dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix.

When I have plenty of comfrey, I shall plant it around my fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you.

I’d feed it to my chickens, and the goats too.

I’d make a comfrey tea to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice.

Now, I’d like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring, and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

dividing-comfrey

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

drying nettles

The moment to forage for stinging nettles is early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves and great respect for the plants are required. A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to help me as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength. The old-timers would take bitters at this time of year, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens.

sun-dried-nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good sunny day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp.

Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring. You can make fresh nettle soup and nettle tinctures too. Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions and medicinal tisanes is a very old practice. I’m ever so fond of it.

dried-nettles

potager design

Each year I sketch the kitchen garden to picture what will live in the protected, somewhat rabbit-free potager and what can thrive outside it, integrated into the beautiful perennial garden along the lake. I learn more every year, happily. Last summer’s disaster of crashing tomato vines, at once productive (for the tomatoes) and destructive (for everything else) has led to this redesign.

potager-design

After much gazing through images of arches, bamboo sculptures, wires tensioned like bridges, and obelisks, I’ve made a plan. I hope to build traditional trellises, the tuteur, out of cedar. The obelisk is such an old fashioned feature of an English garden, and should lend my funny veg patch some order. See the circles in my drawing? There they are. I can grow peas up them early in the year, and tomatoes later on, benefitting from the nitrogen they’ll set. They ought to be very strong and very tall, and in place well before the vines are planted, quite in contrast to last summer’s toppling bamboo frames. They might be quite pretty through the winter, too. I like that the pyramid-shape will keep the tomatoes from shading out too much of the garden, though a wall of tomatoes is quite tempting.

Below the drawings I’ve listed all the plants that might do best in the potager, with some vague ideas about the shelling pea bushes giving way to pepper plants, to be replaced later on by kales or purple-sprouting-broccolis. Spinach or lettuce might like to live in the center of the wide obelisks in spring, to be shaded out by vining tomatoes by summer to give them a little more time. Beans will enjoy growing up the bamboo that live at the north end, or along the fence. There. That’s the idea.

In one section I’ll swap out a cucumber frame for coldframes, after harvest-time. I hope to keep a series of seedlings at the ready to plant into this space throughout the summer, and leave us with some plants that can weather our maritime winter.

I’m quite fond of dotted-graph paper for its subtle order, in which 1 square: 1 foot, loosely measured off of our unruly garden space.

First I’ve laid out a hose across the land to get some idea of how the new path will run, with modifications for the irrigation system. Oh right. Later I’ll toss down some wood shavings, then wood chips to mark off the path. For now I must move slowly, recovering from an illness, yet compelled by tiny seedlings appearing under the coldframes. Wish me luck with the tuteur construction!

a floor and four walls

When setting out to do something completely new, say, building a chicken coop for a little flock, I encounter many steps I’d not thought of, and don’t recognise until I’m upon them. I find the uncertainty of learning at once exhilarating and terrifying. Each day I’d face another challenge. With motivational chocolate, and my mentor – my dear father – on video-chat whenever necessary.

Here are the slow, steady steps I took to translate my chicken coop design into a chicken coop. First, the platform and stud walls.

platform

Early in the building process, in conversation with family and friends, I decided to work with pallets. I thought they’d be easier to work with than constructing a wall from scratch, but I assure you they’re not. They are reclaimed, they are free, these ones are heat, not chemical, treated, and if you luck out, they will fit together neatly. They also come in extraordinarily varied sizes, may not be square, are physically challenging to take apart (see the how-to, below) and generally have to be messed about with a good deal to fit:

To pull pallets apart, I highly recommend placing a very hard piece of wood in front of the piece you want to remove, setting a long pry bar (weight lifter’s bar) to leverage against it, then pushing down little by little. Start on one end of the board, then the other, and lastly the middle, repeating these very slowly if the nails are particularly stiff. I allocate a cup for collecting rusty nails and nail heads, and a safe spot for the nail-ridden wood. A crow bar might remove these, or you can hammer them in. Be sure to check where your hands will land if the wood gives suddenly! I learned this lesson the bruised knuckles way.

I cut the pallets to size, and trimmed the ends to line up. I pre-drilled and deck-screwed three pallets together, then bolted them with carriage bolts, knocking through a larger predrilled hole with a hammer. To get the dimensions I needed, I attached a ¾” piece down one side, and pried off some of the flat boards and added others to make a sturdy surface at all edges. Finally I flipped the structure over, and framed around the whole thing with 2 x 6 pieces, to make a strong 5′ x 8′ platform floor. Whew!

nestbox-wall

This is the beginning of the north, nestbox wall, with room for four little pop-holes for the hens to slip through to a lidded, external nest. We’ll run round the path beside the coop and collect our eggs from the box. One day!

pop-door-wall

The west side wall, facing into the run, which will have two windows, a a pop-hole door and ladder.

windowbox-wall

The east side wall, with room for three windows. I went back and pried off several of the pallet boards and reattached to support a row of 13″ x 13″ windows, with a strong stud down the center of each.

visualising

My experience in accurate measurement is second to my ability to visualise, so I like to set things up and see if I’m on the right path. The south, front gable wall, with human-doors to access for cleaning, to be framed up after the three walls are set in place. These cupboard doors were reclaimed from a 1950’s Oak Bay house.

platform-on-feet

Strong young cousins were visiting one day, and they carried the beast of a platform from my worksurface on the deck, to the site in a high, dry corner of the garden.

There you are – a floor and four walls! A whole month of my life. Experienced carpenters might do all this in a wink, particularly if they aren’t also raising chicks in the kitchen and pasturing them in the garden. Perhaps. Finding bits of time here and there is how I achieve anything, while keeping other things in balance as best I can. Next, raising the platform up onto its little legs.