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Comfrey, harder and slower to start than I thought

 
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Last year thanks to Trace Oswald I planted several comfrey roots. One grew.  Everything I have read makes it seem like a super easy plant to grow, and almost impossible to get rid of once you have it.  This is not even close to my experience.  I don't remember, but there must have been a dozen nice pieces of root. I planted them the day I got them. Mulched them and watered.  Only one came up, and I accidentally planted an echinacea plant almost on top of it.  It was a nice little plant even if it was crowded.  
I didn't think of it sooner, but now I think both the echinacea, and the comfrey are coming up.  The young leave look very similar, so I'm not sure what is what. I would like to dig it up and separate them, so maybe the comfrey will do better, but I don't want to kill or damage it. I don't mind having to replace the echinacea, I can get that easy. But the comfrey is hard to come by.
What do you think? Should I separate them, or should I leave them together and try to remember to separate them next winter?  Thanks.
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Hi Jen,

Comfrey sometimes crawls out of the gate.  In fact, comfrey is what brought me to make my very first post on Permies.  I, too, read about how easily comfrey grows and assumed I could just put it in the ground (preferably with some nitrogen—I used bat guano) and get out of the way.  I planted 6 roots and all died in the ground.  The issue was actually too much water.  You stated that you watered your comfrey, but my experience is that baby comfrey is easy to drown.  Once established though it behaves as advertised.  I re-planted after rains passed and the Comfrey established easily and grows great today.

As far as separating your comfrey, I suppose you could do so but I would think another attempt at planting would be better.  My bet would be to try in spring after rains have passed.  The ground does not have to be terribly high in nitrogen for starters—the guano I used was overkill and detrimental, conducive to rot.  I added more nitrogen after the plants got established and they loved it.

But back again to your original question, if you want to separate out the comfrey, by all means, go for it.

Good Luck,

Eric
 
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The ones from Trace might have dried out too much in the mail or something like that. Now that there's at least one established plant to work with I think your comfrey adventures will go easier from now on. That plant is still small so what I'd probably do in that case is let it grow a bit more then start removing about half the plant to transplant elsewhere. Use the existing plant as a mother plant until some others get established. That methods seems to be very reliable. In theory though, you could completely remove that plant & divide into about a dozen other plants. The person I originally bought some from (an actual plant expert) said they will grow from just 1/2" of root.

I read somewhere (probably here on permies) that new ones can be started from cuttings. I tried it once & it seemed like some were going to work but then winter arrived or I forgot to water them or something. They all eventually died.
 
Eric Hanson
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I bet Mike is right regarding the root pieces not surviving transit.  That one remaining plant looks like it will be healthy.  I would be tempted to give it some good nitrogenous fertilizer (bat guano or blood meal spread on the surface and watered in would be great) for a year.  After it gets a good year’s growth it should be strong enough to divided and dig out root pieces for transplants.  By next year it will likely be so healthy that you couldn’t kill it if you tried—even if you dug up the root ball there would still be root pieces left in the ground that would grow back.

