Showing posts with label Herbs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Herbs. Show all posts

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Herbal Play dough

An easy to create play experience for kids is homemade play dough. It is so simple to make, stores well in the fridge and is much cheaper and kinder to your child than the store bought stuff! This is one of my tried and true recipes.


1 1/2 cups of salt
3 cups of plain flour
3 cups of water
2 tbsp of cream of tartar
3 tbsp of olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan.

Warm gently over low heat on the stove and continue to stir until mixture thickens and starts to form a ball. Allow to cool slightly then knead on a protected surface until nice and smooth.

I cut mine up into portions, wrap in baking paper or greaseproof paper and store in an old tupperware container in the fridge. The play dough should last this way for a very long time, unless exposed to air. Mold can occur over time if bacteria is present in the dough...just let your nose and eyes guide you there. I have read that a tablespoon of vinegar added to the batch can hinder mould growth, but I haven't tried this as yet.

At home I mostly make plain colour play dough and let the kids experiment with texture, colour and fragrance using things from around the house and from the garden. I particularly love making Herbal Play dough as the textures and fragrances are very stimulating. I place a few bowls of plant items for the children's own selection and they help themselves to make their own smelly shapes. Dough with raw plant pieces doesn't last that well, so you may like to portion off small amounts from the original batch and just toss after a couple of days.

Other aromatic dough suggestions:
  • Spices eg. ground cinnamon, ginger or allspice or try colouring with turmeric
  • Essential oils for aroma (taking into consideration the age of the children and safe quantities per recipe)
If you have children with allergies or a food intolerance you may like to try a recipe that excludes the trigger items. There are plenty of rice flour and gluten free recipes on the internet for you to try. There are plenty of no cook and microwave recipes too! Do you have a favourite family recipe?


PLEASE NOTE: As with all children's activities it is best to supervise and do ensure that dough and plant pieces are not consumed.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Quest for Fresh Cilantro

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
One of my favorite, late-summer, treats is whipping up a bowl of pico de gallo (PEE-ko de GUY-yoh). I'll eat it on just about anything, especially as a dip with corn chips. It means beak of the rooster (don't ask me why) in Spanish. It's a fresh relish made from minced fresh tomatoes, onion, jalapeno pepper, and cilantro - and best when everything is fresh right out of the garden. Cilantro is a strong-tasting herb. You either love it or hate it, so you can leave it out if you're one of those that can't stand it. But to me, pico really needs those chopped up little bits of green leaves.

My main problem, however, is that cilantro is quick to bolt once our high-desert summer heat gets here. By the time my tomatoes and chiles are ready, the cilantro has long-since gone to seed (but not a total loss - cilantro seeds are better known as coriander, tasty in their own right).

So my on-going quest is to have fresh green cilantro leaves readily available out of my garden throughout the summer. There is a slow-bolt cilantro, so I've been growing that. It's a little better, but really doesn't last more a week or so past regular cilantro out in the garden, if even that.

So my next endeavor was planting my cilantro in a pot up on the deck. It was easier to keep watered (but not too much - cilantro likes it on the dry side), and the deck is shaded later in the afternoon. But individual plants were still pretty quick to bolt when the temperature starts climbing. The leaves are still tasty once cilantro starts sending up a seed stalk, but they shrink to almost nothing. It's too much work for too little yield, then.

My next experiment was really crowding the Slow-Bolt cilantro plants in their pot. With so many growing together, I can harvest a handful of fresh leaves by clipping a different section of the pot with scissors, instead of trying to clip individual branches off one plant. The clipping method removes the seed stalks early too, so the plants keep producing leaves. We had quite a long, cool, start to summer, but the heat finally got here a few weeks ago.

I'm happily surprised that I'm still harvesting lots of fresh cilantro with this method. But the plants finally are trying to bolt, and fresh tomatoes and chiles are still weeks, even months, away. It would be nice, but I really don't think my cilantro pot will make it until then.

