A Plant A Day Till Spring – Day 48 – Comfrey

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“Comfrey at the Peace House” – Summer 2013 – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

“A Plant a Day till Spring” will highlight one plant a day, starting on the winter solstice (December 21, 2013)… And ending on the vernal equinox (March 20, 2014)… If all goes to plan I will be starting with old Snowdrop photos from 2013… And ending with new photos of Snowdrops in 2014…

We had freezing rain last night and the entire neighborhood is glazed over… I am going to try to take some photos when the sun comes up… I also wanted to mention that on February 14th at 2PM EST… I will be guest hosting a Q&A on #groundchat… The subject will be “plant guilds”… I will put the details together and update tomorrow… I am also doing a hands on fruit tree maintenance/pruning demonstration (with a short grafting demo if time allows) March 15th at a Community Garden in Bellevue… This is through growpgh… Registration at growpgh.org… Nevermind – Fruit Tree Demo is now SOLD OUT… I was not expecting that…

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Comfrey… You either love it… Or you hate it… I fall somewhere in the middle… Long considered a silver bullet in the permaculture and organic gardening world… And I will admit it is a very useful plant… But in my own personal experiences… I have noticed it is the go-to suggestion for the inexperienced gardener… If you have ever had to remove Comfrey you will know what I am talking about…

At one time Comfrey had a very bad reputation as being extremely invasive… Over time the sexual prowess of the plant has been bred out… The resulting plant “Bocking 14” is sterile… 99% of the Comfrey I come into contact with is in fact this sterile variety… This solved the plants rapid spread by seed… Sure… But it is still damn near impossible to remove… This is the reason I say only the inexperienced suggest Comfrey without a disclaimer…

I consider Comfrey a “borderline” plant… Meaning… It should be planted with care… You really have to take a good look at the gardener’s skill level… Comfrey is not for beginners… Comfrey is not for small spaces… Comfrey is not for the people who are uninitiated with a garden spade… There are other “nitrogen-fixing” options out there…

Bocking14

“Bocking 14” – Summer 2013 – Whitney Avenue/Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA

Comfrey… As far as “nutrient accumulation” is concerned… Is really one of the kings or Queens of the plant world… There are very few plants that can compare to the amount of work this plant can accomplish passively… Although I warn of growing it… I do grow it… Just not in my own garden… I personally grow it in the yards of abandoned houses… Two or three times a year I walk around with my garden spade… I take my spade and place it at roughly a 45 degree angle where the base of the plant meets the soil… One good push down will sever the top of the plant… After I have harvested a decent amount… I take it home and mulch my gardens with it… After a few days in the sun black ooze starts seeping out of the plant… That’s the good stuff…

You can also take your comfrey and ball it up in an old t-shirt… When the shirt starts turning black… Throw it in a five gallon bucket of water for a few days… You now have nitrogen tea ready for immediate application…

Removal is a pain in the ass… But it is not impossible… Start digging 20″ out from the crown… Dig to a minimum depth of 12″… I go to 20″… Remove the soil and put it in a wheelbarrow… Go through it with your hands and remove the roots… Comfrey has a very deep taproot… Any roots left in the soil will potentially sprout so I put a layer of cardboard in the bottom of the hole… Backfill and carefully monitor… Persistence will pay off…

Every time the subject of Comfrey comes up… I learn something… Please feel free to add your own experiences to the mix in the comments below…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

If you want some science – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfrey

If you want my permaculture post on comfrey – Practical Permaculture – Comfrey Cautions

These “Plant a Day Till Spring” posts are simply intended to kill time until spring when I start writing more… My source (where applicable) is Wikipedia.org… The photography is all my own… And I am adding my own information…

This website and all of the information presented within is provided free by the author… Me… It is my sole opinion and is not representative of anyone other than myself… You can contact me directly with questions at – c.condello@hotmail.com

Remember to tip… My Bitcoin digital wallet address is… 1JsKwa3vYgy4LZjNk4YmPEHFJNjPt2wDJj

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Practical Permaculture – Planting Herbs Under Fruit Trees

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“Lemon Basil” – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA

Backyard fruit trees are becoming increasingly popular as the locally grown food movement gains strength. A common question is what, if anything, can be grown in the area directly underneath of a tree? Traditionally, orchards were laid out in parallel lines to facilitate easy mowing and maintenance. Little more than grasses and a few native wildflowers could survive the regular mowing, this often resulted in an orchard that requires supplemental nutrients, as well as insect, fungus, disease and pest control measures.

