Given that I missed writing about 'National Composting Week', as it's timing coincided - most suitably - with the busiest part of the gardening calendar, I was determined not to let 'Be Nice to Nettles Week' slip by in a similar way. Nettles get a bad press. We all remember being stung, inadvertently, as children and the resulting nettle rash seemed to last - painfully - for hours. As I recall, there was never a dock leaf around when you needed one! Even Kenneth Thompson - who wrote the book I recommend on composting - has a title on wildlife gardening called No Nettles Required. I freely admit to not having read it but think I might do now to find out just why nettles are not required in a wildlife garden! Nettles are routinely noted as the Big Bad Wolves of gardening and are about as popular, yet as unwelcome visitors go, they are surprisingly useful.
The BBC Breathing Places project has an article in the Spring issue of Countryfile magazine about nettles. The aim of the project is to get people involved in creating havens for wildlife in their local area and, they argue, nettles have an important role to play:-
- Red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies rely on the common nettle for breeding as their larvae feed on it's leaves.
- The plant also supports over forty species of insect and a full-grown nettle can produce up to 40,000 seeds during it's lifetime, to provide food for seed-eating birds.
- Nettles make an excellent food for other plants as they are rich in nutrients. No wonder they need those stings to protect themselves! Like comfrey, they are a valuable activator for home-made compost. You can just pick them - wearing thick gloves - and add them to the heap. If you are careful not to pull the root up with them you can have your own sustainable cut-and-come-again patch that will keep providing you with new stems throughout the summer. Equally, you can make a liquid feed that's high in nitrogen. Pick your nettles, put them in a plastic bucket and cover them with water. Stir them well each day for a fortnight. The liquid is then ready to be diluted at ten parts water to one part nettle fertiliser. Strain it first or it will block up the rose on your watering can!
I have two patches of nettles on my allotments, one on each. The first grows around my plastic compost bins and when they begin to look a bit unruly, I just pull the tops off and add them to the current bin. If they look as if they are spreading, I pull the root up and add that as well, to keep it under control. They are not deep-rooted and are easy to remove as long as you are well protected from those stings. My other patch is the width of the allotment, and about 6ft deep, and grows at the far end of my first allotment, where it butts up to the path. When all the allotments at that end were disused, people would come onto the allotments from the neighbouring public footpath and just take the quickest route through to the gate at the bottom. To stop them cutting through mine, I left this nettle barrier; no-one willingly walks through nettles and I'm providing my own wildlife snack bar at the same time!
As weeds go, nettles are actually a blessing in disguise. Even couch grass can be dug out, with persistence. Just don't let me get going about bindweed ...
While I remember, I want to say a big thank you to those people who've been so complimentary about my photographs. To celebrate my forthcoming 30th post, I'm thinking of holding a little competition, with one of my photographs, printed professionally, as a prize. Do let me know what you think?