“Ouch! I am not touching those things. Why would I grow nettles in my garden?” is the most common response when I tell people that every garden should have a couple of patches of stinging nettles.
Stinging nettles do live up to their name. They have tiny, hollow, hair-like structures called trichomes that contain a blend of chemicals. When skin brushes against these tiny hairs, the tips come off the trichomes and the chemicals are released. People experience a mild to severe reaction to these chemicals, depending on their level of sensitivity. My mother will have large blisters that persist for more than a week if she has the slightest contact with stinging nettles. I, on the other hand, rarely have any sort of reaction. When I was a child, my mother was determined to rid our backyard of her nemesis. After making sure every bit of her skin was covered, she mowed down the entire patch every week. I thought the stinging sensation felt really cool on my feet, so I ran barefoot through the freshly mowed patch. Whether or not this gave me some sort of immunity is open to debate, but today I can harvest nettles bare-handed. By the way, nettles can be easily rendered stingless before eating. They need only to be washed in hot water, dipped in boiling water, sauteed or roasted. You can eat them without having to worry about what they will do to your mouth.
So why would you grow nettles? For their flavor, nutrition and health benefits. Nettles are high in vitamins A and C, high in minerals calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. In mid-season, the protein levels are also high. Health benefits from nettle consumption are numerous: it reduces inflammation in arthritis sufferers, treats kidney and bladder problems, combats anemia, reduces the severity of PMS, asthma, and seasonal allergies. The list goes on and on. Basically, nettles will probably help whatever is wrong with you unless you are taking blood thinners. People on blood thinners should not consume nettles because they are high in vitamin K.
Regardless of the benefits of nettles, you probably won’t eat them more than once unless you like their flavor. I find them to be one of those spring greens that I start to crave about mid-March. Their flavor is somewhat reminiscent of cooked spinach, but with a more wild flavor.
I use nettles through out the growing season. Nettles are the most tender in the early spring. I like to steam or saute them and serve them with wild rice.
When ramps (wild leeks) are available, I saute spring harvested parsnips, ramps, and nettles and serve them over wild rice. The flavors blend and complement each other well in a joyous celebration of spring. (Here, in Minnesota, spring is always a cause for celebration!)
By the time my mint plants are showing vigorous growth, I switch to making nettle soup. I pile a bunch of washed nettle leaves in my soup pot, along with a chopped spring onion or two, and a handful of fresh mint. Then I pour in enough of my homemade vegetable stock to cover the greens and simmer until the onions and nettles are tender. Puree the whole works either with an immersion blender or in a traditional blender. Serve at room temperature or chilled. It makes a lovely starter for a meal featuring asparagus.
Before the nettles flower and start setting seed, I harvest leaves for drying. The dried leaves are wonderful for a winter tonic tea.
Nettles are easy to grow if your soil is high in nitrogen and phosphorus. It is quite possible you already have them lurking in your yard, possibly near a compost heap or close to your pet’s favorite potty place. They seem to have an affinity for spots that are moist and partially shaded. You can purchase seed or young plants to get your patch started if you aren’t blessed with any volunteer plants in your yard. Seed is a little more tricky, since it has a long germination period. Plants are quick and experience very little transplant shock. Another alternative is to ask someone who already has an established patch if they would share a section of roots. This should be done very early in the spring. Root sections should be dug and replanted immediately. Don’t try to hold them for more than a couple of hours.
Let your nettles get well established during the first year. The second year, you can start harvesting when the nettles are about 4 inches tall. Never cut all the nettles at once. The leaves make the food that feeds the roots of the plant, so if you harvest too much, your plant will starve to death. Quit harvesting when the plants reach maturity and start to blossom. After the blossoms turn to seed and the plant starts to die, you can cut the plants back to ground level. they should return again in the spring! You can spread compost over your patch to ensure the nitrogen levels are high enough to make your nettles happy.