Monday, May 09, 2011

Digging the Dirt / May in the Garden

Previously published in the Hoopa People News, copyright 2008, Harvest McCampbell.

When Food Prices Rise, Planting a Garden is Wise

Sticker shock increasingly hounds our food shopping decisions. Unfortunately, this trend is set to continue, at least through next winter, as both fuel and food prices continue to rise. Several factors are at play, forcing staple supplies to dwindle while demand increases. First, looking at the supply side, climate change and other forces have brought agricultural woes to nearly every continent. Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe have all had major crop failures affecting grains and other staples; more crop failures are predicted for this year--including right here in the US. Meanwhile, less land has been devoted to growing food; because of urbanization, industrialization, and demand for agricultural crops to produce ethanol and bio-diesel.

Demand for bio-fuels ties food prices to fuel prices, and fuel is still going up. (Meanwhile, most of our food is planted, tended, harvested, stored, and transported using large amounts of fuel, further tying the costs of food to petroleum.) Other factors contributing to demand include our growing planetary population and the increasing middle class in China and India-- who now consume more grain and more grain fed animal products than ever before. In the world-wide economy, there are many demands on the available food. Prices are expected to continue going up until the supply meets or exceeds the demand. (For more information and documentation see:

It’s Time to Get Growing!

Whether you want to help keep your families food budget in bounds, or are thinking of growing a market garden to make a little cash, there has never been a better time to get growing. While tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash are part of the pleasures of summer, with food prices on the rise, I would like to encourage everyone to plant some crops that can be saved for winter. Here are some ideas.

Jerusalem Artichokes are at the top of the list for productivity. Plant them now, and dig their delicious tubers beginning this fall. Each plant produces between five and fifteen pounds of food! (They can be very expensive in catalogs; however, they are available at reasonable prices locally.)

Pumpkins and Winter Squash store well, are easy to grow, nutritious, and yummy. Seeds and starts are widely available at nurseries and generally reasonably priced.

Potatoes thrive in cool moist weather. Anytime you find yourself in possession of sprouting potatoes you can plant them in the home garden. Mulch them well for the best crops. I have been teaming up potatoes with squash. If we don’t have a hot summer, at least the potatoes should produce; and if the sun decides to warm things up, the squash will help shade the potatoes.

Painted Mountain Flour Corn (not the related Painted Mountain Sweet Corn) was bred to withstand both drought and cool soils. Flour corn is easy to grow, dry, and can then be stored to use with beans in soup. You can also grind it for grits and corn meal.

Consider growing some small grains for nutrition and food security, here are some suggestions for both hot weather and cool wet weather. (The La Nina weather pattern is predicted to continue; keeping our weather cool and moist. I don’t really trust the predictions. I say be prepared for anything.)

Amaranth generally produces well whether the weather is hot or cool. Choose large grained varieties.

Buckwheat likes cool damp weather. Purchase it from bulk bins at health food store or larger grocery stores. Be sure you get raw buckwheat and not roasted buckwheat grouts.

Millet, pair Japanese millet which can stand waterlogged soils with Proso millet which can take the heat and is easy to thresh.

Quinoa can take cool damp weather, choose a large seeded variety.

Last but not least, add some legumes. Legumes (beans and peas) fix nitrogen and improve the soil, and they form a complete protein when paired with grains. Most beans can be eaten green as a vegetable or let mature to dry for soup beans. Here are a few of suggestions for soup beans that will improve your family’s food security:

beans can take the drought, and can be purchased from bins at the health food store.

Runner Beans like cool moist weather and are commonly available in many catalogs.

Fava Beans are easy to grow and all parts are edible including the leaves, flowers, green beans, and dry beans. Available in many catalogs and also in bulk bins.

You can also do your own research on other varieties. In fact, the more diverse the seed bank we can create in our gardens, the more secure our food supply will be. Try to choose two varieties of each crop you want to grow; one adapted to drought, and one adapted to cool or damp climates. That way, no matter what the weather does, you are prepared.

