Stinging Nettles and Mud


Spring is coming? Wish it would hurry up but not too much! So many tasks to do and the weather is not helping. Even with the benefit of our reciprocal Christmas gifts of ridiculously expensive but deliciously warm thermal wellies, insulated waterproof trousers and the usual multiple layers of jumpers, body warmers and storm proof jackets, the simplest of tasks have been challenging. Soil conditions are poor, too wet to hoe or plant, any weeds extracted accompanied by muddy clods of precious top soil that we would rather keep in our beds rather than hurl it onto our ever-growing compost heap. Our little tractor and trailer has been such a help carting this mountain of spent stems and weeds, as we clear the beds for the season to come. There's been a fair bit of removing that most pernicious and cunning weed, couch grass. Luckily it's quite easy to identify, both above and below ground, made even more so given the fact that our dog Murphy loves to eat it and often finds hidden clumps that we've failed to spot.

We use woven landscape fabric for our paths and couch grass loves this, it provides a short cut to it's next habitat. Lifting the fabric reveals it's network of sharp tipped brown and white roots, thankfully quite close to the surface, enabling it to be gently teased out, trying hard not to leave any sections, eager to colonise afresh. This fabric also speeds the spread of our perennial nettle, Urtica dioica, whose pink and yellow rhizomes and stolons progress unseen at great speed out of sight and mind.



Until we started the flower farm, despite years of gardening and a great deal of weeding, I had only come across this familiar and ubiquitous perennial stinging nettle. You may be familiar with the term, 'grasp the nettle', referring to the fact that if you grab this nettle with conviction, speed and strength, you rarely get badly stung. Oddly, I don't dislike the sensation, in fact it was used by the ancient Egyptians to treat arthritis. However I was in for a shock when we discovered a different nettle, the small or annual nettle, Urtica urens, growing at Blackmarsh Farm. It looks very similar at first sight but grasping this nettle is not to be recommended at all! It's vicious! An almost electric pain, quite different from it's more common cousin, which lingers for at least a day. Needless to say, we've become adept at spotting the quite subtle difference between the two types. It's actually a rather handsome plant, with richer green leaves and, in keeping with it's enhanced powers, sports very much more noticeable and larger stinging hairs on it's leaves and stems. Luckily it doesn't spread like it's cousin and is quite easy to dig out, so is less of a nuisance.

Our winter tasks are not all outside, we've started sowing this years annuals and new perennials. We're keen to get them started now but don't want to start too early, as we don't want them sitting in their pots too long, using up precious space in the tunnel. So we tend to sow the perennial species first which germinate best if exposed to some degree of cold, even frost. Such as Aquilegia, Astrantia and Thalictrum. Then we'll start on the hardy annuals that we didn't sow in the Autumn, such as Antirrhinums, before the less hardy half hardy annuals, the zinnias and cosmos. It's the thought of all these summer treats that keeps us going through all this winter weather. Not long now!