Why You Should Grow Comfrey in Your Garden

The comfrey plant, Symphytum officinale, is a perennial herb that is well worth having in your garden. 

Few plants tick as many boxes as comfrey.  Besides being a beautiful plant with long-blooming flowers that bees absolutely adore, it is incredibly hardy, grows quickly, and has many benefits for both the garden and the gardener. 

It also draws beneficial insects such as lacewings and parasitoid wasps that will combat garden pests. It has been grown as a soil conditioner in areas that have hard or clay soil to improve the soil’s composition, and can even be used topically to help struggling trees whose trunks have been damaged. Comfrey’s medicinal qualities have been known for hundreds of years. It is also well-known in the gardening community for being an excellent nutrient source for our plants.  

Comfrey is an exceptionally easy plant. If you get a non-sterile variety, it will happily spread on its own, even in some shade. It is not particularly bothered by pests, and it grows very quickly. You can easily get five cuttings a year off a full-grown comfrey plant. 

If you prefer to not have it take over your yard, you can always get the kind I have planted, which is Bocking 14 (Symphytum x uplandicum), a sterile variety of Russian comfrey that stays put but still grows like a champ. You can also easily propagate it by a root cutting, but it will not grow via seed like the Symphytum officinale does. It will be vigorous in growing, even in the first year, but it is suggested you give it a full year or two of growing before taking large and consistent cuttings so it has time to strengthen and grow its root system.

Examining the health benefits of comfrey, we find that it has been known to aid in wound healing, including rashes, acne, eczema, bug bites and stings, etc. This could be due to the high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C, as well as allantoin which is a known skin treatment.

There are also anti-inflammatory and analgesic elements that can help with pain and inflammation in muscles and joints. Topical application has been used to decrease the pain of arthritis, fibromyalgia, gout, and bruising. Several studies have shown it to be more effective in treating symptoms of osteoarthritis than a placebo or prescription anti-inflammatories. 

Rubbing comfrey on the chest may help with congestion, although there is controversy with internal use so drinking it as a tea or tincture is not recommended. There is belief by some that comfrey may be harmful to the liver when taken internally due to certain alkaloid levels. This is a hotly-debated topic with others stating that these alkaloids would only be harmful in very high amounts, but the general suggestion is that it be for external use only. There are also medical studies that show comfrey has anti-cancer properties, and research is ongoing.  

Comfrey flowers

For garden purposes, comfrey is a fantastic source for the macronutrients nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.  It also has high levels of micronutrients. Because of its deep taproot, this plant can grab nutrients from deep in the soil to then store in its leaves, which can then be easily utilized by us, whether for ourselves or our veggie gardens. 

When harvesting comfrey, it is suggested to wear gloves and a shirt with sleeves due to the prickly hairs. Some suggest leaving a few leaves or chopping 6 to 8 inches above the soil line so the plant can recover quickly, but I have been known to harvest totally and without mercy, and my plants have all recuperated very quickly. 

Many gardeners simply “chop and drop” this plant as it is typically interplanted with other flowers, trees, or shrubs, and dropping it in place is as easy as it gets for naturally breaking down into compost. 

You can also dig the leaves into the soil, or dry them in the sun before crumbling them over a planting area, helping with quicker breakdown. It is also a great compost activator, in that it can help speed up decomposition in your compost piles, especially in its liquid form.

Speaking of its liquid form, one of my favorite ways to use comfrey is as a liquid fertilizer for both containers and raised beds. It is very easy to do and only takes a few weeks’ time. 

Comfrey three weeks after being cut

You can use whole or chopped comfrey leaves (chopping helps them break down quicker). Simply add them to a bucket or large container, weigh them down with a rock, then add enough water to cover them. As they break down, they will give off an odor, so you can cover the bucket if you like, but it is not necessary. I personally recommend covering it if the container is outside where heavy rains might wash some of your fertilizer out or where animals may get into it. Give this three to six weeks to decompose, although in a pinch, you could steep for just a few days if you need something quickly. 

When finished, you can strain or scoop out the leafy sludge to place directly in your beds. What is left is a powerful fertilizer, so you will want to dilute it, but how much to dilute it depends on how much water was initially used vs the amount of comfrey. 

How long you have let it steep will also contribute to the math. In general, you don’t want to use a very dark, thick tea. It could be anywhere from 1:3 ratio (with three parts water) up to a 1:12 ratio. This is where you can experiment and see what works for you. I typically use a five-gallon bucket and dilute afterwards with about a 1:4 tea to water ratio. You can use this to fertilize any of your plants, but it is also a good foliar spray which is used to help prevent powdery mildew.  

In short, comfrey is a well-loved herb in a permaculture garden. It is an economical way to feed your garden and create healthier plants while enjoying the many side benefits it provides. I suggest everyone look into growing a patch of Bocking 14 specifically and employ all the uses this miracle plant can provide!


Leave a comment