How to Grow and Care for Stinging Nettle
Choosing the Right Variety
There are several varieties of stinging nettle that can be grown for various uses. The most common is the herbaceous perennial known scientifically as Urtica dioica. This variety has green leaves with serrated edges and tiny stinging hairs. It can reach 2-7 feet tall and spreads readily.
Other varieties like Urtica urens (annual nettle) and Urtica gracilis (California nettle) can also be grown. I prefer Urtica dioica for its hardiness, rapid growth, and high nutrient content. When choosing a variety, consider your climate and intended uses for the nettles.
Where to Plant
Nettles thrive in nutrient-rich, moist soil and partial sunlight. I like to plant nettles in areas near my compost pile or where I have added aged manure. This provides an ongoing source of soil nutrition.
Ideal locations include:
- Along partially shaded streambanks or ponds
- At the edge of my vegetable garden for pest control
- In vacant spots where other weeds would grow
Avoid planting nettles in hot, dry spots or areas prone to drought. Supplemental watering may be needed in these areas to maintain growth.
Starting from Seed
Growing nettle from seed is an inexpensive option. I simply scatter seeds over prepared soil in late fall. Lightly cover with 1/4 inch of compost or soil.
If starting indoors, plant seeds 1/4 inch deep in pots 8-10 weeks before the last expected frost date. Harden off seedlings for 7-10 days before transplanting outdoors. Space plants 12-18 inches apart.
Planting Root Cuttings
For quicker establishment, I prefer planting nettle root cuttings in spring. To do this:
- Collect 2-4 inch root cuttings from an established nettle plant
- Plant cuttings 1 inch deep and 12 inches apart
- Water thoroughly until established
- Mulch around cuttings to retain moisture
Root cuttings develop into full-sized plants within one growing season.
Caring for Nettle Plants
Nettles are relatively carefree once established. I recommend:
- Watering whenever the top few inches of soil become dry
- Adding 2-3 inches of mulch around plants to conserve moisture
- Pruning frequently to encourage dense growth
- Fertilizing monthly with compost tea or fish emulsion
- Controlling growth by containing roots in buried containers
Pruning the plants to within 6 inches of the ground up to 3 times per season will stimulate lush, tender new growth.
Nettles can be harvested once plants are 6-12 inches tall. It’s best to wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid stings. Cut no more than 1/3 of stems down to the lowest set of leaves when harvesting.
For continual harvesting:
- Cut plants back to 6 inches every 2-3 weeks during growing season
- Use sharp scissors or pruning shears for clean cuts
- Harvest in the morning after dew has dried
The top 4-6 inches of young shoots and leaves are ideal for eating. Older nettle leaves tend to be bitter.
Drying or Freezing Nettle
To preserve nettles, I often dry or freeze them:
- To dry – bundle and hang nettle stems upside down in a cool, dry area. Leaves can then be crumbled off the stems and stored.
- To freeze – blanch leaves for 2-3 minutes, then submerge in ice water. Squeeze dry and freeze leaves in a single layer on a cookie sheet before transferring to bags.
Dried or frozen nettle can be used for teas, soups, pestos, and more! Proper drying and freezing helps retain nutrients.
Uses for Stinging Nettle
Here are some of my favorite uses for the stinging nettle harvest:
- Dried or fresh in herbal teas – helps circulation, digestion, and more!
- Added to soups and stews for nutrition – very high in vitamins and minerals
- Pest control in the garden – nettle tea spray deters aphids, whiteflies, and other pests
- Natural fertilizer from nettle compost and “tea”
- Textiles and fiber arts – nettle stems yield strong fibers for cloth, paper, rope, etc.
With its many benefits, stinging nettle is a versatile plant well worth growing! Let me know if you have any other questions.