Eat your weeds

I believe I’ve mentioned that the gardens here at the Cottage are very good at growing weeds. I’d been working hard to get rid of them up until a couple of months ago when I decided to stop enforcing my idea of order on this patch of earth and work with nature a little more closely. That meant leaving some weeds in place to protect the soils and provide habitat for the creepy-crawlies that will help my garden to grow. So although the mirror-bush seedlings are yanked out as soon as they appear, lesser weeds are allowed to grow where other plants won’t and I started thinking about what makes a plant a weed and wondering what I could do with what the land was providing. So I got to reading, and realised that (along with the fennel) two of my garden weeds were perfectly edible: dandelions and stinging nettles.

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Does this look like dinner? Dandelion & fennel from my weedy garden.

I started with the dandelions first, partly because there were more of them, but largely because the stinging part of stinging nettles concerned me. I took to plucking the young dandelion leaves and adding them to my backyard garden salads, pleasantly surprised by the flavour. They taste all green and zingy, something like a cross between rocket (arugula) and nasturtium leaves. Definitely edible, dandelion greens are now part of my culinary world.

The nettles I was less sure what to do with, until Rohan over at Whole Larder Love wrote about making nettle pesto (and if you don’t read Rohan’s blog already, you should. He’s awesome). I was sold on the idea with pesto. All I had to do was let the nettle patch grow until I had enough to try. Then the idea hit: why not mix the nettles with dandelion greens, and throw in some of that fennel that comes up everywhere too? Pest pesto: I had to make it a reality, and so I did.

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Nasty spiky stinging nettles: surely not destined for dinner?

I collected all the young dandelion leaves I could find and pulled up fennel seedlings from the front garden, then I donned my trusty gardening gloves and plucked all the nettles (and still managed to sting myself somehow). The ‘lion leaves and fennel were simply washed and chopped, but the nettles needed de-stinging. I simply boiled the kettle and poured the hot, hot water over the spiny things and was hit by the most amazing smell! Like spinach, but earthier, and my senses were telling me most definitely edible! I gingerly poked at the blanched greens to confirm successful de-stinging, then chopped those up too and got on with the pesto-making.

A few cloves of garlic, a good slug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, salt, pepper and a handful of sunflower seeds later, I had a jug of pest pesto ready to go. Conveniently, it was lunch time, so I threw some gluten-free pasta in the pot, chopped up some other tasty bits and stirred through a couple of generous spoons of my weedy green goo. The verdict? Delicious! Next time though, more nettles and less dandies.

Now I’m waiting for enough nettles to come up to make a second batch. Instead of pulling out the bastards when they pop out of the soil I leave the nettles be and dream of meals to come. From pest to prime ingredient, who’d have thought it?

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Hey presto, it’s pest pesto!

Here are a few more benefits to be had from the weeds in your veggie garden:

  • Legume weeds like clover add nitrogen to the soil, making more nutrients available for your plants.[1, 2]
  • Plants with deep tap roots, like dandelions, break up compacted soils and help your veggies dig themselves in deeper. [3, 2]
  • Spiky or pungent weeds can act as pest control, keeping furry and insect nibblers away. [1, 4]
  • Some weeds, particularly native species, help to attract beneficial insects into the garden. [1,4]
  • Weeds provide vital cover on what would otherwise be bare soils, retaining moisture and adding organic matter, as well as preventing soil compaction and erosion. [3, 2]
  • Weeds can confuse pest insects by making it harder for them to find your tasty target plants. [1]
  • Left to grow and then pulled before seeding, weeds can be a free source of mulch and compost. [5, 3]
  • Manageable “nice” weeds can out-compete nastier weeds that are harder to control. I’ll take dandelions over thistles any day! [2]

And of course, leaving selected weeds be means less work for me, and another reason to avoid using herbicides in the garden. A free meal, better soil, happy bugs and more free time? Sounds rather sustainable to me!

What weeds have you learnt to live with, and why?

 

 

[1] Wikipedia on beneficial weeds
[2] Cocannouer JA (1950) Weeds: Guardians of the Soil; The Devin-Adair Company; Connecticut, USA
[3] Dave’s Garden Guide
[4] Hillocks RJ (1998) The potential benefits of weeds with reference to small holder agriculture in Africa; Integrated Pest Management Reviews 3, 155-167
[5] Gardening Organic UK

8 Comments on “Eat your weeds

  1. Fennel, eh? I have a giant bush of that in my yard. I thought it was some kind of anise. Smelled like licorice… but now that you mention fennel. That is closer.

  2. That pesto looks amazing. I don’t use weeds or anything, not in the clever way you have but I do love dandelions, they’re so sweet and I’m always sad when the lawnmower guy mows them down.

    I love your cute jumper with the heart on the wrist also!

    • I’ve very much only just started exploring the world of weeds, encouraged by other sustainability bloggers and a few clever friends. I’m glad I decided to give eating them a go: much more satisfying than pulling them out! And dandelions are lovely. My sister and I used to try to make daisy chains out of them as kids. It wasn’t until I came down here one spring that I realised there were such things as lawn daisies and they’re far better suited to daisy-chain creation. =o)

      I love my jumper too. It’s very well worn and currently covered in mulch dust, but wearing it feels just so comfy.

  3. Surgical gloves work really well for harvesting nettles because the stingers are not strong enought to penetrate the latex. Freezing nettle pesto in ice cube trays and then popping it into bags is an easy way to preserve the bounty for a darker season.

    After great success with nettle pesto I tried substituting them for spinach in a nettle-mushroom lasagna later in the spring, but the nettles had turned too bitter. It was awful. Just smelling the leftovers the next morning made us gag, so I had to throw them out. I don’t know whether this was brought on by our unusually hot, dry spring or whether they normally turn that way. The tops are supposed to remain edible when the older plant becomes tough, but it didn’t work for me. My new policy for nettles is to always steam and sample them before adding them to any recipe.

    Last spring I also made dandelion root coffee: http://www.vanwaffle.com/2012/05/04/dandelion-coffee-makes-a-better-morning/ . Results may vary. My partner, who is a coffee addict, does not care for it but I like it a lot.

    • Thanks for the tips Van! Your posts on nettles and dandelions were ones that first got me thinking and reading. I might give the coffee a go in the summer, but then I suspect I’ll side with Danny, being a long-time lover of the bean.

      I’ve heard that nettles can’t be eaten after they’ve flowered, and that you should stick to young growth, so I imagine drought conditions wouldn’t do good things for the flavour. I’m sorry your lasagne didn’t work out! I’m yet to find a decent-sized patch here and only have a handful of nettle seedlings coming up in the garden, so I don’t think I’ll be doing much beyond making the odd batch of pesto. Still, it’s free and delicious!

  4. I’m allowing blackberries to clump near our pond with the hopes of reigning them in against the fence with cattle wire, not only for the berries but for the young leaves (for tea) as well.

    • I love blackberries! Luckily (?) there’s plenty growing wild around here so I can forage for the fruit without introducing another weed into the garden. They are tasty though, and I’d not considered using the leaves for tea but that’s a brilliant idea. Good luck!

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