Eric
 
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Wry grin 5 times good healthy starts, 5 times dead plants.  No for some of us comfrey is not easy.  Sigh and what do I have in my cart on Etsy some Bocking 14 root cuttings.   I think I need my head examined.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Thanks everyone, I thought it was just me.  I think I will put some blood meal in the soil, and leave it till it starts to die back this fall and move it then.  I just worried about it being over crowded, but I guess if it lived through the first year, it should make it the second.
Dorothy I think it's part of a gardeners DNA to be stubborn and keep planting things we have trouble with.  I have bell pepper seedlings, knowing they probably won't do well, and even knowing the lunchbox peppers do so much better, I keep planting bells!  I'm determined to have a successful harvest of bell peppers one day.  I say if you can afford it, order comfrey.  Good luck I hope it will grow for you.  Thanks everyone
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I can't help but wonder if nature is trying to tell me something.  I planted a crown cutting of common comfrey, and Russian comfrey.  About the time I figured they both died the common comfrey pops up. A few days later the Russian comfrey pops up, I was so happy.   Now I have to keep it alive. I check on them every day, more leaves, healthy looking. Today no Russian comfrey.  Oh wait I see a stub.  I noticed cantaloupe also gone.  Then I hear the culprit.  It's been so hot the chickens haven't been escaping. I guess it cooled off enough this evening that one decided to go foraging.  So frustrating 😔.  
Instead of mulching my garden, I spent my time making a  chicken wire cage for the common comfrey, that the chicken didn't notice. I put a wire basket over the stub, and will make a cage for it tomorrow in hopes it grows back.
I'm stubborn so I will keep trying, but of all the plants she had to choose, it's the one I can't easily replace.  The dreaded Comfrey may fail again.
I think the comfrey I had next to the echinacea is also on a goner.  I just don't see it at all.  I'm crying the comfrey blues.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I don't want to jinx myself, but the Russian comfrey the chicken munched to the ground has a little green leaf coming out of the stub.  Maybe it will survive.  
I need to spend my next days off adding to the fence in the chicken yard, so the comfrey doesn't have to spend it's life in jail.
 
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I can say the same- have tried comfrey a few times and it just doesn't do well (none has lived). N California maybe is like where I live, zone 9-ish with long dry spells? I wonder if it has to do with moisture.
I am visiting the northeast US right now and seeing huge comfrey everywhere, but have tried it all at home and not once did it work. Some things just don't grow where I live, so I find others (moringa is a fine alternative for chop and drop where I am, might be worth a shot if you're looking to plant it for soil fertility).
 
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I recently took some comfrey cuttings, from a vigorously growing plant. I literally to a spade to it, hauled up some roots and snapped it into cured 4" long piece.  The ground was already prepared - rotovated, as part of a rabbit proof fence installation, and I just shoved them in about 2" down. Every single one had leafed out now, and they stand about 12" high in a month.

I think what helped was putting them into warm soil, and soil that had been both tilled and watered by a few days of heavy rain. Helped them get off to a cracking start.

I have transplanted dormant roots in winter before now, with much less success than this.
 
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In my ecosystem, comfrey barely survives. It hasn't become the aggressive, tenacious conqueror that's described in other ecosystems.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Thanks so much everyone, it's nice to know it's not just my incompetence's.
I will look into moringa, it's not a plant I'm familiar with. I love to learn about something new to me, so thanks.
What about Borage?  I know Comfrey is in the borage family.  It grows very well for me. Does it have some of the same benefits?
Thanks again everyone.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Besides being condemned to being in jail both my comfrey are doing well.  I discovered I must water at least every other day. Two days with out water and it wilts and looks quite sad.  My hope is once it's established I won't have to baby it so much.
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Hi!

From my experience, once the roots reach deep, it is pretty much immortal (for the better and the worse).

Maybe you're planting your roots too close of the surface, and they'd end up affected by a strong heat. Could that be part of your problem?
 
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:In my ecosystem, comfrey barely survives. It hasn't become the aggressive, tenacious conqueror that's described in other ecosystems.



Yes comfrey as a cut and drop is a permaculture tool, like hugelculture, and swales it would not suit every environment. It has a pretty wide tolerance of conditions at least once it gets ir's roots down, but won't thrive everywhere and that would sort of be the point.

Jen said


My hope is once it's established I won't have to baby it so much.



Hopefully so.
I guess thanks to Laurence D Hills we know more about the nutritional content of comfrey than other plants, but any plant that thrives with you will still be good for 'cut and drop'.  Borage would certainly made a good tea-feed, being soft in leaf and stem like comfrey.
For some reason I got the idea that Lespedeza biflora could be useful as a cut and drop groundcover.  Although comfrey thrives for me, I fancy growing this and have several seedlings currently in the polytunnel.  Whether they'll survive outside here is quite another matter!  I guess I just like to try different things, but they don't always work.  Amorpha fructicosa is another shrubby possibility for much of the US.
 
