Tuesday, 14 April 2015

5 reasons why everybody should have a nettle patch

We hear a lot about wildlife gardening and providing a haven for nature in our back gardens. So last spring, Bug Mad Girl and I decided to let the stinging nettles take over a small area and see for ourselves what would make them their home. The results were truly amazing and our small nettle patch became a site of wonder and discovery for the entire family. This is what we found ...

1.    Ants and their aphids
Aphids soon appeared on our nettles, closely followed by ants, forming an amazing mutually beneficial relationship. The ants herded the aphids together onto a couple of nettle stems and guarded them ferociously from predators. In return the aphids released a sugar rich substance called honeydew that the ants loved. We also noticed that overnight, a nettle stem could be abandoned with all the aphids appearing on a new stem in the morning. When the nutrients from one stem had been depleted, the ants had moved them onto a new one, keeping them well fed as well as safe.

2.    Very hungry caterpillars
Some very spiky black caterpillars made a home on our nettles. It’s strangely satisfying to know that peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies found our nettles and chose to lay their precious eggs on them. We watched as the caterpillars grew, changed their skins and then disappeared off to pupate. Then, every time we saw a beautiful butterfly in the garden, we wondered whether it had been one of our caterpillars.

Comma caterpillar

Small tortoiseshell caterpillar

We were lucky enough to observe the caterpillars employing some clever survival techniques. When they were ready to change their skins, they nibbled half way through a leaf stalk, so that the leaf dropped over making a tent. Hiding away in their tent gave them some level of protection during this vulnerable stage in their lifecycle.

Leaf tents made by caterpillars ready to change their skins

Nibble marks made by the caterpillars
3.    Ladybird monsters
The aphids soon attracted the ladybirds. The larvae of the ladybird look like mini-monsters, with slate grey spiky backs, bright orange patches and thick black legs. We watched them munch their way through a lot of aphids for the month or so that they were around. Then suddenly they were all gone, off to pupate. Soon though we had the far more attractive and less scary looking adult ladybirds, which enjoyed the aphids just as much as their larvae.

 4.    Mini-beasts galore
We seemed to make new discoveries every day and the nettle patch became a constant source of excitement.  Hunting carefully through the leaves, trying not to get stung too often, we found all sorts of spiders, harvestmen, snails, slugs, beetles, weevils, shield bugs and other little creatures.

Harvestman with a tangle of legs

Shield bug
5.    Further up the food chain
The invertebrates thrived on the nettle patch, but they in turn were a valuable source of food for some of the other wildlife in our garden. We had a bumper summer for baby birds and the caterpillars and bugs must have been a great source of food for parents trying to feed hungry young. We discovered several frogs and a hedgehog in the garden, which may well have benefitted from the slugs that had taken up residence in the nettles. The masses of nettle flowers that appeared late summer, turned into seeds in the autumn. This was a welcome bonus for our resident sparrow family and some of the other birds, such as chaffinches, that appeared in the autumn.
So why not grasp the nettle (not literally of course) and give it a go. Let your own patch of nettles grow, then see for yourself what a wildlife haven it can be. 

This years patch is growing well!


  1. Looks like you have a mini rainforest in your garden there. BTW hope you have 3rd of May in your diary as it is International Dawn Chorus Day. Get up early and listen to some birds! Hopefully I will.

  2. It's in the diary, but we can't decide whether to get up at 4.30 and go to College Lake for a guided walk at 5 or sit in the garden, drink lots of tea and wrap up warm in a blanket. Heart says College Lake but my head says back garden ... what a dilemma!