One of the best signs of a rich and fertile soil is the appearance each of autumn of self-sown ‘stinging nettles’ (Urtica dioica); this has become an annual event for us here on the Adelaide Plains. After years of adding (literally) truck-loads of compost to our red-clay soils, they are now a deep crumbly black, alive with worms, and just right for nettles.
Stinging nettles are painful if brushed with the back of the hand while weeding or undertaking other chores in the autumn garden; I’ve found that rubbing the affected skin with a handful of soil quickly relieves the pain. Cooking the nettles removes the stinging chemicals, and thank goodness for that! Bad chemicals aside, nettles are rich in all sorts of minerals (iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium) and vitamins (A, C, D). If I recall correctly, these vary according to the age of the nettle…
Butterflies and other useful insects like nettles for food and egg-laying, and so we try to leave patches of nettles for them at different points in the vegetable garden.
Like comfrey, nettles are a good addition to the compost heap, and can also be added to a tank of water to make a ‘nettle tea’ for use as a liquid fertiliser. This takes strong nerves and sympathetic neighbours – the stink is horrendous!
Dried nettles can be stored after harvesting the whole plant by washing the soil off the roots, then hanging the bunches out of the rain and direct sun for later use in healthy nettle teas. Note that the cook is wearing gloves for this little harvest from last year’s potato patch.