Backyard trees often suffer the same problems that commercial orchards deal with, the only difference is the professionals have tools available that the backyard grower does not. In my personal experience, when it comes to backyard fruit trees, people want an organic permaculture based solution that will work instantaneously. You see, people who live in the city rarely ever stay in the same place for very long. Whether or not the next homeowner wants a fruit tree growing on their property is the issue, I believe many of the urban fruit trees have a lifespan of only a few years, for this reason, every year of fruit production counts…

Plum

“Plum Blossom” – Hamnett Place Community Garden – Jeanette Street – Wilkinsburg, PA

If you plant an apple tree… You want to eat an apple…

What can be planted under a particular tree should be assessed on a tree-by-tree basis, every tree canopy is different, no tree is the same. Fall is an excellent time to sow plants under a mature tree, once the leaves fall, water can easily reach the soil. Often times seeds sown in the fall right before the leaves fall, will sit underneath the leaves waiting till spring to germinate… Seeds that germinate before the tree leafs out seem to have the best chances of survival.

Successfully planting underneath of a fruit tree is simply a matter of timing, you want your plants to establish as they would in a natural forest, or while the trees do not have leaves. Many plants, including herbs, can survive extreme conditions once established. Likewise, the actual yield of a herb is often the leaves themselves, which does not require as much light to produce a yield as a fruit or vegetable… Making them perfect plants for an edible guild centered around a primary fruit tree…

Herbs, although extremely tasty as seasonings in our foods, serve a number of other purposes directly affecting the health and wellbeing of a tree. Everything from beneficial insect attraction, repelling pests, Nitrogen fixing, forage and ground burrowing prevention… Herbs can play a role…  Herbs can also be used in the creation of organic oils and solutions that may be helpful in the war against pests and diseases, as the popularity increases so will the availability of these types of products. The jury is still out with me as far as many of these organic/homemade products are concerned. Recent memories of me getting lit up by wasps after using a suggested chili powder and citric acid combo may be tarnishing my thoughts a little bit though…

I’m not one of those permies that will blow smoke up your ass as far as what is possible in the garden. Although plants will grow under a tree, they do not grow with nearly as much vigor as plants that are growing in sunny conditions. In short, don’t think you are going to be able to grow perfect show-worthy specimens under that 40′ apple tree. It is important to remember that what you are doing is primarily to benefit the tree, the fact that you can enjoy them is secondary.

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“Allium” – Hamnett Place Park and Ride – Center Street – Wilkinsburg, PA

Because everyone likes a list of plants… This is by no means the end all of lists… As always… It is just a starting point…

Allium – I’m talking from Chives to Ramps, plant them. Even the ornamental varieties will not only survive, but benefit the entire guild from canopy to root. When in full flower, an expanse of Allium can attract so many pollinating insects that from a distance the entire garden will appear to pulse and move. Allium, although tasty to humans, is typically not the favorite food of most foraging and burrowing animals, they will typically forage somewhere else if even the slightest presence of these plants is detected. Garlic is apparently effective as a peach tree borer deterrent, it may be useful as a remedy when planted in very close quarters to an affected tree.

Basil – My absolute favorite herb, cinnamon, lemon, lime, Thai, purple, red, large leaf, Minette, greek globe, spicy globe, sacred… I could go on forever… I grow it in every corner of my garden, I think it is beautiful when grown as an ornamental. Late in the season when the asters and goldenrod are blooming, basil will extend its wispy flower heads high above the other plants in the garden. These flower heads are different shades of pink, purple to white or yellow and attract beneficial pollinators… This year I have even noticed hummingbirds visiting my front yard Basil plants…

Comfrey – You can’t do a list of beneficial herbs without mentioning this storied plant. Comfrey is a well-known nutrient accumulator that has been written about by just about every organic garden writer. Tap-root grows deep, yadah, yadah, yadah… Makes great compost, yadah, yadah, yadah… It is all true… My gripe is really from removal… Because it is practically impossible… I have written about it before in a post titled – Comfrey Cautions – I’m not saying don’t plant it… I’m just saying plant it cautiously as it can get out of hand quickly… And it can become a nightmare for any future people who may occupy your house… Respect the Comfrey…

Oregano – Another staple that can simply be used fresh off the plant in all your favorite dishes, and it is easy as dirt to grow anywhere. Potted plants are typically the normal sales method, often times you can find these plants at a sharp discount late in the year… I like to wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and then plug them in… It won’t look pretty… But the plants will grow normally in the spring often times starting well before nurseries have them available in the spring…

