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Nettles to the rescue

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Perhaps it's just another variation of making lemonade from lemons. But France's most ubiquitous weed, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, also naturalized through most of the U.S.), is made into soup, omelettes, sauces, and even wines and jellies. There's usually a stand offering all these products at almost every festival or fair.

But more germane to the gardener, purin d'ortie, which is best translated as a concentrated tea of nettles, is the most popular organic fertilizer. Jugs of the stuff are industrially prepared and for sale in every garden center. Even nonorganic gardeners here are partial to using it.

Partaking of nettles in every possible way seems to verge on an act of patriotism for the French. There is an Association des Amis d'Ortie (Association of the Friends of the Nettle) who have annual meetings, and of course, the requisite Fte des Orties, or nettle festival, where you can listen to lectures, meet with other impassioned nettle users, and of course, indulge in nettle gastronomy.

Seriously, nettles offer extraordinary nutrition, both for plants and humans. This homely herb is extraordinarily rich in nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, oligoelements, encymes, and trace minerals, especially iron. For the landlocked, who can't go to the beach and forage seaweeds for their compost, stinging nettle is the answer.

In France, bodies of serious research exist supporting the various benefits of applying nettle tea to your plants. Much as is the case for kelp emulsion, nettle tea seems to stimulate the "immune system" of plants, making them more resistant to insect and disease attacks. Perhaps this effect is due to no more than the fact that the plant is in a state of optimal and balanced nutrition.

Nettle tea must be diluted before using, and can be applied as a soil drench or sprayed on as a foliar feeding. Undiluted nettle tea can be used as an organic herbicide. Just spray the undiluted stuff on actively growing weeds. After two weeks, the ground will be ready for planting--and richly fertilized to boot!

Since American garden centers don't stock this miracle product, you'll have to make your own if you want to profit from this rich gardening resource. In areas of the country with regular rainfall, nettles are usually easy to find in the wild. They are partial to rich, moist to wet soil, but may also be found on roadsides or even in deep woods, as--being highly successful weeds--they tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. If you locate a wild patch, you can either harvest a big sackful for drying or immediate use, or dig up a couple of clumps to plant in an out-of-the-way corner of your property. Make sure to wear heavy long pants and thick gloves when approaching the nettle patch. Their sting doesn't last more than a few hours, but is highly irritating.

Here's how to make purin d'ortie:

1. Cut the nettles at about half their height. Remember, wear gloves!

2. Mix the cuttings with water in a large container such as a large plastic garbage can. You'll need a lid, because nettle tea smells absolutely disgusting. Use a non-chlorinated source of water, such as water from a rainbarrel or cistern, as chlorine inhibits the fermentation of the tea. Mix 1 gallon of water with every pound of fresh or 2 ounces of dried nettles. Cover with the lid!

3. Allow the brew to ferment from one to three weeks. The length of time necessary will depend on ambient temperature. Obviously, the hotter it is, the quicker the process. (However, place your barrel in the shade during summer to prevent the mixture from overheating and killing the necessary fermenting bacteria.) The tea is ready when fermentation has ceased. Test for this by stirring. Avert your nose to avoid the fumes, then sneak a peak. No more bubbles? It's ready to use.

4. Strain the tea as soon as fermentation has stopped. Store the infusion in clean plastic or glass containers in a cool spot.

5. Remember, unless you want the herbicide effect, dilute the tea before using. For soil applications, dilute to a 10% solution (1 cup of original infusion to 10 cups of water) or 5% for foliar feeding.

Trying to think of a Christmas gift for the gardener who has everything? Well, how about a jug of homebrew?

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About Trucs d'artan
Snow may be thick and slushy on the ground, but now and then, there's just a hint of spring. An emerging crocus, a swelling, velvety magnolia bud, a quickening of your pulse when you walk outside during a thaw. Now is the perfect time to treat yourself...to French kitchen ware, French flower vases for indoor bouquets... And to dream of this year's garden, embellished with French vegetables and wild flowers, planted using French garden tools. Choose from hundreds of ways to bring a touch of French country into your home and garden... Barbara Wilde
   
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