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i have comfrey EVERYWHERE - the pervious owner planted it and it spread all over

funny - when my partner at the time we moved here got comfrey started from seed she was TOTALLY chuffed = ( i think it was the regular stuff) later that year i looked up that funny plant with the purple flowers growing all over - it was comfrey (russian) - VERY VERY VERY lucky - there is usually one in every bed in the spring

even a small piece of root will take and it will grow in pretty much any soil for sure ... i totally suspect the others here are right - the root pieces you got were struggling. i have shipped comfrey root to friends/family and will be doing so this week - i take the roots up the night before/day of shipping.. leave them covered in dirt, wrap a wet rag around them and then vacuum seal them in a bag -  that keeps them tip top in transit...any root propagator needs to remain as full of water as possible - drier ones CAN grow - but it is a struggle..i have grown potato plants from shriveled halves, but the full ones grow faster with a better chance off success

i would suggest to anyone that is getting comfrey root pieces to pot them with your best dirt and baby those pots like tiny tomato seedlings until you get healthy plants - THEN plant those in the ground.

this may take a while - my mom sent me some egyptian walking onion bulbs last year - they arrived a little dried out - i got 15, i planted them in pots with great dirt. after a month i had 5 small onion plants, after 2 months i had 8, after FOUR months i had 14.. i transplanted them into bigger pots last fall and put them in my greenhouse (not absolutely necessary - i did put a few in the ground in nov)..

this year they are 3 feet tall and covered in bulbs..

as is often the case - patience beyond what you would expect works is the winning formula - those onions were a great lesson - many times i was all like "okay- the rest aren't gonna come up" but i resisted the urge to shitcan the  blank pots and slowly the rest emerged..

blah blah blah - sorry - hope this helps >> srsly - pots first - cheers!





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Jen Fulkerson
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James you are so very lucky.   And you are right.  I tend to be impatient.  I was sure the comfrey I'm growing now was dead, but it did come up in its own time.  Thanks for the post.
 
Michael Cox
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Comfrey observation.

At my house, comfrey does ok, but our soil gets pretty dry in summer and it doesn't do a great job of supressing weed growth.

At my inlaws place in Wales, their water table, even in summer, is only a few feet below ground level. The property is on reclaimed estuary flats, with drainage ditches every 100m or so that have standing water year round. I planted comfrey there in a ring around an apple tree and it does amazingly well. In that location it does a near perfect job of supressing grass and other plants up to the drip line of the tree. If you lift the comfrey aside and look beneath you see dark, moist soil full of organic matter. That apple tree is thriving.

I suspect, based on my limited observations, that moisture is the key factor. Vigorous comfrey - even once properly established - depends on good soil moisture.
 
Jen Fulkerson
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I think you are right Michael.  I was told if it was mulched I could probably water once a week. I have learned if I don't water at least every other day it does damage.  Even with heavy mulch it still seems to need lots of water.  
I want it, I have worked to have it, but I think I will also plant borage, and find some other alternatives.  My dream of surrounding my fruit trees with comfrey and growing enough to divide and share with friends and family,  is unrealistic in my area.  I'm stubborn, and will do my best to get I hope a few plants to grow.  I'm also practical enough to know when I'm beating my head against the wall.  I hope to eventually get 3 or 4 of both types to grow and maintain, and use borage (which does very well) and other for the mass.  At least that's the plan for the moment. We shall see.  Thanks everyone for all the great input.
 
James MacKenzie
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you all may be on to the moisture thing - i am on the east coast of cape breton - it is a wet climate overall and the comfrey thrives without effort - i don't even have "soil" - i am on a till plain - 50% rocks, 25% clay & the rest is a thin layer of topsoil-ish stuff weds grass etc. - all my gardening is raised beds and pots etc. - i truck in loads of aged horse poop and make compost to combine with shitty topsoil i got years ago - it has taken time to get "soil"

but the comfrey seems to grow right in the ground no problem along with native weeds etc. and plenty of it grows super under tree cover too so it doesn't need full sun either

so it prob is the moisture which is a bummer for you - sorry
 
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