Sage – Regular old garden Sage, or Salvia Officinalis is often one of the first herbs to bloom in the spring, which in my garden is timed perfectly with many of the neighborhood fruit trees. The distinctive aroma of Sage is also supposed to ward off many pests, kids don’t like it either. When grown under a tree, Sage tends to stretch and grow horizontally instead of vertically. Where the stems touch the ground the plant will root creating a new crown, these can then be dug up and moved around your garden… Or left in place to allow the plant to grow in size…

Mint – Mint is an incredibly invasive perennial weed, I strongly urge you to consider all other options when contemplating planting any variety of mint. The menthol contained in the mint is a powerful insect repellent, it is a common ingredient in many organic insecticides. Mint has a tendency to grow very tall, believe it or not, I have seen it successfully outcompete a newly planted dwarf fruit tree on more than one occasion. Mint also has a tendency to grow thick in the early spring months, this is a problem when it shades the graft union on a dwarf fruit tree typically causing the scion to sprout roots and eliminate all of the dwarfing characteristics of the rootstock.

Lavender – If you have ever had the chance to see a field of Lavender you will not need sold on this Summertime favorite. The dark blue flowers against the silver foliage is simply stunning. Prefers full sun but will do just fine in the shade… Though the flowers are typically more sparse in the shade… Lavender repels fleas and moths, specifically the codling moth making it a perfect companion to just about any fruit tree.

Lemon Balm – You can’t do a list of beneficial herbs without good old lemon balm. Lemon balm contains citronella compounds that deter all sorts of insects… Including the disease carrying nuisance mosquitos that seem to become more dangerous every year. Lemon balm has a tendency to voraciously self seed, clipping the flowers before they go to seed is the only remedy for this.

Dill and Fennel – I am lumping these two together because Fennel is said to be allopathic and therefore should not be planted with anything, except Dill apparently. Both of these plants deter pests. Fennel attracts beneficial insects like ladybugs, wasps and hoverflies… It is also a good flea repellent. The flower heads of both of these plants are an excellent nectar source for a bunch of beneficial insects.

Thyme – Another one of my favorites… Available in practically every size, color and flavor imaginable. Some of them creep along the ground making a beautiful living mulch, while others grow more upright. Both types are simply stunning when they bloom in proliferation, and they too attract swarms of beneficial insects. My favorite is the variegated lemon thyme, I will purposely step on it to release the citrus smell.

Wormwood – The reason I am including this plant is because it keeps animals out of the garden, though it also has a tendency to be allopathic and will in turn kill plants that get to close to it. I only recommend planting it on the outside of the trees drip line to prevent accidents, better safe than sorry. Wormwood is said to repel slugs, moths, snails, black flea beetles and fleas rather effectively, as with all organic compounds I recommend research and experimentation before diving right in.

One of my gripes with permaculture is it offers very few immediate solutions to common fruit tree problems. Although garlic can repel the peach tree borer, it can often take several years for the effects to work, this can be too long for modern families that rarely stay in the same house their entire lives.

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

I am not affiliated with anyone other than myself, all the information presented in this blog is provided by me… If you find this information helpful, please consider purchasing a print or two from my online shop…

http://www.society6/chriscondello… Or you can contact me directly at c.condello@hotmail.com for commissions or locally/personally produced prints… Thank you for reading…

If you would be interested in reading more – Urban Herb BenefitsPlanting Under Fruit Trees

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72 Hours Of Summer – Solstice

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Practical Permaculture – The Vegetarian Compost Conundrum

Currant

“Inside The Currant Bush” – © chriscondello 2013 – Red Currant – Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery – Holland Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – I do not photograph piles of compost… I just don’t do it… I don’t want to look at photographs of steaming piles… So I don’t make you look at them… These red currants are available at Garden Dreams…

Most of you probably know that I am not a fan of urban compost, very few people know how to properly manage a compost pile… And even fewer are willing to take the time to actually flip the pile every once in a while… Hell… I know people who have spinning compost barrels that only require you to move your arm a little bit… And they still don’t do it… Unless that barrel has a timer hooked up to a motor… The barrel is not getting spun… And in turn… The entire neighborhood smells like someone left a Christmas ham in their trunk till August…

Compost, can simply be defined as the controlled decomposition of organic matter, that is really all there is to it. People try to complicate it for profit sake… But if you just put your organic scraps in a pile in your yard… Eventually they will break down…

