Nettles: Good for the Garden and Good for Us
Nettles: Good for the Garden and Good for Us
by Judith Dreyer
When the cold and chill of winter begins to soften and the sun’s rays strengthen, we start to notice the first buds on trees, and some flowers poke up like the beginnings of a soft symphony. One of the first plants to arrive on sturdy stems is the nettle, commonly known as stinging nettle. Bright green parts poke up at the beginning of spring, offering nourishment both for us and our soils.
Nutritious and hardy, this perennial offers us nutrients, fiber, food, cordage and is a ready and willing partner in the soil ecosystem. Their reputation to “sting” makes many wary of this plant, yet they are a powerhouse of nutrients.
In biodynamic farming, nettle is a major player in composting. Biodynamic farming, founded by Rudolph Steiner, encourages its farmers to use nettles in a preparation called BD504, which, he says, “plays a huge role in resolving soils with an imbalance of iron, magnesium and sulfur.” According to Steiner, “Excess iron can cause many problems and often presents itself in the form of very tight soil with hardpan or crust. This tightness locks in the iron and other trace minerals, which in turn exacerbates the problem. BD504 preparation loosens the soil texture, allowing the nutrients to release, disperse and be absorbed by plants.”
Nettles contain formic acid, phosphorus and a trace of iron. The square and downy stems are covered with tiny, sharp spikes that release an acrid fluid when touched, much like a bee sting. Interestingly, the juice of the crushed nettle leaves can be rubbed on the sting for relief. The sting reminds us to quiet down and approach them with respect.
Each of these spikes or spines is composed of small cells that contain this fluid. Once dried or cooked, the sting is neutralized and it makes for a nutritious potherb (an herb that can be added to a pot of soup or stew) or tea.
Name: Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Parts Used: the whole plant, downy with tiny hairs that sting
Where Found: Nettles are found in most temperate regions and seem to follow man’s migrations. Nettles can indicate a soil rich in nitrogen.
Young Shoots: Nettles are best gathered in the early spring when they are less than one foot tall. Later in the season, they get gritty and accumulate crystals called crystoliths that make them unpalatable to eat. The young shoots are gathered to harvest, wash, cook and eat that day, or to make a pot of tea with the fresh herb, then dry the rest for later use, to include tea making.
Stems: Nettles have been valued for their fiber. Some herb schools include separating out the fibers within the stems that are cut in late summer and dried. Cordage can be woven for later use. Historically, this fiber was also used in clothing, sailcloth and sacking material.
Want to add nettles to your garden? Select a fairly sunny spot, perhaps outside your garden. These plants are quite hardy and, as a perennial, they will keep coming back and spread. They grow to about 3 or 4 feet tall and can create a border. Seeds are available if you can’t find a neighboring gardener willing to share. There are many seed sources online, including Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, offered at Comstock Ferre & Co, in Wethersfield.
Whether you’re a biodynamic farmer or backyard gardener, nettles offer so much. Handled with respect and care, this one plant contributes to the soil ecosystem, adding nutrients as well as strengthening our biology. Nettle helps us make the metabolic changes from winter to spring.
Judith Dreyer, MS, BSN, and founder/host of the Holistic Nature of Us podcast which looks at healing our relationships with the natural world. Visit JudithDreyer.com for podcast listings and related blogs. Connect at 203-233-1212 or [email protected].
Nettles are good for the health of our bodies and our gardens. Here’s how to make a “tea” for your plants, which delivers minerals for healthy soil, and a tea for you, plus ideas for using the herb dried in other dishes.
For the Garden: Compost Tea
As the stems get taller, cut and place in a 5-gallon bucket, about 2/3 full. Fill bucket about 3/4 full of water. Let sit, but stir frequently for about 3 weeks.
At the end of three weeks, add about 1 Tbsp to 1/4 cup molasses or organic brown sugar, and let it ferment a bit. This fermenting tea smells, but don’t let that deter or fool you. This garden tea is packed with minerals so needed in soil building.
When done, dilute the tea 1:10, 1 part tea to 10 parts water.
Give each plant a cupful. You can also dilute the tea 1:20, 1 part tea to 20 parts water, and use as a foliar spray, which can help deter bugs and even fungi, such as powdery mildew.
At the end of the season, cut plants back to the ground and add to the compost pile.
For the Body: Nettles as a Potherb and/or Tea
Gather tender aerial parts in spring. Wearing gloves to avoid stinging, wash and chop nettles.
Place about one handful in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for a couple of minutes.
Strain out the nettles and drink the tea water. You can then add those greens to rice, veggies and pasta dishes.
Don’t forget to dry some of these tender pieces to make tea later on, but also to add the dried and cut plant material like you would add dried oregano to soups and stews in fall and winter.