The Common Nettle Urtica dioica has a vigorous spreading root system that brings a sinking feeling to most gardeners. Chemicals are often recommended to eradicate these troublesome weeds but that is a waste of a wonderful herb.
Nettles are important foodplants for the caterpillars of several butterflies and moths. They have also been grown in herb gardens for centuries and can provide many benefits for people too.
There is a way that a patch of nettles can be grown safely, even in a small garden.
Buy cheap tubtrugs, make a few drainage holes in the base, then fill with fertile soil and plant with local nettles. Place in sun to light shade and, if space allows, group a few tubs together as butterflies prefer large sunny patches of nettles. To prevent the nettles spreading, place on a hard surface so any escaping roots can be seen. Flowers should also be removed before the seeds develop and disperse.
The colourful Nymphalid butterflies will lay their eggs on the nettle leaves and these will provide food for the caterpillars. Look out for eggs laid singly by the Red Admiral and Comma or in batches by the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock. The eggs of all four butterflies will hatch in one to three weeks, depending on temperature.
Many moths also utilize nettles, such as the micro-moths Mother of Pearl, Small Magpie and Nettle-tap. The caterpillars often feed within a rolled up or spun leaf. Larger moths include the Scarlet and Jersey Tigers, Snout, Buff Ermine and Burnished Brass.
Any nettles free of eggs or munching caterpillars can be harvested for use in the house and garden.
Nettle stems, without flowers or roots, are excellent additions to the compost heap because they are rich in minerals. When placed in thin layers they will help fermentation.
Another use in the garden is as liquid manure. To make this, cut the nettles, cover in water and leave for three weeks to rot. Pour the liquid on soil to promote plant growth. Or place a bunch of stems and leaves in a bucket of water for five days. Dilute the liquid 1 part ‘nettle manure’ with five parts water and spray on plants to ward off aphids.
If you are brave, pick young leaves in spring and cook in the same way as spinach. They are full of vitamins. You could also try nettle soup or tea.
To give your hair a shine, steep mature leaves in hot water to create a hair rinse.
Nettles grow quickly, so there will be enough for all.
The BC Towers 'Secret Gardener'