I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching with my most recent comfrey tea endeavor. I have had to make a decision, not for the first time, that every vegan will face at one point. I’ll get to this in a moment.
First, let me say that comfrey is a powerful plant to have growing in the plot. It provides nourishment to the garden and will grow freely in many conditions. Utilizing the nutrient rich comfrey plant to make a simple comfrey tea fertilizer gives us the opportunity to grow our own fertility. It’s an opportunity to stop being a consumer, and start creating bonds with nature that exclude the super stores. It is imperative that gardeners start creating fertility, rather than buying it in. Doing so will not only create food with a much smaller carbon footprint, but it will also ensure that crops are grown without the use of animal products, which we want to avoid not only for the ethical atrocities associated with the animal industry, but also because of the chemical residues these manures will pass on to the crops from parasites, anti-parasite medication, hormonal, and antibiotic treatments that “livestock” animals receive. Composting, growing green manures, using local mulches, and creating teas to water our crops are all ways that we can grow truly self-sustaining fruits and veggies.
The last time I put a batch of comfrey tea together, it was the beginning of July, and the comfrey was growing out of control. I haven’t done this too many times previously, and I accidently made a bit too much. I filled a two hundred litre barrel halfway with comfrey, put a stone atop the comfrey to weight it down, and filled the barrel all the way up with water. Next time, I will do a third as much. After filling the barrel, I placed a wooden pallet over the top as a covering. I’ve read that a loose covering would be sufficient in keeping debris and bugs away from the fermenting liquid, but that information proved wrong, and this is where I began my moral dilemma and soul searching.
Two weekends ago, I went to the tea barrel because I was planning to dilute it and feed it to the plants. I was shocked to find maggots swimming on the surface. You see, I hadn’t made the covering of the barrel air tight because none of the gardening resources I consulted mentioned that being necessary, and as I result, flies got in to lay their eggs. The surface of the liquid was teaming with what appeared to be thousands of maggots. I was unable to identify the particular species of larvae. I had to make a decision. I did not want the larvae a) preventing me from using the comfrey tea, or b) having a detrimental effect on the garden’s environment. I had to choose between sparing the lives of the thousands of maggots inhabiting my home brewed fertilizer, or killing them to protect my massive batch of tea, and perhaps the garden’s health and fertility.
After doing a bit of research, I made a decision to strain the comfrey tea and deposit the maggots in the meadow land near our house, where they would die on the field and be picked over by scavenging birds. In the same way that I would and will kill fleas or other parasites if I encounter them, I acted in a manner of self preservation. It’s a hard reality to confront and may seem a bit cut throat, but a gardener, and especially a vegan organic gardener that does not use chemical inputs, is going to encounter unexpected infestations, and it is the gardener’s goal to preserve the garden. If we do not save our crops, we do not feed ourselves.
I know I could have let the maggots hatch in my 200 litres of potent comfrey tea fertilizer. I was not going to starve if they destroyed my tea, or even my crops, but I don’t feel that it would have been right to let the maggots take over, either. Veganism is about nonviolence, and respecting other species and life forms. I am strongly committed to these ideas. However, a vegan, too, must preserve their right to live. Maintaining the production of our food is obviously one of the integral aspects to maintaining homeostasis in the body. If the maggots interfere with that process, then it is only natural to implement control measures. Unfortunately, I provided conditions for the maggots to grow in, and I won’t do it again. Aiming for prevention of the problem altogether is ideal, rather than having to use offensive tactics once the problem has arisen.
Similarly, and not long after the tea incident, I found a few aphid colonies settling in amongst my kale plants. I should have been intercropping to encourage a local population of hover flies. I moved a few pots of coriander and dill near to my kale plants, which in turn encouraged hover flies, which eat aphids. Next year, I won’t have a big patch of kale. I’ll have different crops surrounding each kale plant, hopefully creating an environment that keeps the pests away.
I do need to combat the problem so I’ve also applied a diluted neem oil spray to the leaves, which is an organic and completely non-toxic insect killer. The bugs use their backs to breathe. The neem oil coats and suffocates them. This all sounds like a shocking and unjust activity to carry out, and perhaps it is, but if we are to keep crops, we must accept that we will need to protect our crops from certain insects.
I do not think taking any life is a small or insignificant occurrence. This applies even to so called “garden pests” when I am killing them, as I try to claim domestic crops for my own human use, and they try to use the plants for their own uses and natures. It was a hard, confusing, and certainly thought provoking decision. I’ve read that insects aren’t sentient, that they do not have nervous systems. I can not determine an insect’s sentience myself, but I believe that universally we should always try to use nonviolence as the first means of dealing with any situation or conflict. In the future, I will be sure to cover my brewing vessel with an air tight lid, so as not to allow for this situation to happen again. I’ve read lidding is fine, but to expect a much darker, stronger final product that will need to be more diluted before application. Deterring or disabling the pests from settling into the garden with preventative measures are hopefully ways to avoid what felt like a total slaughter.
Here is the simple method for brewing your own NON-INFESTED comfrey tea:
1) Gather comfrey leaves in a lidded container- you will not need more than 50 litres, even this may be too much!
2) Put a brick stone atop the leaves, fill the container with water, and seal the container.
3) After 3 to 8 weeks, the tea is ready for use. It will smell horrible- like rotting cow manure. You can certainly tell it is potent with plant nutrients. Dilute the liquid- you can use a 1:1 ratio or even a 1:10. Just make sure you dilute by at least half. A weaker tea applied more frequently is better than a super strong one-time application.
**Don’t apply to brassicas or lettuce. If these groups are overfed, they will bolt.
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