Comfrey – the living mulch

Up until a year ago I’d never grown comfrey but as I started to learn about the wonders of this plant in the Permaculture system I decided that I’d get some as soon as the live root stock was available.

When the little stick-like pieces of root arrived in the post, cocooned in protective moist paper, I dutifully planted them as instructed burying them a few inches in the soil. Within a few short months, the nominated empty spaces in the garden had been completely consumed by a lush hairy broad-leafed plant. So finally I knew what comfrey looked like!

Comfrey is a very diverse plant, prized for it’s deep root system, high nitrogen content and medicinal qualities. It’s a perennial herb and one of many popular living mulches and a companion plant for a range of fruit such as citrus, avacado, persimmon and tamarillo.

Young comfrey growing as a companion plant for citrus (very very small citrus!)

But comfrey comes with a few warnings. The first one is to make sure you plant it exactly where you want it because once you put it in, comfrey can be a mongrel difficult to get out again. It can also grow into quite a big plant and although low to the ground, will shade out smaller herbs and flowers as the leaves are broad and long. The good news is that comfrey can also be grown successfully in pots so all you small space and balcony gardeners can still grow your own supply of living mulch.

Comfrey also lives for a long time and as I found out, the more you cut or pluck the leaves, the quicker and thicker they seem to grow back. I read somewhere that comfrey shouldn’t be harvested in it’s first season but the chooks and I have raided my plants many times with absolutely no detremental effect, if anything it grew back stronger.

Comfrey as a livng mulch companion for an Australian Finger Lime

Because of comfrey’s deep root system it mines nutrients and moisture from deep within the soil where most plant roots don’t go. The leaves are also very fibrous and once cut, break down quickly. For these reasons comfrey makes extremely good mulch and as a vigorous grower, it can handle being cut back several times during the growing season. When cut and left in-situ the wilted leaves provide nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium to the surface soil and in turn are absorbed by other plants. Nitrogen is particularly important for plant reproduction and growth.

Wilted comfrey leaves can also be dug into the soil and left to break down creating mineral rich soil. This is a great way to prepare beds inbetween crops and restore essential minerals that may have been leached during heavy rains.

Comfrey is also recognised as a powerful compost activator due to high levels of nitrogen and can also make an excellent fertiliser for your vegies, herbs and fruit trees. Here’s another warning…my first batch of comfrey fertiliser stank to high heaven and was an arena for summer mozzie olympics so make sure you keep the brew covered and away from the house!

Here’s an easy recipe for comfrey fertiliser:

half fill a small container with comfrey leaves

completely cover the comfrey and fill the container with water

seal with a lid or cover and stand in a cool area for around 3 weeks

strain and dilute 1:1 with water before spraying onto vegies and fruit trees

Once a comfrey plant is a few years old, you can propagate new plants from root cuttings. Planted closely together they will form a thick barrier between garden beds and will stop weeds and grass in their tracks. Before you know it you’ll have a ready supply of highly nutritious mulch for your beds and some great chook tucker.

The chooks enjoy comfrey too

Comfrey is also recognised as having excellent medicinal qualities as it contains allantoin in both the roots and leaves. This helps to stimulate the growth of new cells and is excellent for external healing, particularly bruising which makes it a wonderful additive for home made health remedies such as soaps, ointments, lipbalms and salves.

Stay tuned for my next update when I show you how we made a simple vertical garden using PVC pipe.

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