor germination rate.

If anyone had any cuttings etc that they could sent could you please get In touch! Obviously willing to pay postage or send seeds etc.

Fleecewife

  • Joined May 2010
  • South Lanarkshire
    • Wester Gladstone Hebridean Sheep
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2016, 12:01:44 pm »
The OH was hoping to grow a small raised bed of comfrey to produce feed for this veg patch.

Haven't been able to find any seeds in local shops and reviews on line show poor germination rate.

If anyone had any cuttings etc that they could sent could you please get In touch! Obviously willing to pay postage or send seeds etc.

As said @Blondie , comfrey Bocking 14 does not grow from seed, so you do need root cuttings.  This isn't complicated - just plant any bits of root you have and the comfrey will grow - just try and stop it  ;D

We have been using Comfrey for over 20 years, and have plenty around the place, including where we don't want it.  I am happy to give away roots, but only on a 'dig it yourself' basis, so come and get some.

A couple of years ago we planted out bits of roots just through a lot of the stock fences.  This means the foliage can be nibbled by sheep as a mineral boost - they love it.
Otherwise, I bury chopped leaves under tomato and pepper plants, and spread more as a mulch around them.  I like to do that with potatoes too, but usually the comfrey isn't grown enough by spud planting time.
I make a feed liquid for diluting - it smells, but not half as bad as nettle tea  :yuck:
My favourite use is for the bees and other insects - the comfrey patch is always buzzing happily throughout the summer.  Once flowered, cut the flower stalks to ground level, in rotation, and more flowers will grow.

I like the tip to rub the leaves together to remove the prickles before using on wounds - will try that.

I have also tried to use it as a dyeplant, but haven't had success, partly because of the mucilage and partly because so far it hasn't produced the soft green that Jenny Dean shows.....
« Last Edit: April 07, 2016, 12:06:17 pm by Fleecewife »
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Do something today that your future self will thank you for - plant a tree

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus - let sleeping dragons lie

Blondie

  • Joined Apr 2014
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #7 on: April 07, 2016, 01:41:04 pm »
The OH was hoping to grow a small raised bed of comfrey to produce feed for this veg patch.

Haven't been able to find any seeds in local shops and reviews on line show poor germination rate.

If anyone had any cuttings etc that they could sent could you please get In touch! Obviously willing to pay postage or send seeds etc.

As said @Blondie , comfrey Bocking 14 does not grow from seed, so you do need root cuttings.  This isn't complicated - just plant any bits of root you have and the comfrey will grow - just try and stop it  ;D

We have been using Comfrey for over 20 years, and have plenty around the place, including where we don't want it.  I am happy to give away roots, but only on a 'dig it yourself' basis, so come and get some.

A couple of years ago we planted out bits of roots just through a lot of the stock fences.  This means the foliage can be nibbled by sheep as a mineral boost - they love it.
Otherwise, I bury chopped leaves under tomato and pepper plants, and spread more as a mulch around them.  I like to do that with potatoes too, but usually the comfrey isn't grown enough by spud planting time.
I make a feed liquid for diluting - it smells, but not half as bad as nettle tea  :yuck:
My favourite use is for the bees and other insects - the comfrey patch is always buzzing happily throughout the summer.  Once flowered, cut the flower stalks to ground level, in rotation, and more flowers will grow.

I like the tip to rub the leaves together to remove the prickles before using on wounds - will try that.

I have also tried to use it as a dyeplant, but haven't had success, partly because of the mucilage and partly because so far it hasn't produced the soft green that Jenny Dean shows.....

@Fleecewife thanks for the offer but you are on the wrong side of the country for me to come and dig some up!

We would take wild as well as a sterile version. At least it would become a useful weed unlike the ground elder we are currently at war with!

Fleecewife

  • Joined May 2010
  • South Lanarkshire
    • Wester Gladstone Hebridean Sheep
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #8 on: April 07, 2016, 03:46:54 pm »
I've seen some lovely patches of what must be a native comfrey on roadside verges.  It's much shorter than Bocking 14 and the flowers are a lovely creamy colour.  The bees must love it, as they do the Bocking 14 type.

Sorry I'm so far away - the offer applies to anyone who may be passing.
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Do something today that your future self will thank you for - plant a tree

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus - let sleeping dragons lie

Marches Farmer

  • Joined Dec 2012
  • Herefordshire
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #9 on: May 21, 2016, 01:58:43 pm »
A friend of ours once got a badly smashed ankle as a result of a car accident.  After 9 months it hadn't healed properly and her surgeon said if it hadn't improved within 3 months he'd have to re-break it and try to sort it out again from scratch.  I suggested she try taking comfrey (aka Knitbone).  3 months later the surgeon signed her off.

waterbuffalofarmer

  • Joined Apr 2014
  • Mid Wales
  • Owner of 61 Mediterranean water buffaloes
Re: Comfrey - Believe the Hype
« Reply #10 on: May 21, 2016, 02:07:02 pm »
I was reading not long ago that comfrey has been used very sparingly internally as it can effect the liver and kidneys, I think. I have a herbal medicinal book for animal uses and it says to be extremely careful in using it internally, as over a certain amount can damage internal organs.
here we are
http://livertox.nih.gov/Comfrey.htm
the most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, loving concern.

 

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