Comfrey is a wonderful herb closely related to Borage. It is a native perennial and can be found growing wild and a plant every organic gardener should grow. It is often treated as a weed in most gardens and can be very difficult to get rid of. It grows in large clumps up to three or four feet tall and has long, pointed, slightly hairy oval leaves which can irritate the skin in some people. The flowers are bell-shaped and purple-blue to pink or occasionally white and are very attractive to bees.
Uses of Comfrey
Comfrey contains high levels of the basic NPK nutrients, drawn up from the deep by its extensive root system. As such it can be useful as animal feed and plant feed. If you keep chickens it can be used as a feed and the chicken manure can be used as a mulch for the comfrey over winter. Comfreys rich nutrients will be a great addition to your compost heap and will also help the heap heat up. Comfrey makes an excellent fertiliser for potatoes, tomatoes and beans, add to the trench before you add potatoes. Use as a mulch or make tea as a liquid fertiliser.
Growing and Harvesting Comfrey
Comfrey is a tough plant and will grow in full or partial sun and near full shade. It will grow from the tiniest part of root and can quickly spread. When creating your own comfrey patch it is recommended that you use the Bocking 14 variety which is sterile and cultivated from roots. A disused corner of your garden will be ideal for a comfrey patch. It doesn’t like thin soils and prefers a soggy, moist area. Prepare your soil by digging deeply, root will grow very deep and this will help it get established. Add some manure to the site for the plant to soak up. It is best to plant in March, April, May or September for the best results although you can buy it all year round. Plant about 2 to 3 feet apart and watch them grow. In the first year take cuttings when the plants start to flower, you cut six inches from the ground. In the second year you can take cuttings to fertilise your potatoes and possibly a further 3 or 4 times in this year. To get more plants just fork up a portion of roots from a clump and reposition and it will happily grow from this.
Use a hessian sack and stuff with cuttings from your comfrey patch. Leave in a barrel of water for 3 to 5 weeks and you will have a wonderful liquid feed for your tomatoes and beans. The tea can give of a rather pungent smell so try to use a barrel with a lid and be prepared.
Companion planting is a a traditional method for organic gardeners to naturally improve crops. Companion plants attracts beneficial insects, deter pests or attract them away from your crops and can also provide nutrients and protection
Try these few hints and tips in your garden
- Plant marigolds in rows between your vegetables particularly tomatoes to encourage beneficial insects and deter aphids. They are also very attractive to slugs and can be used as a sacrifice to save your cabbages from damage.
- Grow carrots in alternative rows with the onion family, like leeks. The smell of each vegetable deters pest from the other, saving your carrots from the dreaded carrot root fly.
- Plant nasturtiums near your cabbages, they will attract caterpillars away from the cabbages and keep aphids away from beans. Grown entwined among cucumbers they repel cucumber beetles. Nasturtiums also provide wonderful colour in the garden and are edible.
- Dill and chervil are great for your herb garden. Dill will attract aphid eating hoverflies and predatory wasps. Plant the dill next to cabbages for support. Chervil will keep aphids away from tomatoes and sunflowers.
- Basil will keep whitefly away from tomatoes.
- Keeping a patch of nettles will attract beneficial incests and keep cabbage white butterfies away from brassicas.
- Plant alyssum with potatoes to attract beneficial insects
Using plants to attract beneficial insects has many advantages for the organic gardener. Attracting insects like ladybirds is a great way to naturally control your pests and bees are vital to pollination.
Here are some of the most important beneficial insects you will want to attract to your garden:
- Ladybirds: Adults and larvae are ferocious aphid eaters. The adults can lay up to 40 eggs near to the aphid colony and the larvae actively seek out their prey.
- Hoverflies: The larvae of the hoverfly can eat around 200 aphids
- Lacewings: Adults will feed on nectar and pollen and their larvae prey on aphids
- Ground beetles: Some beetles are predatory and will feed on aphids and other insects
- parasitic wasps: Eggs are laid into prey
- Bumble bees: Are excellent pollinators and providing food and a home in your garden will help support the dwindling population.
There are many pollen and nectar producing plants that can attract the insects the you want. Here are just a few, check out our organic flower seeds for more plants that attract insects and the guide on companion planting for more ideas.
- Borage One of the most important plants to have, borage is a fantastic source of nectar for bees and other insects. It makes a good companion plant to have in the vegetable garden as the insects it attracts make good pollinators. It is also good as a green manure. Its long taproot brings up nutrients from the subsoil that remain in the leaves.
- Pot marigold Hardy annual, which will self-seed freely. Produces bright orange, daisy-like flowers from May to the first frosts of autumn. Direct sow in autumn, spring or early summer, will tolerate light shade and nutrient poor-soils. Excellent as a companion plant.
- Californian poppy (Eschscholtzia) Fast-growing perennial, often grown as an annual in the UK as it will not tolerate very wet conditions to overwinter. Direct sow in spring in a sunny position and into any well drained soil, including poor soils. Flowers from June until September.
