I recently wrote about the nutritional benefits of mulching and fertilizing with sea kelp. A commenter mentioned using comfrey, to which I replied that I am a big fan of comfrey as a fertilizer and would recommend it as a mulch, although I would suggest chopping it up or drying first since the leaves are very large and would form a dense mat when wet.
Comfrey is definitely worth growing as a ready made source of potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous if you’ve got the space. The trouble is it is awfully aggressive and will take over where ever you plant it, and then some. This is why I don’t grow it. I do however, have a secret location where I go every year to harvest a bit to make into liquid feed. That was until this year when I went to harvest from my secret stash and discovered it was no longer accessible. Noooooooo……
The tally so far: Summer is too wet and too cold, the tomato harvest is mostly crappy, and I can’t get any comfrey. The horrors.
But then, a happy turnaround. The other day I ran into a fellow forager/gardener. The subject of nettles came up which lead to comfrey and my recent loss. She mentioned that the farm she works for has a huge patch of comfrey that they use for making their own fertilizer. All I had to do was pay for the time it takes her to pick the leaves. Two days later I rode over to a local market and picked up a big box of comfrey. And while it did rain briefly, Monday was oppressively hot and humid so I stopped at the hardware store on the way home and bought a fan for my office window. Then I balanced a box of comfrey and a fan on top of my bike basket and walked it home because I am not adept enough to ride while balancing both, unlike those dudes you see balancing a twenty-four case of beer (we call it a two-four around these parts) on top of the turned around handlebars of their 10-speed with one hand and a six pack dangling from the other. While I’m on the subject of death-defying balancing feats on a bicycle, I once saw a guy balancing a massive rug on the handlebars while riding. On another occasion, I witnessed a guy with a TV, although that didn’t work out and the TV smashed onto the road.
And that, friends, is the story of the week summer finally arrived (we’ve had sun AND heat for days!), hope returned for our tomatoes, and I got my comfrey. Things are looking up.
1. Chop up the comfrey with a pair of sheers or scissors and soak in a tub of water. I put a brick on top to hold it all underneath the liquid. 2. Let it sit for a day or two until it gets stinky and the leaves are broken down. 3. Strain off the leaves and put them in the compost bin or bury them in the garden. 4. Use the remaining liquid as a fertilizer by spraying on the leaves of your plants or pouring into the soil around the roots.
I traveled to Rhode Island a few weeks ago on what was a whirlwind 24 hour (including transport time) trip to shoot a food gardening segment for the show Cultivating Life. I’ll tell you about that some other time. They had ducks!
However, what I would like to tell you about today were the planters I saw sitting outside of Coastal Roasters in Tiverton, Rhode Island when we stopped so that I could be properly caffeinated with real coffee (I am a terrible coffee snob) before braving six hours in an airport that reminds me of the movie Logan’s Run. Because that’s the only Logan I know, and The Carousel is not the mental image I prefer to have before flying. Sure, we’re all just going to step onto this “plane”, defy gravity by flying high in the sky and land safely at our destination. RIGHT.
Except that I clearly lived to tell so back to the planters. They were mulched with FRESH kelp, from the sea. In fact, the coffee shop sat next to the water with a view of a small, pebble beach. I could see kelp while I sipped my coffee. Just sitting there. This is the kind of little detail about traveling to new places that I get abnormally excited about. One does not have to buy (as I do yearly) a bag of dried kelp or liquid kelp concentrate that has been shipped from some unknown place. No, one can just step outside and scoop up a handful for plants that are growing within a few feet. Here was the view:
And here is the container with a thick layer of nutrient-rich, fresh kelp laid on top of the soil as mulch:
Please forgive my terrible photo. This was taken with my crappy point and shoot digital and it does not read contrast well. The blown out white thing is a crab shell. Also a pretty good fertilizer! And somewhat decorative too.
It’s pretty, don’t you think? I have never seen such colourful kelp! The stuff I get in a bag is always the same uniformly-coloured grey/green.
Kelp makes a great mulch and plant fertilizer. Here’s why:
- It’s loaded with potassium and a bunch of other trace minerals. Potassium is a container gardener’s friend since it is an overall plant stress reliever, and container plants generally tend to experience more stress than in-ground gardens.