Very few people realize this next little fact, but, compost and mulches should ideally be indigenous to the climate you are working in. Tropical plants will often not decompose in temperate climates. Furthermore, they can also often harbor bad bacteria or exotic invasive weed seeds. What I am saying is… If pests and diseases hitch-hike all around the country on plants… Imagine what could end up in your mulch… Keep your compost and mulches as local as possible…

Plants and organic material need moisture to decompose… So take all of those black plastic compost barrels I see all over Pittsburgh, and throw them right in the garbage… They do not work… And you will not be happy… Compost is always better off in an open air situation, oxygen is required for decomposition… The more… The better… Those little black barrels become cess pools… Not compost… You will end up dumping the contents into a pile anyways… And even that is a pain in the ass…

Compost will also not break down until it has reached a temperature of 122° F, and it will not get any hotter than 158° F. Dry and hot climates will require shade and moisture. Cool and wet climates may require some cover. When working in the tropics you can compost much larger material than in the temperate zone due to the climate being hot and humid.

In the temperate zone, all high-carbon, slow to break down material should be shredded. The more surface area you can create on your material, the faster it will break down. Shredding is not just about creating surface area, it is about facilitating the handling and turning of the compost pile. Straw and large branches tend to get tangled around each other, this will make the turning of your pile damn near impossible… The smaller your material… The better… Ideally, a compost pile should be flipped every two days… But once in a while will work fine… It’s better than never…

As a last-minute side note… Or little golden nugget of information… Whichever you choose… When it comes to shredable materials available in the suburbs… Freshly fallen trees are gold… Specifically speaking… Branches under 3″… You see… The cambium layer is the part of the tree responsible for nutrient movement… The smaller the branch… The higher the ratio of cambium layer to hardwood… When shredded… Small branches should always be composted… Or at least used for mulch… Use the good stuff when you can get your hands on it…

Bocking14

“Bocking 14” – © chriscondello 2013 – Comfrey – Hamnett Way – Wilkinsburg, PA – When you have a pile of yard debris… Plant comfrey around it… As time goes on… Cut the comfrey and throw it on your pile… It will speed up decomposition considerably…

Compost activators can be used, but should be placed directly in the middle of the pile for maximum efficiency. Believe it or not… Recently deceased animals make a great activator… Fish, comfrey, yarrow, urine and nettles will also work… Many stores and catalogs now sell “compost activators”… My opinion is to steer clear of them and go with something directly out of your garden… Personally… I like yarrow or comfrey… Peeing on my compost pile would not go over well in my neighborhood… And the cats would find the fish no matter how I buried it…

Compost is typically a low-maintenance activity… Though many a teacher today likes to turn it into a two-hour… $100 class… I find that it is relatively easy to make… But judging by the search engine terms people are using to find my blog… More of you have problems with compost than I thought… In my experience… The issues associated with bad compost stems from a simple lack of nitrogen in the pile. Hence the nitrogen rich activator like Comfrey… Or fish… This problem is commonly observed as a white fungus inside of a pile that smells bad… In the city… Grass clippings are the easy to find source of nitrogen… Carbon is the tricky one…

Properly aged compost, will not resemble any of the material it started out as… Think dark black soil… It should have an earthy smell, with hints of vanilla and almonds… Just kidding… As long as it does not smell like ammonia… You are fine… A pile that starts off at 3′ tall, will shrink considerably as the pile ages. You will know you have the formula right when your pile loses very little volume as it ages.

Flies, though annoying, are actually a welcomed addition to your compost pile. In urban environments flies may be considered more of a pest than anything. A simple way to avoid flies around your compost heap is to place all fruits and veggies on the inside of the pile, if you surround them with carbon matter you basically hide them. Once your compost breaks down, you will not have as much of a smell, or fly problem.

Insects and animals will die in your compost, that is why there is no such thing as a vegetarian compost pile… Insects and rodents do not count as vegetables… Unless there is some new diet I haven’t heard about yet… Books will constantly say you can’t compost meat, or fish… This is BULLSHIT!.. Entire road kills can be composted as long as you put them in the middle… Besides… I have smelled compost piles that would make roadkill smell like posies… Now I’m not recommending composting the neighborhood cat… Or throwing meat scraps in your small urban compost pile… What I am saying is more that plant matter will decompose in your compost pile… Don’t be overly disturbed if you find a dead rodent in your pile… because it happens… And it does not hurt the compost… Or you…

