At Cedar House Inn we utilize permaculture and sustainable principles throughout the property. One example is that we forego using synthetic fertilizers on the fruit and berry bushes planted on our swales (see related swale post). Instead we use nurse plants.
A nurse plant is a companion plant that can provide food for humans and animals while also providing benefits to surrounding plants. Examples on our property include nitrogen-fixing plants and dynamic accumulators.
Plants need nitrogen to help grow and flourish, hence, it is a key ingredient in many commercial fertilizers. Rather than using synthetic fertilizers made from petroleum and other laboratory derived ingredients, we choose a more natural method on our property.
On our swales we have many kinds of fruit and berry trees and bushes. Interspersed with our nanking cherries, aronias, and blueberries, you’ll find nitrogen-fixing plants like autumn olive and goumi berries. Both of these plants provide nitrogen to the surrounding plants and also provide edible berries for people and wildlife.
We have also planted dynamic accumulator plants like comfrey. Comfrey (see picture) is a perennial nurse plant with a very deep tap-root. The root mines minerals deep in the ground and brings those minerals and nutrients to the surface for nearby plants to use. Comfrey leaves are also used to make compost tea. The tea is made by cutting the leaves and placing them in a 5 gallon bucket with water to steep for several weeks. The nutrient rich water can be poured on vegetables in the garden or other plants as fertilizer. It smells like rotting flesh, so be careful where you brew it.
Comfrey can also be eaten like spinach but needs to be cooked since the leaves are a little rough. Some say you should not eat too much because it may be harmful to the liver in large quantities. Opinions differ on comfrey for human consumption but it has been used as a medicinal for many years. Chickens also love to eat it.
Another nurse plant that helps improve the nitrogen content of garden soil is the siberian pea shrub. While we haven’t used that particular plant, we have planted pole beans (a legume) around trees to act as a nitrogen fixer for the trees. Come harvest time there were beans for us to eat.
There are other nurse plants that we haven’t used but would love to try in the future.
Work with nature instead of working against nature. Instead of reaching for a bag of your favorite commercial fertilizer or a can of insecticide next time you’re at the local garden center, choose some nurse plants. You will benefit from a healthier and more sustainable eco-friendly landscape.