If you can get your seed started by the first of June, at the very latest, and if the weather co-operates, you should be able to harvest a bountiful crop this fall. All the seed varieties mentioned above can be ordered from “Bountiful Gardens,” if you can’t find them locally. Their catalog and web site is very informative. You can order seeds or request a catalog on-line: or by phone: (707) 459-1925.

What, Me Garden?

The Klamath Trinity (zone 8 in the river valleys) area is truly the Garden of Eden, and yes, even you can grow a garden! Right now local gardens are bursting with greens—giant red Japanese mustard, collards, kale, arugula, lettuce, and garlic chives. Spring signals the beginning of the seed setting season. Many greens are blooming with edible flowers. The early garlic and chives have fat buds, and the top setting onions provide some comedic relief with their crazy curly not quite flowering tops. Potato plants are surging upwards and seedling squash are getting their start. Winter parsnips are ready to be dug, while last spring’s parsnips are shooting juicy edible bolts upward to burst into bloom. Peppers and tomatoes are waiting their turn to sink their roots into deep earthworm rich soil. Meanwhile, the beneficial insects and pollinators make a happy buzz among the flowers; promising pest control this season and an ample supply of seeds for next year’s garden. If you are not sure where to start, search on line or ask for advice at your local nursery.

Not Only Can You Garden – You Can Farm!

Every economic down turn or crises offers opportunities; the next big winners are projected to be small, local, organic farms and market gardens. If you ever thought of trying your hand at farming, now would be a great time to explore the idea further. “You Can Farm, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise,” offers great advice. Author, Joel Salatin, shares the ten most profitable ventures for start-ups, as well as how to grow and diversify. He encourages everyone, even those who do not own land, to not only farm, but to make good money at it. His best advice is to gain experience before investing or borrowing. He encourages all would be farmers to volunteer with local producers to learn the ropes. Hopefully, our local farmers will be increasing production (sustainably of course) and will need all the help they can get. If you’re interested, consider starting as a volunteer--perhaps in trade for produce; but you have also got to read this book. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin, published by Polyface, Inc., ISBN 0-9638109-2-8. Available by request from book stores, libraries, and on-line.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Get Comfy with Comfrey

Published in the Hoopa People Paper 6.07
Copyright Harvest McCampbell

Whether you are interested in herbs or a seeking a hardy perennial flowering plant that can star in your borders and flower beds there is a comfrey for you. These ornamental and historical plants are useful for natural skin care, as an ingredient for mulch and compost, and they look great in the garden. Their graceful flowers also attract hummingbirds. That’s a whole lot of benefit from one plant that can be easily grown in full sun or part shade.

Comfrey has been grown in herb gardens since at least 400 BC. This ancient herb was used for its healing properties in early Europe and Asia. In fact, comfrey is still well known for its soothing effect on the skin. If you purchase natural skin care products check out their labels. Sometimes extracts are identified as allantoin, one of the main constituents found in comfrey, particularly the roots. Allantoin, which is also found in mother’s milk, promotes healing by stimulating cell growth and division.

The soothing and healing properties of comfrey can easily be used at home. Comfrey water can be made by pounding three or four fresh comfrey leaves and stems with a mortar and pestle. No mortar and pestle available at your house? Chop up the leaves and stems and whiz them in the blender or food processor with just enough water to keep everything moving. Place your pulverized comfrey in a large pitcher or gallon jar and fill the rest of the way with water. Cover your brew and leave it out on the counter over night, then strain it carefully through a fine sieve or a few layers of cheese cloth. Comfrey has fine hairs that some people find irritating – so don’t skip the careful straining. The comfrey pulp can be added to your compost heap or tucked under the mulch in your garden. It is especially beneficial for seedlings and transplants.

