Over the centuries nettle has provided fibres for spinning and weaving into cloth, and dyed everything from clothing to camouflage nets. As a source of valuable minerals and vitamins it has been eaten in famine and times of plenty and is valued in shampoos for aiding hair growth.
It is one of the few herbs which in the last century with our increased understanding of human physiology have found a new medicinal use. The root is given for similar effects to saw palmetto in treating an enlarged prostate. Other parts of the nettle have always been valued in herbal medicine, notably for treating rheumatism and gout.
Yet by many it is considered a weed to be killed with chemicals or rooted out wherever it grows. For thirty years I have regarded a nettle patch as an essential part of my organic garden and recommended this practice in talks, this is why –
Early in the year is a good point to harvest young nettle tops for your own use, whether in food, as a medicinal tea or shampoo. A patch of nettles in a sunny, sheltered spot will also bring ladybirds to your garden so that they are already established to deal with insect pests such as blackfly and greenfly.
Cutting the stems back again later, if they are in a suitable, sheltered and sunny spot will support the waning butterfly population by offering young growth as food for their young. Repeat three times, once in late May or early June and twice more at monthly intervals. Your harvest of cut nettles offers you an excellent source of nitrogen-rich goodness either to add to the compost or use in an easily prepared liquid fertilizer.
Nettle Liquid Fertilizer
Simply add one to two thirds volume of chopped nettle to rainwater, either in an old water butt or bin with a lid. The lid is important since you will not want to release the smell more than necessary. With warm days in 1-2 weeks you will be able to use the liquid to pour into the ground before planting out young seedlings.
When it has darkened and thickened dilute half and half before use. Strong nettle liquid will give you exceptional crops of tomatoes and can be used full strength to remove blackfly if the ladybirds have not already eaten them. These pests do not like strong smells! Aged nettle liquid makes a great iron tonic in spring for my bay tree and other herbs.
Between cuts the nettles are food for the larvae of some of our most beautiful butterflies and moths. Before cutting the nettles back always check for any remaining eggs.
The small tortoiseshell, and peacock lay their eggs on the under surface of the leaves, the painted lady on the upper side, while the red admiral and comma butterflies lay single or batches of eggs in rolled up leaves or in webs.
For more information see my talk Herbs to Aid the Gardener, and organic gardening sections in Herbwise Naturally and Herb Sufficient.