GETTING COMFREY WITH GROWING MY OWN FERTILIZER

Since I wrote this post, I estimate that I’ve watched more than 50 hours of British gardening shows. And I think I’ve learned more from them than I ever learned over all the years of watching American gardening shows. Some of that information—how to take cuttings, for instance—may not be completely practical as I have nowhere to overwinter delicate new plants, but it is fascinating information to know.

But until I watched a 2011 episode of "Gardener’s World" (one Youtube poster lists it as the “Best show in the world” and I wouldn't argue with him), I had no idea that I’ve been missing out on growing my own fertilizer all this time. 

Apparently a small patch of comfrey will nourish your plants and kick your compost pile into high gear.

Until recently, my knowledge of comfrey was limited. I knew it was part of the borage family. I know that borage is a beautiful plant in an old-fashioned kind of way but also one that you never get rid of once you have it. I’ll be honest, plants like that scare me. I’ve had too many plants try to stage a bloodless coup in my garden (like these) and eradicating them is a chore that has taken years (and continues annually, in some cases). 

I also knew that I liked the name of the plant: comfrey. It sounds … well … comfy. It does have fuzzy leaves, so maybe it is sort of comfy (although it can be irritating to some people’s skin so maybe don’t curl up in a patch of it). 


But it turns out that comfrey is a little powerhouse of a plant. It can be used for medicinal purposes because it contains allantoin, which stimulates cell growth and repair, and as a high-protein animal feed, but that's not why I've got my eye on it.

Nope, I’m interested in it because it’s a great fertilizer. Comfrey is high in potash, aka potassium (the "K" in NPK fertilizer ratios), which means it’s an excellent feed for overall plant health and particularly good for tomatoes and flowers later in the season. One source says that comfrey has more than twice as much potassium as farm manure and 30% more than compost. The NPK (nitrogen-phosporous-potassium) breakdown of comfrey leaves is 1.80-0.50-5.30 for true comfrey and that last number bumps up to 7.09 for Russian comfrey. 

On "Gardener’s World," good ol’ Monty Don made comfrey tea and then watered his plants with it. He also used it as a foliar feed. And he used a big bunch of leaves as mulch for his tomatoes. Just slapped them right on there. They will feed the soil as they decompose. And anything that was left, including the stems, was thrown in the compost pile where it kick starts a pile that’s a little heavy on browns (i.e. carbon-based material). And another source claims that earthworm farms have found that adding comfrey to their worm beds increases worm numbers by 400%. Even if that's an exaggeration, imagine what it could do for the worms in my compost bin.


You can also put a few leaves near plants prone to slug damage. Apparently it is so tasty to slugs that they will forego eating anything else in favor of attacking the comfrey. I'm not sure howI feel about that logic as it's a little bit like feeding the deer in your yard and expecting them not to eat your garden, but it might be interesting to try.

How have I been missing out on all this goodness? It all sounds too good to be true.

Making comfrey tea is no more complicated that putting a lot of comfrey leaves in a bucket and covering them with water (some recipes say not to add water and just let them turn into sludge on their own). And then covering the whole thing with a lid or a board and stashing it away from human interaction for several weeks while it creates a black, disgusting stew that apparently is extremely foul-smelling (hence why you don’t want to store it on your patio while it’s brewing). 

When it’s finished you strain it, dilute it with water and pass the goodness onto your plants. 

It seems to be difficult to find plants, other than from other gardeners. I was surprised that our master gardener group doesn't sell it at our annual heirloom plant and herb sale given that it's such a useful plant. And all the gardeners I asked don't grow it. So I ordered a few root cuttings, which it is said to grow from easily. That alone is a little scary. Any plant that grows well from root cuttings means that you better put it in a place that you like from the beginning because digging it out will be difficult. Unless you dig up all the roots, you'll have more plants in that spot.



I ordered Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), a variety called Bocking 14, which is said to be sterile, so at least I don't have to worry about it reseeding all over the place,  although cutting off the flowers before they set seed would also work (this is so much easier said than done). Apparently it is best to use it before it flowers, or right as it starts flowering. This strain is not great for animal feed—apparently it is more bitter than other strains—so I'm hoping that it won't be tasty to deer.

