Name: comfrey (Symphytum officinale).
Height: typically to 1m × 1m.
Foliage: large, rough, broad, hairy leaves.
Climate: warm temperate, sub-tropical, can grow in cold temperate with protection.
Soil: thrives in almost any soil, but does best in moist conditions.
Position: almost any situation in the garden. Tolerant of most conditions. Some varieties can self-seed and become a problem.
Watering: drought tolerant. Regular watering will ensure strong growth.
Although traditionally used in herbal medicine, comfrey has been found to be toxic in some uses, so it’s better to take advantage of its wonderful role as a garden plant. Because comfrey is fast-growing and has a big taproot system, it can ‘mine’ soil for minerals and nutrients that are often hard for other plants to get. This means comfrey can draw nutrients up through the soil, which makes its leaves an excellent fertiliser. In fact, you can use them as mulch spread over your garden beds to help condition your soil. Make sure you only use the leaves, because the stems can grow roots. You can even steep chopped comfrey leaves in water for several weeks, then dilute the liquid 15:1 and you’ll have a nutritious homemade garden fertiliser.
Comfrey leaves added to your compost produce valuable nitrogen and help get your compost going, although too much can slow it down—a few leaves every couple of weeks should be right. You can even use comfrey to control grasses and weeds. Just plant a row and running grasses will cease to be a problem in your garden beds. You can protect your precious vegie and flower seedlings from snails and slugs by lining the edges of the beds with large comfrey leaves. They’ll feed there overnight, so just take the leaves away in the morning, drop the snails and slugs in a bucket of hot water and put fresh leaves down.
If you are in a cooler area it’s best to plant comfrey in spring, keeping moist until the first leaves appear. In warmer tropical areas it can be planted in the wet season. If you are planting in a row as a weed barrier, make sure you plant them 50cm apart. Comfrey hates root disturbance, so make sure you plant it in the right spot first time. Comfrey will shoot up quickly and can easily reach heights of 1m. You can grow comfrey from seed, but it needs a cold winter to germinate, so if you’re in a warmer area it’s better to grow it from a bought plant.
Plant comfrey in any low point in the garden that gets run-off from your chooks, compost or perhaps a pond. There, it will happily soak up all of the nutrients that otherwise would be washed away, then you can use the plant to add those goodies back into your soil. A popular variety of comfrey is Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum). Beware, comfrey can become a weed because of its creeping roots and large production of seeds. However, there’s a variety of Russian comfrey called Bocking 14 developed in the UK that doesn’t set seed, which makes it a safer bet.
Regularly adding organic matter around the plant will help your comfrey thrive. Once established, it’ll look after itself.
Comfrey is easy to propagate and grow from root cuttings or crown cuttings. Cut pieces of root about 3cm long. Lay them horizontally in a garden bed or box filled with potting mix and bury them 3cm deep, then keep moist until the first leaves appear. Be very careful, as this plant can be invasive—just cutting the leaves and stem can cause more plants to grow.
In the first season, only the pick the outer leaves, leaving the top of the plant to grow strongly. Comfrey leaves can be harvested three to eight times a year after the second year of growing.
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