Drying the cilantro isn't an option - it just doesn't taste the same. So my experiments are now to figure out how best to preserve that fresh cilantro taste. Most articles say to stand clipped cilantro stalks in a glass of water, cover with a ventilated plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator. I've found that might work for a day or two, but after that the tops wilt and the parts in the water get dark and slimy. I've had better luck washing the fresh cilantro, then getting it as dry as possible - after spinning it, I lay it out in the dish drainer and fluff it 'til dry but not wilted - and then storing it dry in a covered dish in the refrigerator. I can hold fresh cilantro for a week that way. But that's certainly not gonna make it 'til tomato time.

I could make a pesto out of it, whirring the leaves with a drizzle of olive oil into a paste, packing it into a jar with a layer of oil on top, and refrigerating or freezing it. That's my last-ditch option. I'd get the flavor but not the texture of the little bits of fresh leaf in my pico, and it would be way too much oil (although that could work for cooked dishes needing that added cilantro flavor). I don't want to cook the leaves - I want to preserve the fresh taste. Today, I tried drizzling a bowlful of fresh leaves with just a little bit of oil, tossing them until they were all coated, and then freezing them. Instead of turning black, like fresh leaves do when frozen, the oil-coated frozen leaves are still green. Stored in an air-tight bag in the freezer, I'll see how they keep until tomato time, and if/how the taste keeps. I'm thinking it just might work to mince the frozen leaves and stir them into the pico before they thaw. Check back for the results in late August.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Layer in the Nutrition

by Chiot's Run

There are many simple steps you can take to layer extra nutrition and nourishment into your food. Spices and herbs are one of the best ways. Many people assume that they just add flavor and don't realize the nutritional value that they add to the foods that you eat. Most herbs and spices are very valuable in terms of the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals they contain. Consider cinnamon for example, it has a regulatory effect on blood sugar. It's not a coincidence that it's often paired with starchy foods like pancakes, french toast, oatmeal and bread. It's also a great source of manganese, fiber, iron, and calcium. It can fight e-coli and inhibit bacterial growth in the food it's in.

Layering in Nutrition

Consider also cayenne pepper, which we add to most of the meals we eat. It adds vitamins A, C, B6, K, and manganese to your diet. It helps with digestion, helps relieves ulcer pain, and can rebuild stomach tissue. It boosts circulation and is said to help stop heart attacks. Whenever I'm sick I drink plenty of cayenne tea and it works wonders to break up congestion. Cayenne seems like a wonder spice when you read about it.

Homegrown Garlic, Rosemary & Lemon Thyme

Cinnamon and cayenne are not unique either, all spices and herbs are nutrition powerhouses. If you're not in the habit of adding lots of herbs and spices to your food, get a few books from the library or spend some time on-line reading up on the health benefits of various herbs and spices. You'll be amazed at the amount of vitamins and minerals you can add in and some wonderful flavor with it!

Do you add lots of herbs and spices to your foods for the health benefit?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Saving the Freshness of Summer

Here at Chiot's Run we make sure we're enjoying all the fresh tastes of summer. Since we've been trying to eat more seasonally and not spend as much time canning & preserving, I've been making sure to enjoy things as they're at their peak. That means we've been eating sliced fresh tomatoes with every meal.

One of our other favorite fresh summer tastes is pesto. I usually make a batch and we enjoy it on; homemade pasta, pizza, toast, vegetables, etc. My pesto recipe is very simple, I use walnuts or pecans instead of pine nuts because I always have some in the freezer.

1/4 cup of walnuts
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 1/2 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup good olive oil
3 T. butter
1/4 cup romano cheese
salt & pepper to taste

Add walnuts, garlic and basil to food processor and process until finely chopped. Drizzle with 1/3 cup of good olive oil and process until combined, add 3 Tablespoons of butter and pulse until blended. Empty contents into bowl and stir in cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Allow to rest for a few hours before serving.

This particular batch of pesto was enjoyed over some fresh linguine that I made last night. There's enough left over for something else, I'm thinking make a white lasagne with cheese and pesto and no marinara.