I’m going to find a little patch that’s out of the way. I’m still worried about it getting aggressive, but I think if I can provide it a nice little spot away from the main garden areas, I can let it be true to its nature. There is a variety that is supposed to be sterile and I may seek that one out to help keep it in check,

Growing my own fertilizer: what could be better? I’m becoming a more self-reliant gardener, recycling in my own yard and saving money in the process.

Comfrey, here I come.

Have you grown comfrey? I’ll take any tips you have and I’d love to hear how you use it.



WHY GARDENING ISN'T TRIAL AND ERROR

A lot of people are blogging about gardening these days. People who normally blog about clothing, interior design and a little bit of everything (or, um, nothing) are writing posts about gardening. I think that is fantastic. The more gardeners in this world the better, so if people are inspired to put a few plants in containers or improve their landscape or install raised beds to grow some veggies, this is only a good thing. Especially when people are new to gardening. I hope every one of them has great success and falls in love with it.

Last week, one of the non-gardening blogs I read had a beautiful mood board full of gorgeous pictures of all the plants the blogger was planning to put into a new border, and it was a great mix. But then she said this: "Gardening is TOTALLY trial and error."

I cringed. By and large, there is very little trial and error in gardening, at least for the home gardener, in terms of whether a plant lives or dies. And gardening can be a rather expensive endeavor (of course it can be done very economically depending on how you approach it). So why would anyone spend a good deal of money to just guess if a plant is going to live or not? Most people wouldn't so I would hate for people to think that whether a plant lives or dies in your yard is a crapshoot.

So here's a way to make sure a plant is going to live in your yard. In other words ... all the ways that gardening is not totally trial and error.

PLANT SELECTION CHECKLIST


1. Is it hardy in your area? Find your USDA hardiness zone and only buy plants that are hardy in your area. Better yet, buy plants that are a half zone or full zone hardier than your zone (a good rule to follow for expensive investment shrubs and trees).


2. Is it suitable for the amount of sun it will get where you intend to plant it? Your choices are full sun, part sun, part shade and shade (very few plants grow in deep, full shade). It can be hard to know how much sun a spot in your yard gets so one technique that can be helpful is to put a plain white sheet of paper in that spot and make note of it throughout the day. It sounds weird, but it's much easier to tell if the sun is really shining on something or if it's just bright in an area. Or you can get a sunlight calculator, which will tell you after a day outside how much sun a spot gets (presuming you use it on a nice, clear day).

Full sun = 6-8 hours of sun
Part sun = 4-6 hours of sun
Part shade = 4-6 hours of sun
Shade = Less than 4 hours of direct sun

The difference between part sun and part shade is difficult to delineate, but I think it's safe to say that closer to 4 hours of direct sun is part shade and closer to 6 hours of sun is part sun.

Be mindful that you are judging the amount of sun after the trees have leafed out, not in early spring when you are planning a garden.

When we built the path in the backyard we got a good look at what our soil is really like. The top layer was mostly clay, the middle was a lovely humus-rich loam and the bottom was mostly sand.

3. What kind of soil does it like? Some plants absolutely need acidic soil to thrive. Azaleas and camelias will never grow decently in my yard because I have alkaline soil. Some plants need sharp drainage, others like soil that's a bit boggy. But most plants fall somewhere in the middle. If plant has a special soil requirement, it will clearly state it on the plant tag. Otherwise, most plants will do fine with a good-draining soil rich with organic matter.

The hot bright area along the south side of the house is helping 'CanCan' climbing rose and 'Mrs. N. Thompson' clematis thrive, so long as I can give them enough compost and water to meet their needs.

