A HOMESTEAD WONDER PLANT
Last year when animal food at the local co-op was in short supply, we began to think again about ways to grow food for the rabbits, ducks, and chickens. We’ve often acknowledged that having to purchase animal food is a weakness in our system. Finding a solution became a priority when we realized how unpredictable the supply chain is for anything we purchase, including animal food.
I had researched comfrey in the past. It’s highly praised for its healing properties, high protein, and essential nutrient content. It's name even is derived from the Latin word "confera," meaning "knit together," because of it's traditional name, knitbone. It contains riboflavin, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin K, selenium, and several others. It also contains vitamin B12, which is unusual for a plant. Comfrey has amazing soil-building potential because of the way it pulls nutrients to the surface through its roots and its ability to produce a prolific supply of organic matter during one growing season. On the other hand, some people caution against using--or even growing—it. The conflicting information didn’t really matter in the end, however, because I was unable to find any plants to purchase.
I was thrilled last spring to see that Azure Standard’s Ellie’s Eden had comfrey plants for sale. I emailed them to make sure that their comfrey plants were NOT the kind that spread by seed; they assured me that they are only propagated from roots. This is important, I had learned, because the comfrey variety that reseeds itself can become invasive, causing a gardener to rue the day it was planted.
I ordered thirteen plants from Azure and put them in the ground under fruit and nut trees where they could grow freely and the roots wouldn’t be in danger of being tilled. (If the roots are chopped and spread around, they will grow new plants; that’s good news if you want to propagate them, not-so-good if you don’t.) The plants took off quickly and did well.
Our marauding chickens feasted on them last fall, pecking and scratching some of the plants to (what seemed) extinction. We were delighted this spring to find that all thirteen returned with gusto. They did so well, in fact, that I ordered several more plants to add to the understories of additional fruit and nut trees.
The year-old plants now supply a portion of the diet for our small animals. Our ducks get especially excited when comfrey comes their way; they devour it with many happy quacks, which is very rewarding to the bearer of greens. The chickens (who are now enclosed in the cow paddock) don’t go for comfrey as a first choice, but they do eat it for a second course. The rabbits are eating it as well, along with other offerings.
Last year’s plants are beginning to bloom; beneficial pollinators love the drooping, bell-shaped flowers. At blooming time, a mature plant can be harvested to within a few inches above its crown and the leaves composted—either in a compost pile or chopped and dropped in place around the base of the fruit and nut trees. The plant will grow new leaves with surprising speed, and will be ready for additional harvests throughout the season. Comfrey’s high nutrition profile will boost the soil, which, in turn, will nourish the trees and make the soil rich with organic material.
So far, we’ve been pleased with the vigor and food supplementing potential of comfrey. We hope to see the necessity of imported food for our animals decrease and, at the same time, the health of our fruit and nut trees increase.
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