Your comfrey water should be kept in the refrigerator (after a few days use any leftovers to water your plants). Pour some into a spray bottle and use it as moisturizing and cooling spritz for skin and hair. It will give your skin an invigorating glow. You can add a cup or two to your bath water for an all over salon skin treatment. If you have aches and pains try soaking a cloth in the comfrey water and applying the cloth to the painful area. As the cloth picks up your body heat you can rinse it and dip it into a bowl of the cool comfrey water and reapply. This also makes an easy at home facial for when you come home from work hot and exhausted.

Before applying any comfrey preparations to large amounts of skin, be sure to patch test to check for sensitivity or allergy. This is a good idea with any new products or preparations you might want to use. If you are going to get hives, which is unlikely, it is much better to get them in a tiny patch than all over. (Speaking of getting hives all over, someday I will have to tell you what I did to myself with some nettle tea – but that is a different story.)

In addition to using comfrey externally, ancient people also considered it a pot herb and used it much like spinach or kale. The roots were dug and scrubbed and used to thicken stews and soups. Today comfrey is no longer recommended as a food. Science has discovered it contains constituents that, in large quantities, can harm the liver. Many herbalists still stand by comfrey. You may find it listed as an ingredient in various herbal preparations. I would recommend doing some diligent research before ingesting comfrey or feeding it to your animals. Even if you have no intention of utilizing comfrey, it still makes a hardy ornamental plant for the landscape.

Fine Gardening Magazine recently featured a lovely variegated comfrey in their April 2007 edition. The article, “Variegated Plants Create Drama,” had a full page color photo where ‘Axminster Gold Comfrey’ was the star. This selection from the more common dark green Russian comfrey sports broad irregular bands of gold along each twelve inch leaf’s border. Clumps grow to two feet tall by two to three feet wide and will produce small showy blue bell type flowers in late spring and early summer. These plants thrive in partial shade or full morning sun with afternoon shade. A closely related plant, ‘Goldsmith Comfrey,’ is much easier to find. Goldsmith is nearly identical to Axminster, except the clumps only grow to about a foot tall and wide and the flowers are a creamy yellow.

Also with creamy yellow flowers, Creeping Comfrey will slowly spread to form a care free ground cover. It grows from eight to eighteen inches high. It is especially appealing when planted just under the edge of taller shrubs and perennials. I grew this plant for many years near Sacramento in a spot between two buildings. It had shade most of the day, but when the sun hit, it was harsh. Rare plant collectors may find varieties of creeping comfrey with variegated leaves or red flowers. These types are not as hardy as the commonly available creeping comfrey.

Red Flowered Comfrey forms clumps to two feet tall. It is often sought out by herb gardeners as a novelty plant. It is more tolerant of full shade than some of the other varieties. Hummingbirds are particularly fond of this one when it is in bloom. I have grown Red Flowered Comfrey in several different locations over the years and find that it is not nearly as hardy or long lived as Russian Comfrey.

My favorite comfrey plant has to be the old standard known as Russian Comfrey. I have two plants in my garden here in Hoopa, where they have been thriving for many years. I started these plants from divisions of the ones I previously grew in the Sacramento area. The original plants are still thriving in that garden, over eleven years since I moved. I know the gardener there very well, and I can guarantee they are not getting watered with any regularity. Russian comfrey is the type preferred for use in skin care. It forms clumps up to three feet tall and four feet across and has lovely blue bell type flowers in late spring and summer. While it needs regular watering through its first summer, it is fairly drought tolerant once established.

Pest very rarely bother comfrey, including gophers, so it is safe to plant it directly in the ground. The main consideration in planting comfrey, especially Russian comfrey – is that it is very hard to kill. The good news is; it won’t spread around your garden, as long as you don’t disturb its roots. Don’t plant it near where you till or plough, unless you want lots of comfrey. Clumps go dormant over winter, which is the best time to divide them, if you want to start more plants to share with your friends.

Plants are often available at local nurseries, health food stores, and through mail order and on-line catalogs. If you don’t find comfrey where you shop for plants, Richter’s Herb Catalog carries most of the comfrey varieties mentioned above. You can find them at You can also call to request a very complete and informative free catalog: 905-640-6677.