- Coriander Tender annual herb, grown for the seeds rather than the leaves. Produces small umbels of white flowers in summer. Direct sow from spring to early summer into free-draining, fertile soil in a sunny position.
- Chamomile Evergreen perennial herb, which produces golden yellow flowers during July and August. Sow under glass during March and April, plant out in early summer into well-drained soil in a sunny spot. This plant to very attractive to most types of beneficial insects.
- Fennel and bronze fennel A tall, hardy perennial herb that produces flattened clusters of tiny bright yellow flowers from August until October. An attractive plant, the leaves are edible too, tasting of aniseed. Sow directly in spring in a dry, sunny position. Remove fading flower-heads to prevent self seeding. Do not grow with dill, as the two will hybridise.
- Fern-leaf yarrow (Achillea) Hardy, easy to grow herbaceous perennial. Produces dense, deep gold flower heads in clusters up to 12.5cm (5in) across on tall upright stems from June until September. Direct sow in spring. Prefers full sun, but will grow in any well-drained soils.
These plants attract insects with nectar and pollen and provide shelter and homes for beneficial insects. The more diverse the plants you have the more diverse insects you will attract. Choose plants that are in season at different time of the year to supply a continuous supply of food. Try and keep a patch of your garden wild this will attract its own pest an therefore beneficial insects which you and relocate to other areas of your garden. Use ground-cover plant, green manures and mulches to provide a habitat for beetles.
Leaf mould is such a useful and versatile material for the gardener and it’s very easy to make the beautiful brown, crumbly material.
How to make leaf mould
- Start with collecting up all of the Autumn leaves you can find in your garden. Neighbours gardens and even from the sides of quiet roads are good places to collect from. Any autumn leaves can be used but don’t uses any evergreens.
- Running leaves over with the lawnmower or using a hoover with a shredder to chop the leaves up can speed up the rotting process.
- Small amounts of leaves can be added to compost heaps to help the balance of your compost. Large amounts are better being be made into leaf mould.
- The easiest way to store them is to stuff the leaves into biodegradable leaf sacks. Just tuck them into a dark corner of your garden and leave them to it. If the leaves are very dry give them a little sprinkling of water to help them rot.
- That s it all the work done! They will be ready after a year or two just leave them too it. Leaves rot by the slow action of funghi rather than hot and fast bacteria and this can take time but is worth waiting for.
Uses for your leaf mould
- Mulches, great around the bases of fruit trees and or on your vegetables
- Dig into soil and use as a soil improver to improve structure and quality
- Use as cover for bare soil over winter to stop soil leaching, even better when used with a green manure
- Really well rotted leaf mould is great as seedling and potting compost
Tomatoes are one of the easiest of vegetable to grow from seed and there are plenty of varieties to choose from. Our helpful guide gives you some tips to grow some lovely juicy and tasty fruits and avoid some of the pitfalls.
Choosing your tomatoes
- Grow what you want to eat, cherry tomatoes are lovely for salads but bigger Italian type tomatoes are great for making your own sauces.
- Try planting a few different varieties to see what will grow best in your area.
- Tomatoes can be grown inside or out, but cherry tomatoes are easier to ripen when grown outside
- Seeds can be sown from January to April, early sowing will need to been done under cover in a heated greenhouse, poly tunnel or propagator.
- Coir makes an excellent seed compost. Other peat free seed composts or your own home made sifted compost will also make a good seed compost.
- Sow the seeds in pots, trays or propagators and cover lightly with compost.
- Cover trays/pots with cling film or use a propagator; the increased humidity helps the seedlings to shed their shell
- Keep in a warm (18-21oc) dark place and when the seedling emerge move to a lighter spot but not in direct sunlight.
- Pot on when seeds have developed the first two true leaves, hold seedlings by the leaves so that fragile stems are not damaged.
- Seedlings are ready for transplanting into their final place when about 2.5cm tall.
- You will need a rich fertile soil, so add some well rotted manure to your compost, use 9cm pots per plant or plant in a bed 38-45cm apart for tall plants and 45-60cm apart in bush plants.
- Tall plants will need canes stakes for support.
- Position plants in a warm, sheltered sunny position, don’t put plants outside until the last frost has passed.
- Water the soil not the leaves, this is best done in the evening so that loss from evaporation is minimised
- Tomatoes will appreciate a feed every week once they have stared to flower. Homemade nettle brew and liquid comfrey are great for this.
- Pinch out the side shoots that develop between the main stem and the branches, they take extra energy out of the plant
- On outdoor plants it is best to cut the tops of after six trusses have grown so the plant can concentrate it’s energy.
- Aphids have a great affection for tomatoes. Attracting aphid eating beneficial insects, companion planting and biological controls are all organically friendly ways to tackle them.
- Split fruits can result from irregular watering. Watering little and often and make sure plants are in deep enough compost to stop them drying out.
