Nettles are notorious for their sting and as a creeping weed, good for nothing but ripping out and thwacking back. Right? Not so fast – nettles have lots going for them too! Did you know that nettles are a convenient source of nutrients for your crops, are brilliant at attracting beneficial bugs, and are an edible treat if harvested correctly?
Powerhouse Plant Food
Put the nutrients found within nettles to good use by making your own natural, organic liquid plant feed. They’re full of growth-boosting goodness, including nitrogen, calcium and magnesium.
You can use older, tough growth for this – though tender young growth is fine too. Just cut some nettles and stuff them down into a watertight container, ideally with a lid as it can pong a bit. Weigh them down then fill the container with water and leave it to steep for about a month.
To use it, just add one part of your nettle tea to ten parts water. Because it’s rich in nitrogen, this is particularly useful for leafy vegetables like kale, chard and spinach.
You can also cut nettles to lay, as they are, around larger plants or shrubby fruits, where they will serve as a valuable mulch.
Their high nitrogen content also makes them a natural compost activator. In other words, by adding them to your compost heap you’ll speed up the decomposition process. Mix them in with a wide range of other compostable ingredients, including drier ingredients with a higher carbon content such as plain cardboard, dried leaves or woodier prunings. Just make sure not to include any of the roots or seed heads, or they’ll start growing in your compost.
Nettles for Wildlife
Nettles are the food plant of choice for the caterpillars of all sorts of beautiful butterfly species. By leaving a few nettles be, you’ll be setting up ideal conditions for a kaleidoscope of color later on in the season.
Many other insects love nettles too, including ladybirds and their prime food source, aphids. Think of nettles as a sacrificial crop. In much the same way you can plant nasturtiums to lure caterpillars away from your cabbages, nettles can be left to take the hit when it comes to aphids.
Far from simply adding to the aphid problem in your garden, these nettles will in fact lead to their ultimate demise, because those trusty ladybirds and their larvae will be there to snaffle them up. And ladybirds don’t just enjoy aphids for their meal – they’ll also make short work of whitefly, spider mites and other pests too!
Nettles are a great ingredient to cook with. To pick them you’ll of course need to put on some gloves. I’ve heard you can pick them with your bare hands by grabbing at them from the top and nipping them off by pinching downwards in the direction of the stinging hairs, but I’m not brave enough for that! Pick just the young tips of the nettles, which will be more tender and less stringy.
Think of nettles as a substitute to spinach. Like spinach they’re chock-full of iron and make a fantastic spring green – just steam them for about five minutes.
Or make a tasty nettle soup. Simply boil one pound (450g) of potatoes until soft, and steam half a pound (225g) of nettles till tender. Combine them with two pints (one liter) of vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, season to taste, add a splash of cream then blitz with a stick blender. Yum!
It makes a jolly good tea too – just steep a few leaves in boiling water. Apparently, it’s a powerful push against all sorts of ailments, including hay fever, sore muscles and asthma. I just find it a rather refreshing and calming alternative to the usual caffeinated teas.
And, do you know what, nettles even make a very palatable beer too. Suddenly they’re not looking too bad after all, are they!
Have you got nettles in your garden – go on be honest! – and how will you be putting them to use? Share your thoughts below.