4. Does your site have special conditions? I have a small bed alongside the south side of the house, bordered by the patio. It is hot there, not just because it is tucked up alongside the house, but also because the white siding reflects a lot of light. It's also a bit dry because of the eaves on the house. It's a microclimate and I can certainly grow plants there that are at least a zone less hardy than the rest of my garden, if not more. But they also need special attention in the form of feeding, regular top-dressing with compost and extra water. Houses, walls, low spots, high spots, etc. can all create microclimates that might make a plant that would normally grow there unhappy. The silver lining is that it also sometimes means you could plant something in that spot that you wouldn't be able to otherwise.

And really, that's about it. HSSS (hardiness, sun, soil, special conditions). OK, so it's not the catchiest acronym in the world, but it gets right down to it. Once you establish those things—and you can tell if a plant will fulfill those needs just by reading the tag or doing a quick Google search—the rest is just a matter of taste. Whether you like how plants look with one another just comes down to your preference (which is not to say that there aren't some design rules, but rules are meant to be broken, and I'm a firm believer in creating a garden that pleases the gardener first), but if you get a plant that will work in your yard by checking off that HSSS list, and pay attention to it the first year, mostly by making sure it gets enough water to establish itself, it will live. Plants want to grow. Give them the right spot and they will.

So, no, gardening is not trial and error. Nurseries, botanical gardens, plant hunters and plant developers have done all the hard work for us. All gardeners need to do is read a tag.


FEATURE FRIDAY: GARDEN ORNAMENTS

I love garden ornaments and sculpture. The right piece in the right place adds another dimension to a garden. There's a place for serious sculpture and whimsical ornaments in any garden, but I think the key is to know when to stop. Nothing makes a garden look a little bit like a junk yard with plants growing in it faster than too much stuff laying around in it. Ornaments should always compliment the plants, not the other way around.

I love using driftwood in my garden and I have a collection of interesting pieces that some day I'd like to turn into something. The problem is, I don't know what that is.

But I'm also adding a little something to the garden hopefully this weekend that I hope will say "sculpture" and not "random junk from the side of the road" when it's finished. I'm not even going to tell you about it yet because I really have no idea how this is going to go.

In the meantime, I thought we'd look at some great garden ornaments for a bit of inspiration this spring Friday.

I think this is a great example of the plantings and the sculpture being perfect for one another.


This one is just downright cool. In the comments on this photo, several people asked how you make such a sphere but the artist isn't saying.


I like this cow. I once saw a concrete pig (almost life sized) in a garden and I've been somewhat infatuated with concrete pigs ever since. And no, I'm not adding a pig to my garden (not this weekend anyway).


This falls in the creepy-but-cool category for me.


How can you not love this gravity-defying sculpture?



While I'm not sure I love the sculpture itself (I'm a bit concerned about this women's head), I love the siting of it. Something so modern and geometric in a woodsy area is so interesting.




What's your favorite kind of garden ornament?


A Wythe Blue door on a falling-down garage

I forgot to show you something I did about a month ago.



I painted the garage door Wythe Blue (Benjamin Moore color). I've been sort of lusting over that color, which is this really interesting grayish greenish blueish, sort of turquoise-but-not color for a long time and I really wanted to paint something that color. 

Since I didn't want something as bold as the blue on our front door (I didn't remember until went to link that post that I had entertained the idea of painting the front door Wythe Blue), but I did want to have a little fun, it hit just the right sweet spot on the garage.

Of course the rest of the garage is still a wreck. We're waiting for the contractor/neighbor to finish up a couple projects so he can rip the roof off the entire thing and put on a new one that matches the house on. 

And do you see that dirty snow pile next to the garage? The last vestiges of snow are finally melting but the bottom of the heap is always the grossest. And that red roof peeking out is actually our neighbor's two-story garage poking up above ours. That's the neighbor who is doing a roof, so we keep telling him that the sooner he fixes our roof, the sooner the view from the window on that side of their garage improves.

We'll be painting the whole thing as well. We decided to go with gray for the siding and white for the trim (what a shock, right?). The problem is this silly weather, which just won't warm up soon enough. All of these projects need a bit of warmth to get going.

Even on the derelict-looking garage, we love the new door color. So much so that we're thinking of painting the outside of the new screen door for the back door that color. I mean, if you can't paint a screen door a fun color, what can you?