- Blight can be a problem on outdoor tomatoes. It is a fungal infection caused by damp leaves causing the leaves to turn brown/black and spreads from plant to plant. Try blight resistant varieties, don’t get leaves wet then watering and considered covering plants if is going to rain for more than two days in a row.
- Blossom end rot looks like brown or black patches on the fruits. It is a result of infrequent watering and nutrient deficiency, you can still rescue the remaining fruits by regular watering and feeding.
Your soil is the most important thing, if you take care of it then the rest is easy. Potato crops like to have an open, frost-free site with deep, fertile, moisture-retentive soil. Soil can be improve by adding lovely organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, in the autumn and overwinter green manures.
Choose your potatoes
We have a lot of beautiful organic potatoes to choose from including lovely salad potatoes, big beautiful baker and some a bit more unusual…..
- First Earlies: These take the shortest amount of time to grow. They are great if your a bit short on space or have had pest problems in the past.
- Second Earlies: These take about 16-17 weeks until they are ready to harvest and are usually ready from June to August
- Main Crop: These take the longest to grow; about 18-20 weeks, although they take up the most room they can be the best varieties for storing.
This is the way to give your potatoes the best start by encouraging sprouting before planting, giving you greater yields. Before you are ready to chit or if you are not chitting at all leave your potatoes in a cold dark frost free place.
- Start chitting about six weeks before you want to plant your potatoes, this can be as early as late January in warmer parts of the country
- Each potato has a ‘blunt’ end with eyes, use an old egg tray to sit the potatoes ‘blunt’ end up
- Give them plenty of natural light to bathe in, but avoid direct sunlight. The room should be cool and frost-free
- When the shoots are about 1.5-2.5cm they are ready to plant, they should be dark and firm.
- Wait for your soil to warm up (at least 6oc), usually about mid-March to early May is a good time, depending on your area of the country and type of potatoes. Watch out for late frost, these can be very damaging to your crop.
- Dig a trench, somewhere between 7.5-13cm this will vary depending on the variety of potatoes your planting
- Early potatoes should be planted 30cm apart with 40-50cm between rows. Second earlies and main crop potatoes should be planted 38cm apart with 75cm between rows
- Place the chitted potatoes with shoots pointing up, be careful not to damage the shoots and cover lightly with soil with about 2.5cm of soil.
- As the shoot grow keep banking up the soil around the shoots so that they are just buried. The ridges should be about 20-30cm eventually.
- If there is any risk of a late frost cover up tender shoots with soil or a horticultural fleece.
- You will need to water your plants regularly through dry spells to ensure you get a good crop.
Potatoes are well known for a varieties of pest and diseases but there are simple solutions to many of them.
- Blight, this is a problem in warm humid conditions. Early potatoes and certain other varieties are better in areas prone to blight. Good crop rotation and removing diseased plants can also help
- Slugs and snails can gnaw huge holes in your crops, try not to leave potatoes in the ground for longer than necessary. There are lots of other organic methods to choose from including biological controls, beer traps and friendly slug pellets.
- Common scab causes cork textured tissue on the surface of tubers, usually superficial the potato underneath is unaffected and completely edible. Improve soil conditions before planting but don’t add lime and water when its dry.
- Eelworm is a microscopic pest that can reduce yield, infected plants will die back early. It can live in the soil for 20 years often were there has been very little crop rotation. Small brown/white or yellow cyst will be on the roots in July August. Use certified and resistant varieties and improve your soil with compost and rotted manure.
Green manures are great at suppressing weeds and increasing the fertility of your soil. As well as many other benefits they are a great organic alternative to artificial fertilizers.
They can be sown at most times of the year but are particularly useful over winter, before Spring. Growing a green manure over winter when plots are empty will stop nutrients and soil being washed away, they can add structure to the soil and when dug in add valued nutrients. They are valuable as part of a crop rotation cycle, particularly before nutrient hungry crops.
How to grow a green manure
- Remove any weeds from the plot and dig over if required
- Spread the seeds evenly according to the instructions from the seed supplier. (e.g grazing rye, 250g covers 15 square metres)
- Rake over or firm down the seeds and water in
- Most green manures will cover the ground within 2 to three weeks. Leave in for at least eight weeks or before flowering. Younger plants are easier to dig in.
- When ready dig the whole plant into the soil and leave for around two weeks to a month to decompose in the soil.
- If you leave the green manure a bit to long and find it difficult to dig in it will make excellent nutrient rich compost.
Green manures can also be grown over a longer period (several seasons). This is useful if you have extremely poor soil or are having trouble controlling perennial weeds in your plot. They can also be cut for digging in and adding nutrients to other areas, as a mulch which will release nutrient slower or for composting and some are also very attractive to wildlife when they flower.
Which green manure to choose? Basically you can choose between legumes and non-legumes. Legumes (eg Field beans) can fix nitrogen in the soil which is released when dug in, Non-legumes produce more organic matter and tend survive more extreme weather.