What are you enjoying at the peak of it's fresh flavor?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Simple Soda Syrups

By Abby of Love Made the Radish Grow

Due to just being around people in general, soda pop made its way into our house. For years I have been battling to get it back out. Rather than throw my hands up in despair while my husband and children begged for it (mostly just on the days they were terribly bored with iced tea or the occasional juice), I figured out a substitute. I hate to see anything thrown out, and I love creative uses of anything else. This led to soda syrups, which we use with sparkling water in a ratio of roughly 3 to 1. These syrups impart more than enough flavor to a drink, and yet are far, far, FAR less sugar (even if they are still a syrup!) than a normal soda, and have none of that "other stuff". I have been using whatever I have left over from canning other preserves, plus the wonderful fruit finds from our local grocery store and markets-ours has a big cart it tosses "going to spoil soon" fruit in for pennies on the dollar. These mixes of fruit (right now mostly stone fruit) make wonderful syrups. We have also been making herbal and foraged syrups. What follows is my basic recipes. These are fabulous added to iced teas in place of sugar, as well. They could be made with honey, but my pocket book prefers I stay away from that until we have our own source. I include the lemon juice in all the recipes because I do not know the specific varieties of some of these fruits, or their precise age and it is my safety net. Plus, lemon is good with any fruit :)

Basic fruit syrup:
Clean, pit/seed and chop up your fruit-whatever kinds. You can mix and match or do all the same.
Put them in a pot with a little water to keep them from scorching while you cook them down. I cook mine around 15-20 minutes, and mash them while while cooking to release as much juice as possible.
Once it looks like they are sufficiently mushy and pulpy, strain the entire mixture into a separate pan, like you would for jelly or cheese (I use a plain, white cotton dish towel and hang it from my cabinets over a bowl). Let it drip until it drips no more. Do not squeeze, unless you want cloudy syrup-which isn't a really big deal. It tastes the same, but you may end up with little pieces of pulp in your glass, too.
Measure out how much juice you have into a stock pot, and add the same amount of sugar-this is a syrup, folks! Bring the whole thing up to a boil and boil just long enough for the sugar to fully dissolve and incorporate. Add 1/4 c lemon juice per batch of syrup.
Fill your sterilized canning jars (you could easily keep this in quarts, though we use pints and half pints as I like to change up my flavors a lot), clean the rims, top with sterilized lids, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
We have used grapes, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, strawberries and canteloupe in all sorts of concoctions for this this summer, and I have a watermelon waiting to become watermelon and watermelon mint soon.

For an herbal syrup (our fave right now is chocolate mint, we are making an almond flavored one from peach leaves today): Take two cups of fresh picked leaves, tear and bruise them, and add two cups of water.
Place in a pan and boil your leaves to basically make a tea-5-10 minutes depending on how strong you want it. Taste it!
Strain out the leaves and add 2 cups of sugar to the liquid. Boil this until the sugar fully incorporates.
Follow the canning instructions above.

These are great in coffee, as well. There are wonderful posts around the net on using foraged items like elderflower and Queen Anne's Lace (just omit the pectin recommended here to make it a syrup) in syrups, as well.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: pesto from home-grown basil

by Francesca

Today I noticed my basil had grown enough to allow me to make the first pesto of the season. Below is the traditional Italian recipe for pesto from home-grown basil, which I originally posted on FuoriBorgo here.

trofie al pesto

Few foods embody the Mediterranean summer better than pesto, a traditional Ligurian herb paste and pasta sauce that perfectly blends the diverse fragrances and flavors of this land. Pesto can be made very easily - and cheaply - at home. You can adjust the flavorings to your own tastes, and even grow its chief ingredient - basil - in your garden or in pots on your terrace: just 6 to 10 basil plants, planted correctly, will grow into bushes that yield a nice weekly crop, enough for a weekly supply of pesto over the summertime.

Traditional pesto is made with ingredients that are the essence of the Italian peninsula: the leaves of basil, a Mediterranean aromatic plant (there is also a very local Genovese basil variety); garlic; extra-virgin olive oil; Parmesan or pecorino cheese; and the seeds of the Umbrella Pine, a Mediterranean evergreen.

