This site is an archive of For the latest information about Susy and her adventrures, visit the Cultivate Simple site.
Thank you for all your support over the years!

Grow Your Own Fertilizer

September 5th, 2016

I’m a big believer that as gardeners we grow soil more than we grow plants. That means most of my gardening budget is spent on soil amendments and good quality compost. I’m continually trying to come up with ways to lighten my work load and save myself money, so naturally this is one area I’m always trying to become more self-sufficient in. One of my favorite ways to save money is by growing my own fertilizers, mostly in the form of cover crops. Cover crops are great, but perennial dynamic accumulators are even better at maximizing time and money. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote about soil microbes for Northern Gardener magazine

“There is also a group of plants we can grow that are described as dynamic accumulators. These plants have deep roots that pull up macro and micronutrients from deep within the soil. Oddly enough, many of these have been classified as weeds, so pulling dandelion, dock, and other weeds and adding them to our compost piles is a great way to increase the micronutrient levels in our finished compost. There are a few dynamic accumulators that stand out more than others, comfrey is probably the most widely known and my particular favorite. I use it as a mulch, animal feed, and I plant it under all my fruit trees. Comfrey is a great source of silicon, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Other high value dynamic accumulators are: dandelion, eastern bracken, kelp, nettles, watercress, and plantain. Next time you see dandelions blooming in your lawn, think about all the copper and iron it is adding to your soil, when you see plantain, think about the calcium it’s adding.” 
Comfrey is my all-time favorite homegrown fertilizer. I have a few different varieties of comfrey and am working on collecting as many as I can. I use comfrey in a variety of ways, some are more labor intensive than others. The easiest way to utilize comfrey in the garden is to use it as a companion plant. All of my fruit trees have a couple comfrey plants under them. Comfrey is tucked into empty corners in every perennial border. As it grows, dies back, and compost into the soil, it adds valuable nutrients. The large leaves provide a weed suppressing mulch as well. It is important to note that some varieties of comfrey can spread when flowering stems touch the ground, but there are varieties that are don’t (Russian Bocking 14). I haven’t found the old fashioned varieties to be invasive though. The majority of my comfrey plants have been propagated from a root cutting I got from my grandmother’s garden (it was growing in the garden when they moved into the house when my mom was a little girl).
comfrey 3
comfrey bloom (2)
I harvest my comfrey plants through the summer, most of the time I simply cut the leaves and use them to mulch around plants that I think need a little boost. Some people make compost tea with the leaves, but it has a pretty foul smell, and it takes time to make. I find that cutting the leaves and mulching around plants provides the same benefit without the extra time, effort, and with zero smell. The plants can be cut all the way back several times each summer.
comfrey 2
This summer I’ve been doing experiments with my tithonia in the back garden. Several of the plants were mulched with compost, the other were mulched with other weeds and material. As you can see, the plants on the right are much taller and are blooming much better than the ones on the left.
comfrey 4
Another way to use comfrey is to put a few leaves into each planting hole. It really does make the plant establish roots quicker and grow faster than planting without. I haven’t tried experimenting with mulching around the plant vs. leaves in the planting hole. That’s a good project for next summer.
comfrey bloom (1)
In addition to being a fabulously useful plant, comfrey is a beautiful plant. It can be a real showstopper in the garden. It’s large, dark green, hairy leaves add a lot of interest. The purple flowers are loved by many pollinators, they seem to be a particular favorite of bumble bees. This summer I added a variegated comfrey to my collection. It’s the perfect plant to brighten up that slightly dark corner of a border.
comfrey bloom
comfrey 1
If you have a compost pile in your garden, surrounding it with a few comfrey plants is a great idea. Not only can you cut the comfrey leaves to add to your compost (they add extra nutrients and heat up the pile), they glean any nutrients that leach out of your compost pile into the surrounding soil. I’m always looking for nooks and spaces to add more comfrey, I find I can’t seem to grow enough of it here at Chiot’s Run.

Do you have any comfrey growing in your garden?

Friday Favorite: The Little Things

September 2nd, 2016

One of my favorite things about gardening is that it makes me slow down and notice the little things in nature. Whether it’s the tiny pollinators hovering over the cilantro blooming, or the way different plants change throughout the season. This past week I was pulling the green beans and was fascinated by the nitrogen nodules on the roots.
nitrogen nodules on bean roots
The beans were pulled and layered on the soil right where they were planted. They will smother any weeds and provide a nitrogen rich mulch. There’s no point in taking them to the compost pile when they will break down by next spring. I’m all about finding more efficient ways to accomplish my goals.
mulching with pulled plants
If you have children, gardening can be a fantastic way to get them interested in biology and science. It’s a great learning opportunity, particularly in teaching them about symbiotic relationships. I love knowing that these green beans are harvesting nitrogen and providing it to the plants growing around them and the plants that will follow them. It’s an amazing process and one I am so happy to be able to observe!

What amazing things have you noticed in the garden this week?

Castor Bean Plant

October 3rd, 2009

This year I planted a few castor beans seeds. 3 of them germinated and one or two of them were eaten by chipmunks, which I presume died shortly after eating them since they’re very poisonous. Castor bean plants and beans/seeds are poisonous, so you may wonder why I’m growing them. I’ve read that they’re a great way to deter moles and gophers from invading your gardens, and since I had a mole problem in the back garden I decided I’d try a castor plant to see how it worked.
It seemed to do a decent job, I noticed moles in the spring and early summer, but when the castor bean got large I haven’t noticed as many. I’d say it a great way to combat moles, not only do you not have little moles tunneling through your garden, you get a very large striking plant in the garden.
My castor plant is probably 8-9 feet tall and the leaves are huge, I decided this was the bean stalk that Jack must have climbed in the nursery rhyme. It’s starting to bloom, I’m not sure if it will produce any beans since it’s getting pretty close to the end of the season.
I’ll definitely be planting castor plants again next year. I’ve seen a few purple castor beans in some other local gardens and they bloomed much earlier than mine and are much shorter, I may try to find those next year since they must have a shorter growing season.

Do you have any poisonous plants in your gardens? Or any plants that are supposed to help with rodent control?

Volunteer Marigolds

September 24th, 2009

I have these volunteer marigolds that grew up in the same spot I had some planted last year. They’re just starting to bloom prolifically and they’re so nice. I’m not a huge fan of marigolds, but they’re so pretty this time of year, they really look nice with all the fall colors that are starting to appear.
As you can see these are growing in a raised bed that I have a makeshift fence around since I have my late beans planted in this bed. I know the deer and the groundhogs would love nothing more than tender bean plants, so I have some chicken wire panels leaned up around it to protect my bean harvest.
When it comes to colors of flowers, I’m much more of a pink/white/purple lover. I’m really happy that my ‘Endless Summer’ Hydrangea is blooming now, despite being mauled by deer this past winter. I was thinking I wouldn’t see any color from it at all.

What colors of flowers are your favorite?

Joe Pye Weed

September 9th, 2009

I particularly love Joe Pye weed. It’s such a lovely plant, so tall and commanding in the garden and along the edges of the roads. My mom has a particularly nice patch growing in her beneficial flowerbed. Our soil is a little too dry around here, but I think I’m going to try to start some from seed next spring and see if I can get some growing. I’ll have to amend the soil and keep it watered to keep it at it’s best. Perhaps a rain garden would be a great thing to add to the gardens here at Chiot’s Run.
I particularly want to add this plant to my garden because the bees and the butterflies love it. My mom’s is always buzzing with activity.

What’s your favorite weed, I mean wildflower?


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.