- It’s got plant growth hormones in it that can help your plants grow stronger.
- Kelp breaks down into the soil very quickly, conditioning the soil, improving texture, and fertilizing all at once. Yes please.
- It does not carry weed seeds, unlike hay (and sometimes straw when it is mislabeled. Boo).
- It does not share diseases with land plants that could be spread to your garden.
I’d suggest rinsing off the salt and salty sand before adding it to your garden but a lot of seaside gardeners say they don’t bother and their plants are fine. I’d also recommend not taking too much from any one area since there are lots of critters that depend on the seaweed that washes onto the shore for their food and shelter.
I posted this recipe a year ago but it is buried in a larger post and I decided it would be better-accessed if it had its own place. Making your own mix is SUPER easy and worth the small effort if you are growing a lot of seedlings.
These are the ratios I prefer. If you don’t need a huge batch you can use this as a basis for choosing a store-bought seed-starting mix. Always read the label and look for an ingredients list. Most popular brands have chemical fertilizers added that are unnecessary and will defeat the purpose of growing organically.
Instead, buy a basic mix and add in your own organic materials. I suggest adding a touch of vermicompost and watering your plants with a diluted sea-kelp mix. To be clear, seeds do not require any fertilizers until they produce their first set of “true leaves“. In basic terms this means the second set of leaves you will see. The first leaves that appear are called “seed leaves” and feed the seedling until the first “true leaves”appear.
- 1 part peat or coir (Coir is a sustainable peat substitute made from coconut husks. Peat is mined from marshland, destroying natural habitats. When you can, use coir.)
- 1 part perlite (popped volcanic ash that creates good drainage.)
- 1 part vermiculite (water absorbing material made from the mineral mica)
Readers of the You Grow Girl book might recall that I love a little milk mixed with water as a tomato disease preventative. Okay, I probably didn’t go so far as to indicate a “love” for the concoction but I will say it here: the tomato plants on my rooftop garden benefit from regular applications throughout the growing season and have been disease-free since I began this experiment a number of years ago. You can’t not LOVE those results. I’d cuddle a milk and water concoction on the couch while sharing a bowl of popcorn and a movie with results like that. After the movie we’d play some non-competitive board games and catch The Colbert Report before settling into our communal sleeping bag for the night. I LOVE these results.
Here’s what I do. Organic milk tends to go bad in the fridge faster than non-organic. I only drink milk in my cappuccinos so I often have lots of spoiled milk in the fridge. I dilute the milk with water to a minimum 50:50 ratio (I often dilute much further than this) and either pour it directly over the plant leaves or pour it onto the soil at the roots. I used to put it into a spray bottle first but am too lazy to take that extra step now-a-days.
I should add that this is the only time I water tomato leaves directly. I am careful to water the soil only on all other occasions. This is because tomatoes do not like wet leaves and can develop fungal diseases as the result of too much humidity and moisture sitting on the leaves for long periods of time.
One of my favourite things about gardening is experimenting and trying to improve on old ideas. Last year I figured I might as well mix up my milk remedy with my fertilizer routine. My thought process is that perhaps it all works better when it’s mixed together. I mix the same water and milk solution and add a splash of sea kelp and a dash of fish emulsion to the mix then pour the whole thing onto the soil.
It doesn’t smell great but the plants like it. And I like tomatoes. If it means more tomatoes come fall then I’m all for it.
Hint: If you’re not a milk drinker you can make up the same mix using powdered milk. In fact many people swear by dry powdered milk mixed directly into the soil.
I was recently inspired by a gardener profiled in the April/May issue of Organic Gardening magazine. In the interview, gardener Dallas Hays of Lewiston, Idaho talks about making his own fish fertilizer (good for nitrogen) “..using a blender and squawfish from a nearby lake.” He also makes his own potting mix and substitutes ground up loofah that he grows himself as a substitute for peat moss. In the same mix he replaces perlite with corncobs run through a cornmeal grinder.
I love it when people take it upon themselves to go outside the usual and try new and crazy homemade substitutes in the garden. Dallas, if you are reading this, you rule!