Pesto is easy to make, and is the perfect summer sauce for pasta and lasagna, as well as a tasty spread on bread. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator, and can also be frozen. Homemade pesto doesn't have the emerald green color of store-bought pesto, because what you buy in stores has added antioxidants. Basil, in fact, oxidizes easily, but with a few precautions you can reduce its natural darkening.


40 fresh basil leaves
1 handful of pine nuts
1 clove of garlic
5 tbsp grated Parmesan (or 4 tbsp Parmesan and 1 tbsp pecorino)
extra-virgin olive oil

(Quantities are from a recipe from this local cuisine book. Once you've made pesto a few times, you'll find that you really don't need to refer to a recipe at all, and can start improvising based on your own tastes and ingredients.)

~ Growing and harvesting basil - 40 fresh basil leaves

basill leaves

Growing Season:
Basil is an annual aromatic pant, and can be grown surprisingly easy at home, if you follow a few basic rules. Basil must have a full-sun exposure, and be sheltered from wind. Also, it doesn't do well if nighttime temperatures dip below 50F (10C), so if you grow it outdoors, plant it well past the last frost date, and harvest it when the summer temperatures begin to decline.

Basil can grow into a fairly tall, bushy plant, but it needs space - 6" (15 cm) between plants - and if you buy it in pots you must divide the little plants before transplanting them.

You'll find more information on how to grow basil from seeds and/or indoors here.


harvesting basil

top of basil after harvesting

Harvesting basil when it reaches a height of 4" (10cm) strengthens the plant. Always cut off the top of the plant and of the larger branches when the little side leafy shoots start to appear - this encourages the growth of more leaves, and soon your basil plant will become a vigorous bush.

basil flowering

Whenever you see a flower beginning to grow - green at first and shaped almost like little leaves - prune it immediately. Flowering will inevitably happen by the end of summer, but you want your plant to grow and produce leaves as long as possible!

When you plants have grown to about 8" - 20cm long, and have become generous bushes with lots of side branches, you can start harvesting the larger leaves as well.

Washing and storing leaves:
Wash and dry basil leaves, handling them gently because they bruise easily. If you don't use them immediately, you can store them for a couple of days in the refrigerator in an air-tight container, a damp paper towel placed at the bottom for moisture. (Otherwise they wilt.)

~ Pine Nuts - one handful

pine cones and nuts

Umbrella pines produce roundish pine cones full of oblong little nuts. They are small, with a soft, buttery texture, a delicate aroma, and an almost sweet taste. They are expensive in stores, but are an essential ingredient in pesto. (I've had pesto made with other nuts - cashews and walnuts are a common substitutes - but they just aren't as good.) You only need a handful to make pesto; refrigerate the rest or they may go rancid. (You do not toast pine nuts for pesto!)

~ Garlic - one clove


~ Parmesan - 5 tbsp grated


~ Extra-virgin olive oil

A little olive oil goes into the pesto as it's being made, but mainly the oil is used in storing the paste, and drizzling over the pasta at meal time.

~ Making pesto


Traditionally, pesto was made by pounding the ingredients with a wood pestle in a mortar of Carrara marble (available here). There is a reason for this: pounding tears up the leaves and releases the essential oils in the basil, bringing out its full flavor.

Mixing ingredients:

pesto paste

Otherwise, though, use an electric mixer - not so traditional, but much handier. First grind the pine nuts finely. Then add grated Parmesan (I actually add it in little cubes and let the mixer do the grating), garlic, basil, a little olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and mix until you get a thick paste.

You can either freeze your pesto, or store it in an air-tight container in the fridge. In the latter case, press the pesto down into the container so no air bubbles are left inside it, and pour over enough olive oil to cover it completely: the oil helps prevent oxidizing and acts as a natural preserving agent. Pesto keeps up to a week in the fridge.

