How to Grow Stinging Nettles

How to Grow Stinging Nettles

I have decided to start growing stinging nettles in my garden for their numerous uses. Nettles have long been used for food, medicine, and fiber. Their stinging properties also make them useful for insect control. Growing nettles is relatively easy if you follow some key steps.

Choosing the Right Location

Finding the optimal location is crucial for successfully growing stinging nettles. Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Sunlight – Nettles need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. A location with morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Too much sunlight can dry out the soil too quickly.

  • Soil – Rich, moist soil with plenty of nitrogen is preferred. The soil pH should be between 6.0-7.0. Nettles grow well in most soil types including clay, silt, sand, and loam.

  • Drainage – The area must have good drainage, as nettles do not tolerate wet or waterlogged soil. Choose a spot with a slight slope if possible.

  • Space – Allow 3-6 feet between plants depending on the variety. Nettles can spread rapidly and become invasive. Allow enough room for the roots to spread.

  • Accessibility – Choose a spot that is easy to access for harvesting and maintenance. Nettles should not be planted near paths or walkways due to their stinging properties.

Selecting the Right Variety

There are several varieties of stinging nettles to choose from:

  • Common nettle (Urtica dioica) – The most widespread variety, native to Europe, Asia, and North America. Grows 3-7 feet tall.

  • Dwarf nettle (Urtica urens) – A low growing annual variety, only reaches 1-2 feet. Native to Europe and Asia.

  • Himalayan nettle (Urtica dioica ssp. )- A perennial variety from the Himalayan region. Extremely hardy. Grows 5-9 feet tall.

I plan to grow the common nettle variety since it is easy to find and suitable for my climate. The dwarf and Himalayan varieties can be tricky to source and grow.

Gathering Seeds or Root Cuttings

Nettles can be grown from seeds or root cuttings:

  • Seeds – Allow existing nettle plants to go to seed in summer. Collect the small, black seeds in fall. Cold stratify seeds by storing in the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks before planting.

  • Root cuttings – Dig up an existing nettle plant in early spring. Cut the roots into 2-3 inch sections. Replant immediately or store in peat moss until ready to plant.

I will start with root cuttings from local nettle plants as they establish more quickly than plants grown from seeds. Seeds can be planted in subsequent years.

Preparing the Planting Area

Proper soil preparation is vital when planting nettles:

  • Remove all weeds from the area. Nettles do not compete well with weeds.

  • Loosen the top 6-12 inches of soil. Break up any large clumps.

  • Mix in 2-4 inches of compost or well-rotted manure. This adds organic matter and nutrients. Nettles are heavy feeders.

  • Consider adding bone meal for phosphorus and wood ashes for potassium. Nettles need lots of nutrients.

  • Rake area smooth and create raised beds for improved drainage.

Prepping the soil properly before planting will set the nettles up for success.

Planting Nettles

Nettles can be planted in spring or fall:

  • Spring – Plant root cuttings or potted starts after the last frost when soil is warm.

  • Fall – Plant root cuttings in early fall while soil is still warm. Mulch well for winter.

Space nettle plants 3 feet apart. Dig holes the depth of the root ball. Place a cutting or plant in each hole and fill with soil. Water thoroughly after planting.

I will plant my nettle root cuttings in early spring to give them time to establish before winter.

Caring for Nettle Plants

Nettles require some maintenance to grow their best:

  • Watering – Water nettles regularly throughout the growing season, especially during dry spells. The soil should never be allowed to fully dry out.

  • Fertilizing – Apply a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer or compost around plants in early spring and again halfway through summer. Nettles are heavy feeders.

  • Weeding – Pull weeds or add mulch around nettles to prevent weed growth. Be sure to wear gloves when weeding!

  • Pruning – Prune nettle plants by half in midsummer to prevent them from becoming lanky and floppy. A second pruning in fall can encourage dense growth.

  • Dividing – Mature nettle plants can be divided every 2-3 years in early spring if they get overcrowded. Replant divisions to expand your nettle patch.

Regular care and maintenance will keep nettle plants healthy and productive for harvesting.

Harvesting Nettles

The young shoots, leaves, and stems of nettles can be harvested:

  • Wear gloves, long sleeves and pants to prevent stings. Use scissors or pruners to cut nettle stems.

  • Harvest the youngest, most tender top 4-6 inches of new growth. Older nettles can be tough and stringy.

  • Harvest frequently, at least every 2-3 weeks. This encourages more shoots to grow.

  • Avoid harvesting any flowers or seeds to allow the plants to reseed.

Nettles are best harvested in spring and early summer before they flower. The plants can be cut back to just above the soil after harvesting to stimulate dense regrowth. Take precautions when harvesting to avoid the painful stings!

Using Fresh and Preserving Nettles

Fresh nettles only last a few days in the refrigerator. Here are some options for using or preserving the harvest:

  • Steam or blanch leaves then freeze in airtight bags for future use.

  • Make nettle pesto, soup, or other cooked dishes. Cooking removes the stings.

  • Dehydrate leaves in a food dehydrator, then store in jars.

  • Infuse in oil or vinegar to make herbal vinegars.

  • Hang bundled stems to air dry. Crumble dry leaves to use as seasoning.

With proper harvesting and preservation techniques, I can enjoy the benefits of homegrown stinging nettles all year long. Let the nettle stings begin!