Monday, August 4, 2014

Comfrey Tractor

Comfrey; probably Symphytum x uplandicum
When folks have a garden and they hear you are starting one I find that most want to give you advice, a few will have an interesting trick or two, and some even want to give you plants to get yourself started on the right foot.  This is especially true of rare or obscure plants, with bonus points if the obscure plant in question can be put to good use.  

As far as obscure plants which can be put to good use go I have yet to meet a better candidate than comfrey.  With a few straggly leaves, an inch or two of root, and the promise that we would have no trouble getting that single cutting to take off I was admittedly skeptical.  I need not have worried.  In only a few weeks the single specimen had not only perked up, it was flowering profusely in its pleasant purple fashion.  Such flowers are only useful if you're rearing a non-hybrid variety of comfrey as hybrid seed (in comfrey's case) will not germinate.  But there are other ways to propogate the stuff.  It was time for phase 2 to begin.  (continued)

Post transplant, with lots of new growth.

I suppose I shouldn't wax poetic about phase 2 until I have explained how comfrey lives up to all that hype.  I will start there. Jack Spirko recently devoted an entire episode of his podcast to comfrey along with additional video. Beyond covering such notable points as, how to use it, where to get it, how to propagate it, why you would want to, and what an incredible element comfrey can be, in the show itself Jack also offers this ringing endorsement in the show notes:

Why do I call comfrey a miracle plant?  Well if I said their was one plant that could help heal broken bones, speed wound healing, heal skin ulcers that nothing else could close, provide fertilizer, provide mulch, feed livestock and be as easy to grow as breaking off a piece of a root and sticking it in the dirt, what would you call it?

Comfrey does all of these things and frankly more.  It also has a very undeserved bad reputation as being toxic if used internally.  In fact some over zealous nanny state types even caution against using it externally.  I am not really sure if the misinformation about comfrey is simply tea cup protectionism run a muck or an outright slander campaign.  And while I can’t advise you to use comfrey internally, because it is illegal for me to do so, what I will say is at times I do and I certainly am not dead or ill from doing so.

Even if you plan to never use comfrey internally it is still a plant every person should grow and be familiar with.  Its uses are too many to ignore and further it is so easy to grow and propagate there is no reason not to.
Even before Jack put together his podcast on the subject that tall, skinny, purple flowered pot of comfrey was comfortably doing it's thing and rocking it's flowers on the back deck. From dead looking cutting to flowering giant in only a few weeks. Talk about oomf, this is "will to live" on scale you don't get to see outside of invasive weeds. Oops. Did I let that slip?  Yes, a lot of folks think of comfrey as an invasive garden destroyer and worse, as an unwelcome weed.  I don't like the term invasive, as it vilifies many plants that are both serving their ecological function and showing a strong desire (and ability) to thrive.  I find the use of the word weed equally bothersome as weeds are really just plants trying to grow in places where a person has decided they are unwanted.  Neither of those concepts is concerned with any possible use of the plant in question, or the good it may be doing the soil, pollinators, and local ecology, or really any possible yields (monetary or otherwise) the plant may provide.

I will grant that my position is a bit biased.  For one, I have no interest in pursuing a pristine grass lawn either with extra labor, or herbicides.  For two, I have spent a great deal of time hearing from the other side of the conversation and I think the benefits of more holistic thinking far outweigh the alternatives.  That's what I get for spending so much time listening to Geoff LawtonThe Permies Forum, and the like.  Comfrey, and finding uses for weeds even appears in blogs and articles such as this one from The Walden Effect.  One term that appears a lot in that space is "Dynamic Accumulator" and if we're going to talk about dynamic accumulators you're going to want to see The Chart!

Creeping Thistle - K, P, Fe
Dynamic accumulation, or plants acting as dynamic accumulators, is really just a fancy way of explaining that
some plants are better miners than others.  All the nutrients, minerals, and  compounds needed for plant life come directly from the soil, whether that is the mineral soil or the living soil food web.  Most plants are not mining specialists so they can get what they need if it is right there and biologically available but if not, what then?  A gardener might get a few tests done and bring in supplements or fertilizers to target a deficiency, a farmer might switch crops to one which needs less of what is missing, or also go with a supplementing, additive solution.  Nature calls in miners.  Thistles are considered to be quite the plague, especially in places where attempts at eradicating them has failed.  Thistles, as you'll see on the chart, all accumulate iron, with some varieties also accumulating Potassium, Phosphorus, or Copper.  In so many of the places where people are trying to eliminate the thistle patch they don't look to see what the thistle came in to heal.  With an underlying Iron or Copper deficiency removing the thistle will only bring more back to finish the healing.  If you eliminate the deficiency then remove the thistle you can prevent it from coming back.  The thistle isn't the problem, it's the solution if only we would recognize it as one.

Humble Dandelion -
Na, Si, Mg, Ca, K, P, Fe, Cu
Many of these plants also have a hefty taproot.  Tools, techniques, and chemAg solutions abound to deal with such plants.  But this taproot is part of what makes these plants so good at what they do!  It allows for access to soil and nutrient far below the level your grass roots will reach, it allows that same water and nutrient to move up through the soil strata where it can be shared with your other plants and it reduces compaction in the soil.  Why would I both aerate my lawn (work) and fight to eliminate my dandelions (more work) when the dandelions fix the compaction I would be aerating for AND actively accumulate 8 of the nutrients on The Chart?  Once you notice that pigs, ducks, chickens and turkeys all LOVE to eat dandelions also, well I think I'd like some more dandelions and less grass, if it's all the same to you.