~ Trofie al pesto


Fresh trofie, a thin and twisted shaped pasta, is the traditional accompaniment for pesto. Whatever pasta shape you use, just before you drain it, scoop out some of the cooking water with a ladle and stir it into your pesto paste, to make a creamy sauce. Stir this pesto sauce into your drained pasta, drizzle olive oil over the top, and serve it up hot!

eating trofie

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Thinking About Winter Already

by: Chiot's Run
The gardens here at Chiot's Run are full of all kinds of herbs for use in cooking. At the moment, I'm really enjoying using fresh chives, lemon balm, mint, bergamot, oregano and other herbs in my food and beverages.

I'm also thinking about this winter when the garden will be sleeping under a blanket of snow and I'm stocking my pantry with dried herbs from the garden for both cooking and tea. Timing is important when you want to dry herbs for your pantry. If you pick herbs at the wrong time they're not as flavorful. You want to harvest herbs before they start blooming for optimum flavor. You also want to harvest them in the morning right after the dew has evaporated. If you want to harvest herb flowers, like chamomile, you want to pick them when they first open, don't wait until they're fading. I usually dry my herbs in our warm attic or I hang them in the kitchen. I find that they dry fairly quickly without having to use a dehydrator. This saves me on my electric bill.

Growing herbs for your kitchen is a great way to add extra nutrition to your food. Herbs often contain more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Adding lots of herbs and spices to your foods layers in even more healthfulness. So add some herbs to your gardens and make sure you harvest them to stock you pantry.

Do you grow any herbs in your gardens? Do you dry them for the pantry?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal and you can follow me on Twitter.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Chamomile for Damping Off

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
"It smells like wet dirt in here," Aries says when he gets home from work. No wonder - I'm in the kitchen wetting down four trays of little pots filled with potting soil. It's time to start seeds for my tomato, pepper, eggplant, and other garden transplants.

Earlier, I'd stopped by a nearby Hispanic market to buy dried chamomile flowers. In Spanish, chamomile is called manzanilla (man-za-NEE-ya), translating to little apple. If you're familiar with the distinctive aroma of chamomile tea, you'll understand the reason behind the name. They carry teas and spices in bulk cellophane packets, at a much better price (½ ounce for 89¢) than buying a box of teabags in the regular supermarket. I'd dumped the half-ounce packet of the chamomile into two quarts water, brought it to a boil, then turned off the heat and covered it to let steep until cool. I want a really strong brew, and two quarts will be enough to thoroughly soak the top of the soil on all the pots after the seeds are in. I don't even remember where I learned about using chamomile to prevent damping off. I've been using it on my indoor seed-starts for years.

Damping off is when just sprouted seedlings suddenly shrivel right at the soil line, fall over, and die. It's caused by a fungus in the warm damp soil the seeds need to germinate. I try to keep my seed-starting soil clean (and that's a major reason you don't want to use dirt right out of the garden to start seeds), but since I reuse the pots, six-packs, and labels (a Sharpie pen on pieces of a plastic bleach bottle) each year, I don't want to take any chances with losing my seedlings. A dousing with strong chamomile tea works great for me. When all seeds are nestled into the damp soil in the pots, I strain the dark-brown cooled tea and gently water the seeds in with it, taking care not to wash too much soil over the seeds. I'll do it once more after they start come up if I see any start to flop over. And now, we're off and growing!

Monday, 8 March 2010

A different kind of spring tonic

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

This time of year, the first greens of spring are always welcome. Winter greens can be heavy and tiresome, most growing since last fall and then simmering through winter, a welcome respite for sure, but not the same as the first tender shoots that spring brings.

The much maligned Stinging Nettle Urtica diocia is one of those greens. High in vitamins and minerals, it is a very useful wild plant to know instead of fear. With a high chlorophyll content it is useful in smoothies, teas, & concoctions.

But for this post, I'll just share a recipe for pesto made with nettles. Healthy fresh food almost anyone will eat. Sometimes the people who will benefit the most from a brilliant green smoothie are the first to turn up their nose at something they perceive is BAD, like a stinging nettle. Pesto goes down a little easier... . And with spring still really a ways off, and summer even farther - it will be a long time before cilantro or basil pesto is on the menu.

