by James Alexander-Sinclair

Nettles, like midges, are one of those things for which it is difficult to feel much affection ... they seem to have little purpose beyond stinging our children.

Nettles - Urtica dioicaNettles, like midges, are one of those things for which it is difficult to feel much affection. Never welcome, they grow everywhere and, to the gardener at least, seem to have little purpose beyond stinging our children. The sting comes from thousands of miniscule hairs that easily pierce the skin and administer a complex cocktail of chemicals that hurt and irritate. Rubbing the affected area with a dock leaf can bring relief - no doubt there are other cures out there.

It would be foolish to disregard nettles as a useless (and delinquent) weed, as they can be very useful. Nettles make strong rope and tough cloth; up until the First World War the Germans harvested tonnes of nettles and made them into military uniforms (the sting is neutralised by boiling). They also provide food for the caterpillars of some of our loveliest butterflies, including red admirals, small tortoiseshells, peacocks and the lovely comma . They not only feed butterflies and ladybird larvae, but can also feed us (although most people seem to prefer Tesco to fossicking around in hedgerows). It's well known that nettle soup can be made from the tips, but less well known are Scottish nettle pudding (that includes oats, onions, sprouts, butter and gravy as well as nettle) and nettle porridge (as eaten by Samuel Pepys).

Nettles need good ground to thrive so you can, at least, take a crumb of comfort from the knowledge that at least part of your garden is brimming with fertility and phosphates. One of the best uses for nettles, as with comfrey, is as a plant food. If you soak the crushed nettles in water for about a month, you'll end up with a liquid feed that should be diluted by one part in ten before application. If sprayed on plants it can also prevent fungal disease. Nettles also add a good dose of nitrogen to compost heaps.

I think we've seen that nettles are much more useful than midges: nobody has ever considered making soup from midges. We should also be grateful that we don't have any of the southern hemisphere nettles, which are much bigger and have a sting that can last months and cause lockjaw. You would need a dock leaf the size of a double duvet to deal with that.

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Gardeners' World Web User 09/07/2008 at 01:21

If you want the dock leaf trick to work you need to crush the leaves and squeeze the juice into the problem area. So says Ray Mears anyway. I kind of like nettles. Lets face it they are the first plant you learn as a child and i get to look like a Samaritan clearing up great clumps of public nettles when actually i am just feeding my rather woody compost.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2008 at 01:56

I have to say nettles the English type give me a sting that lasts for at least a week but I also have the very pretty dead nettle in my garden and this has no sting at all, also has a pretty white flower.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2008 at 22:07

I love the dead nettle too - I have pink and purple ones. I regularly put the nettles leaves in my compost - but not the roots.

Gardeners' World Web User 02/08/2008 at 11:26

OK - so to make a nettle feed, how much nettle in how much water for a month before then diluting 1:10, please...?

Gardeners' World Web User 06/09/2008 at 22:26

A daft question.............can you buy NETTLE seeds from garden centres. I rather like the idea of growing pots of the stuff, to make up a liquid feed, after the butterflys have done their thing with them!

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