Books will also warn about composting certain weeds, or weeds that have gone to seed… This is also bullshit… A compost pile that reaches the proper temperature will cook the seeds… If you are still worried… Cover the aged pile with a black tarp for a couple of days… The added heat will typically finish the job. Often times, seeds germinating in your compost pile are often indicators of germination conditions… Instead of taking it as a bad sign… Take it as a good one… Figure out what type of weed they are… And google them… You will probably end up back on my blog…Regardless… Look at it as a learning experience… If seeds are germinating… You got something right…

PghPetunias

“Pittsburgh Petunias” – © chriscondello 2013 – My Garden – Whitney Avenue – Wilkinsburg, PA – Plant petunias and question everything…

I’m going to add another last-minute nugget of information… A heavy black tarp is a very effective garden bed making tool… Mark off the area you want your garden… Cover it with the black tarp… And let it sit in the sun for a few weeks… The lack of light coupled with the heat created will typically kill all weeds… Including turf grass… And cook any seeds that happen to be in the soil… This is the slow cousin of sheet mulching… Use it where a mound of compost would not be appropriate…

Given the high nutrient content of compost, often the only seeds that will germinate in your pile are climax species, and mineral accumulators. Weeds are actually one of the best things you can compost, if the weeds in your garden are absorbing all of your hard-earned nutrients, it would be silly to just throw them away… Compost everything…

To end this post… I really just want to say… Compost is really just a pile of decomposing organic waste in your backyard… It will smell… And it will attract bugs… So don’t put it next to your neighbors kitchen window…Compost should be in contact with the soil… And exposed to the elements… Man will try to sell you fancy containers… And expensive additives… When in reality … These are nothing more than leaky garbage cans…

Air exposure… In my experience… Is all you need to solve most problems… If you suspect something is awry… Put a fork in it…

plant petunias and question everything – chriscondello

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Practical Urban Permaculture – Comfrey Cautions

Comfrey has been recognized as a versatile plant for the organic gardener for a long time, it is used in medicine and as a fertilizer.

Comfrey is a perennial herb of the family Boraginaceae with a black tap-root and large, hairy broad leaves that bear small bell-shaped flowers of various colors. Old school comfrey was a voracious self seeder, taking over an area the size of a football field in just a few years. The main species of focus now is russian comfrey, particularly the ‘bocking 14’ cultivar that was developed in the 1950s. Bocking 14 produces a sterile seed that helps stop its spread, the plant will still spread by root but not nearly as quickly.

As far as contemporary herbalists are concerned comfrey is a very controversial herb that, although it offers many therapeutic benefits, has been linked to liver toxicity in a number of studies. Comfrey contains allantoin, which is thought to stimulate cell growth and repair, while simultaneously depressing inflammation. Scientists and physicians agree that comfrey should be used as a topical treatment only and never ingested, the possible benefits of ingestion are outweighed by the damage it can do to the liver.

My issues with comfrey are solely based on removal… In a multi-acre farm setting this would not be an issue, but in the city, removal is something you will have to consider. Even homeownership is no longer permanent… Although comfrey does not spread by seed it will spread like a wildfire when you have to remove it. Comfrey pulls nitrogen from the soil using a deep tap-  and an extensive root network, it will sprout from any root left in the ground including the tap-root.

The first time I ever removed a comfrey plant I had planted it in my flower bed, I dug the plant out and filled in the hole thinking nothing of it, a few weeks later I noticed 10 new plants coming up. I dug each one of the new plants out and composted them, 2 weeks later I had several hundred of them coming up all over the place, I ended up removing and replacing 3 square yards of topsoil to remedy the situation.

Now that I know what goes into removing the plant, I don’t plant it anywhere near my house or flower beds, but I do grow it… I just respect it now. Comfrey really is a valuable source of fertility for the organic gardener acting as a dynamic accumulator, mining a host of nutrients from the soil. These nutrients can easily be incorporated through teas, compost activator, tillage and mulch or side dressings, the only real differences you will find is the amount of time needed for the nutrients to become chemically available to the plants.

I find as long as comfrey is planted in an out-of-the-way area you will have no problems, find an abandoned house and fill the yard with comfrey if you want. Comfrey should be planted with an awareness of removal, way to many gardeners have tons of experience planting things, but they have never had to remove them. Permaculture is not a “set in stone” list of plants that you can put under trees, even though I don’t like comfrey in an urban setting, a lot of people do. I do not like the fact that every piece of permaculture literature I read requires comfrey to be interplanted with everything, I prefer to plant it off site, harvest it, and then move it in when needed. Just something to think about…

peace – chriscondello

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