Stinging Nettle is a perennial, so its roots can uptake heavy metals and pollution, so if you don't have nettles at home and are foraging, make sure to stay away from roadsides, areas with industrial pollution or conventional farming tracts. Here in our area, stinging nettle is associated with the "clover of the woods," Red Alder Alnus rubra. Stinging nettle loves the nitrogen rich soil around the alder, lacking an alder patch, areas on farmland where there is a high concentration of old manure is a good place to look too.

Using gloves to harvest will protect you from the sting of the hairs, and until the plant blooms, the sting is usually just a mild irritant anyway.

Like any other green, nettles really cook down, but a good armful is plenty for a batch of pesto. Especially if you decide you don't like it. Select tender young tops, leaving some behind for another harvest. Today I harvested the top six inches of the plants I found, leaving behind four inches or so to re-sprout.

We make pesto out of lots of greens and herbs, mixing and matching with what's available at the time.

Basic Pesto 1 cup

4 - 6 garlic cloves
4 Tablespoons lightly roasted nuts
4 - 5 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup greens (after cooking for nettles)
Salt to taste
Olive oil to taste - 1/4 cup or so depending on desired consistency

Nettles need to be blanched to remove the sting from the hairs on the leaves and stems. Bring a large pot of water to boil, add salt, bring back to boil, add nettles using tongs. Blanch for a minute or two until bright green, remove from water and plunge nettles in cold water to stop the cooking process.

Drain in a colander, *reserving juice, wring out the nettles to release all the water. You can do this with a towel, or you can just use your hands.

*Optional: To steel yourself for serving nettles at the dinner table and maybe lying about it, hold your nose and drink the reserved juice.
Just kidding, it has a salty, medicinal taste, not too bad really, and remember, its good for you, so bottoms up!

If you're a foodie, get out your mortar and pestle and get pounding, but if you're pressed for time at dinner and still have to get the pasta mixed, so it can rest, I would say use your food processor, or even a knife works wonders.

My daughter whipped this up while I was doing kitchen clean-up. It took longer to roast the hazelnuts than it did to make the pesto. Truly a fast meal, made with items on hand. Delicious!

What do you think? Too far out there - or do you think this is something you would try?

Friday, 26 February 2010

Comfrey: Wonder Plant

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I'm posting one from the archives of my own blog today, in anticipation of planting season in the northern hemisphere. If herbs or perennial plants are on your mind for this year's garden, this one's for you.

Image originally posted by Buttersweet

I rarely cheerlead for products or services, and I don't think I've ever promoted a particular plant before. But today I'm going to discuss the many merits of comfrey, because it's both extremely valuable in the home garden and also little known.

Comfrey is an herb native to wide swaths of Europe, long known for its soothing medicinal properties. Many over-the-counter skin ointments and natural remedies include this herb for its healing qualities. One of the effects of comfrey when applied topically is to increase the rate of cell division, so that wounds and burns heal more quickly. A woman in my area posted an advertisement last year looking for fresh comfrey. She had a skin condition that hadn't responded to any treatment she had tried. She used some of my Bocking 14 comfrey to make a tea that she soaked her arms in and later told me that the comfrey helped more than anything else had. She just sent me an email asking if my comfrey had any leaves up yet this year. Comfrey also reduces inflammation, swelling, and irritation. If you enjoy home remedies or making herbal salves, comfrey would be an excellent addition to your garden.

There's an ongoing debate as to whether or not comfrey can be safely consumed, even by animals. Old herbal books in my possession discuss preparing comfrey as a cooked green matter-of-factly. Yet there is apparently some level of toxicity for the liver, both in humans and in animals. I am definitely not recommending that anyone consume any part of the comfrey plant. However, some studies suggest that a toxic dosage would only be reached after consuming huge quantities of the leaf or root. Comfrey is very widely used in Japan as an animal fodder, without any ill effects, evidently. And I have spoken to several homesteaders who regularly give small quantities of comfrey leaf to their chicken or duck flocks and even to pigs. I myself have fed my laying hens fresh comfrey leaf about once a month in modest quantities, and also use it dried as a winter feed supplement when fresh greens are scarce. The chickens absolutely relished the stuff. Since comfrey leaves are very high in protein, this isn't surprising. I never observed any detrimental effect on the hens after feeding them comfrey leaves.

