When Nettles are Your Friend;
Making Use of Abundantly Available Local Materials
Q. Mike McGrath here with a very special "Question of the Week"—(or should we say "Listener Tip of the Week?)! Anyway, it comes courtesy of Aviva in Eugene Oregon, who sent us a lengthy email that was so good I was tempted to just read it in its entirety on the show this week…
…which is very unusual, as most 'long emails' are either somebody piling on 18 different complex questions or trying to get me to do a complete design plan for their five acre landscape for free. But every once in a while you get one where someone shares a wonderful story and/or reveals a great tip that our listeners can use. And that's just what Aviva sent.
She writes: "I have been an avid listener for years and wanted to share some garden methods that are new to me, all thanks to a landscaper I was able to hire. Because of arthritis, I need help in the yard and am now able to garden fairly well with the new raised beds they created for me; a mix of three foot high cedar framed boxes and some lower raised beds for tall plants."
Now that's a great tip right there, and it echoes a point I've been making for years. As gardeners get older or develop physical limitations, they need growing areas that are easy to reach. Myself included—my containers keep getting bigger and higher off the ground every season, and I find them to be more fun--and easier to grow in—than the ground for most crops.
In fact, a few years from now, I expect that my traditional 'in-ground' garden area will only host garlic (important note: Planting time for garlic—traditionally right when the kids go back to school—is coming up soon; so get your planting stock in hand now!), tomatoes and raspberries—none of which would do well in pots. (The garlic and small fruits have to overwinter in the ground, and I grow BIG honking tomato plants.)
Aviva continues: "My landscaper's company, 'Garden Starters', installs beds filled with VERY high quality soil. When I hired them, they invited me out to their farm, where they have a huge 'vermicomposting' operation; and because their compost still contains a lot of the red worms that make it all happen, I have lots of worms in my beds! As a result, my kale never seems to slow down, the radishes, spinach and peas have been crazy with flavor and the herbs are aromatic and plentiful."
There's another lesson that all gardeners need to learn and remember—the secret to success is in the soil!
In conclusion, she writes: "Why do I share this? To tell you about the type of mulch they provide. I never saw anything like it before, but it sure works well to prevent weeds and keep moisture in the soil—it's made of finely shredded nettle stalks. This mulch has a lovely smell, and they get the raw material from a local organic herb company, thus making it sustainable as well."
Now I can hear you all saying: "isn't nettle a weed?" To some people, yes; but there is also a long tradition of nettles being used in herbal medicine. In his classic book "Green Pharmacy", retired USDA botanist Dr. Jim Duke, who probably knows more about the medicinal potential of plants than anyone else on the planet, notes that stinging nettles have been used—and contain the right phytochemicals—to treat 19 different conditions, from allergies to tendinitis—although the most famous use is for arthritis. Many people with arthritis swear they get relief by pulling up Stinging Nettle plants and just kind of slapping them against their skin.
What?! They deliberately 'sting' themselves?!
Yes; those little stingers are injecting them with incredibly powerful natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatories. As Jim has explained on many occasions, it's often the naturally-occurring protective compounds that plants use to repel insects and herbivores—like the stuff inside those little stingers—that have the greatest medical potential. People who want to try this remedy but don't want to beat themselves with stinging plants take the herb in supplement form. And this landscaping company apparently gets their mulch from a maker of such supplements.
And I'll bet there's a lot of it. These companies begin the process with a huge bulk of plant material, from which they're only going to use certain parts, like roots or flowers—or even distillations. That leaves behind an enormous amount of 'roughage' to be recycled. And we're not just talking about nettle stalks. Milk thistle, for instance, is another popular supplement that leaves behind a lot of raw material. (Highly regarded as a liver protectant, extracts of milk thistle command the same status as prescription drugs in Japan and many European countries.)
And no, these 'weeds' won't take root when used as mulch. The material is old and dried and woody by the time it gets recycled. And these herb 'leftovers' are also 'clean' in another very important way; the herbs used for supplements are generally either 'wild-crafted'—that is, harvested from the wild—or organically grown. That makes them much better than the straw that many gardeners buy to use as mulch.
Sadly, most gardeners don't live near a supplement company. But they probably do live near similar resources. Back when I was the Editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran an article on locally available materials, like manures from organically-raised animals and the stalks leftover from processing big plants like corn and sunflower. And those are just a few examples.
So expand your horizons, network and pay attention. You—or a super-hip landscaper if you are lucky enough to find one—may uncover a treasure trove of really cool mulch that was just waiting for you to find it.