Which I suppose brings us back to the horribly invasive comfrey, which thus far has invaded nothing.  Comfrey itself accumulates 6 nutrients on the chart (Si, N, Mg, Ca, K, Fe) and does so with a prodigious amount of growth.  The only thing I like more than accumulating nutrient and minerals is accumulating biomass and comfrey fits that bill also.  Big, leafy, easily harvested and used biomass loaded with the aforementioned minerals.  The biomass makes an incredible addition to compost, with no other ingredient than water can brew an incredible anaerobic compost slurry/tea, as a supplement to livestock diet it can be used as a nutrient rich fodder crop, and I still have not begun counting the oft controversial herbal remedy uses alluded to by Mr. Spirko.  With sandy soils devoid of biomass, new gardens everywhere in need of nutrient, and various livestock in need of several meals a day I will be certainly be using it for all of the above. Which means my real comfrey problem is primarily a lack of comfrey.

Comfrey + milk crate = tractor
So what's the fastest way to turn one, leggy, comfrey plant into a comfrey patch?  Enter phase 2.  Shortly after taking that picture of our tall, thin, flowering comfrey on June 17th I really beat that plant up.  I took 60% of the height off of the top, shook it out of the soil to get a look at the taproot, sectioned the taproot into 2-3" pieces and planted the whole mess into a surplus milk crate full of our homemade compost mixed with the local sandy soil.  It did look a bit sad and yellow at first but has rebounded with comfrey's predictable zeal and now we have a large, bushy milk crate of dynamic accumulator. Given time, the taproot, and other roots will reach the edges of the crate (on the bottom they may be already well through, I haven't looked)  and where with many plants being pot bound would be a problem a pot bound comfrey in a milk crate will actually help me out.  With roots escaping the crate into the ground one can simply give the milk crate a bit of a twist to leave the escapees in place and then move the mother plant elsewhere.  All the rootlets have a decent chance of forming their own plant, the "tractor" moves onto new ground to colonize with more comfrey as the roots extend once again beyond the bounds of the container and this process can continue all season.

Eventually the crate will need to retire for the winter, probably to the shed or garage and I may need to "repot" the crate again to relieve some of the pressure on the confrey plants inside.  When that happens I'll have material to start additional tractors, rootlets to plant or sell, and (hopefully) pictures of the whole process to share with you, since I did not have the presence of mind to take pictures the first time I did so. Between the expansion and reproduction of the tractored comfrey the seeded patches of comfrey should also perform well, producing large amounts of valuable nutrient and biomass that I can use (just about everywhere, somehow) here on the farm.  Any container with small enough holes to hold on to most of your soil and large enough holes to let the rootlets through can be used in this way so to start one yourself you may not need a milk crate at all that's just what I had on hand.

Comfrey on Amazon -
Click for latest pricing
If I haven't yet made a suitable argument to sway you, well I've left out something important.  That silver bag over there? A single pound of comfrey leaves, currently priced $16.74.  Over a dollar an oz for a plant that grows like a weed?  Yeah, there may be some business opportunity there.

Live comfrey root -
Click for latest pricing
Never mind that the demand for live plants has their price hovering at $3.99 + shipping and who would stop at a single plant when you can buy 10 for 10 times the price and save on shipping?  Comfrey is the small farm business MVP, clearly.

Of course, Dandelion sells for even more... but you don't have to take my word for it.
Bulk Dandelion Root, Cut & Sifted, 1 lb.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. I love this! I hope you don't mind if I share your site? My channel is dirtpatcheaven on youtube and I would love to post your site if that is okay.

    1. By all means, thank you so much for asking. I'll have to check out your channel soon! For other readers, you can check out Dirtpatcheaven here:

  2. I would say that if you do not want Comphrey to pop up everywhere you compost, make sure it is fermented or dried before you put it in the compost. I saw comfrey really out of hand at a campus organic farm, but they put it in the compost, and just couldn't get rid of it afterwords...

    1. It is good ground cover, with pleasant flowers, which has several practical uses, a massive accumulator of nutrient and fertility and your concern is that you "cannot get rid of it"?

      I suppose if you're trying to maintain your campus organic farm in a sterile box with no life or diversity it could be a problem. Instead, perhaps they should have been trying to grow comfrey instead of kale, they would have ended up with higher returns and less work it sounds like.

  3. As to "cannot get rid of it". I used to raise goats. I established a significant comfrey patch beginning with a dozen starts and had fodder all through the summer to augment the hay I fed.
    The plants stayed in their position but grew beautifully. One year I trimmed the new spring growth and tilled it into the area I intended to plant sweet corn. When the corn was planted and up, the pieces of comfrey that had been tilled in were sprouted and filled the aisles with plants. When they were a few inches up I tilled them in for an additional green manure when the corn needed it. A couple of tillings and the comfrey was done in the corn, the corn grew eight to nine feet, and I had the best crop of sweet corn ever. The message is that new growth can be stopped with only a few chop and drops. Established growth actually has a slow basal spreading behavior that I find easy to control.