But comfrey has yet other virtues beyond healing and animal fodder. Comfrey is a bioaccumulator plant whose long roots mine minerals and nutrients from very deep in the soil. (There are reports of comfrey roots reaching as much as ten feet deep into the ground!) Other culinary and medicinal herbs grown adjacent to comfrey have been observed to contain higher levels of essential oils and flavor than herbs of the same type not grown next to comfrey. Comfrey leaves can be cut and used as excellent green manures for other garden vegetables. The first leaves put out by comfrey plants each spring were traditionally used specifically with the planting of potatoes, to give the potato plants an early boost of nutrition and growth.

Comfrey is particularly known as an excellent companion plant in fruit orchards, especially apple orchards. With its tall and densely growing leaves, it will easily outcompete other nearby plants, reducing the need for weeding. Though it likes full sun, it can also tolerate the shade under fully grown trees. This contributes to its utility in orchards.

Although comfrey will not spread aggressively if left undisturbed, it is quite tenacious once it is established. And if the earth around it is tilled, new plants will grow from broken off fragments of root. If you want to eradicate comfrey from a particular spot, it will likely take some doing. So choose a spot to plant it with care. I have heard tales of gardeners cutting comfrey to use as green manure when planting other crops, only to find that the cut leaf took root and established itself in the new location. I haven't seen this happen [Update: I have seen this happen.], but then I take the precaution of letting all comfrey cuttings intended for green manure wilt in the sun for a few hours after cutting.

Along with its utility as a green manure, comfrey is equally valuable as a foliar feed ingredient. Foliar feeding is a natural form of fertilizing that uses weeds or other plants in a fermented liquid state. Like all anaerobic fermentation, a foliar feed made from comfrey leaves will smell atrocious. But it produces a natural, concentrated liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and applied to the leaves of many vegetable and flowers.

The comfrey varieties I have planted have large, somewhat oval, slightly hairy leaves that grow up to about 36" (90 cm) tall. Near the base of the leaf stalk the hairs sometimes develop enough heft that they become small prickles, much like a summer squash vine will produce. But they are not particularly bothersome if you have gloves. By their second year at the latest comfrey plants put out borage-like flowers for a long time from late spring to to midsummer. They vary in color apparently, but my plants' flowers are purple. Most varieties of comfrey do not reproduce themselves well from seed, but will readily grow from root divisions. There are several varieties of comfrey, all of them fairly hardy perennials. Some varieties are hardy up to zone 3, but most are hardy to zone 4 or 5. The Bocking 4 variety was specifically developed as a green manure, while the Bocking 14 was developed as animal fodder.

This is such a useful plant that I recently ordered a third variety, common comfrey, and plan to divide the roots of each type of comfrey I grew last year. It will allow me to make good use of the shaded areas of my property where very few edible things will grow. Instead, I'll harvest the fertility of those spots and transport it to my garden beds in the form of comfrey leaves. I can scarcely credit so many wonderful qualities packed into this one plant. Comfrey has medicinal uses, can feed livestock, and greatly enhances the fertility of my garden soil. On top of that, it's an attractive plant that has few pests and provides a bit of food for bees. I can hardly think of a non-edible plant that I would consider so essential for a sustainable garden as comfrey.

If the long term fertility and health of your garden soils are of concern to you, look into comfrey! I got my comfrey plants last year from Richters. They have an amazing selection of herb seedlings for those in the US and Canada, and the prices aren't too bad. I only wish I'd ordered some of the intriguing Piss-Off plant!

Update: check out what I learned at the 2010 PASA conference for yet another awesome attribute of comfrey. Just when I thought this plant couldn't be any more impressive, I found out I was wrong.