Spring has finally sprung. Birds are chirruping their delight and the evenings are getting longer, affording us more time to prod and poke stuff down on our allotment and plan for the season ahead.
First thing to deal with is the early onslaught of weeds which have made a dash to claim the allotment for their own nefarious means. Gardeners often describe weeds as ‘plants in the wrong place’. Very true, but in an allotment, curated, nurtured and tended for the growing of hearty foodstuffs and things to turn into tasty booze, the ‘right place’ is often the compost heap or incinerator. Not all weeds are bad though – here are five splendid species you might want to nurture rather than nuke.
For many gardeners, dandelions are a snaggle-leaved, lawn-loving nuisance. We, however, are cheered by the emergence of their blazing yellow flowers for they provide us with an array of tasty beverages. Dunk three or four freshly picked flower heads into hot water and let them steep for 4-5 minutes for a refreshing dandelion tea. For lovers of the black stuff, the roasted root of the dandelion provides a cracking coffee substitute. First, dig deep to remove the long, fang-like taproot. Wash and dry these roots then chop them into small pieces. Place them on a tray in the oven and roast until brittle. Grind them up, pour on boiling water and hey presto! Coffee! (of sorts). But free!
Spreading vigorously from their gnarly rhizomes, nettles are especially fond of stony soil (and, indeed, our allotment). Nip off the tips (the top four leaves of the plant), dry them and plunge into hot water to make a tangy nettle tea.
Nettle beer is also well worth a bash. Gather and wash 900g of nettle tips and place them in a large pan, along with 4.5 litres of water and the zest of two lemons. Bring to the boil and simmer of 10 minutes. Strain the liquid into a bucket, along with the juice of two lemons and 450g demerara sugar. Stir to dissolve, and when cool, add 2 tsp of brewers yeast, cover and leave to ferment for three days before bottling. Don’t forgot to use expandable plastic bottles, this brew can be quite volatile!
Easy to spot and easy to hoik out of the soil, this innocent looking plant harbours magical, soothing properties. Take the fleshy stalk, give it a clean and mash it down into a paste. When you’ve stung your hands silly picking nettle tips (see above) the plantain paste will help calm your fiery skin. If hunger descends whilst out gardening, the young leaves of the plantain can be eaten raw. For those of a cheffy disposition, take the leaves home and saute them in (wild) garlic butter.
Folks pay good money in garden centres for the architectural beauty of angelica or a cardoon but we consider the wild, roaming teasel just as handsome. Teasel grows fast and vast but, if you can afford the space, leave the odd plant in situ. It’s a fine resource for a variety of pollinators and an absolute bird magnet – you’ll find that goldfinches are particularly partial and will flock to feed upon its rich, nutritious seeds. And fire-fans, rejoice; the dried, honeycomb seed heads just need the merest lick of a spark to erupt into flames, making them the ideal twisted fire starter for a stubborn bonfire.
This imposing, hairy biennial is a revered herbal plant, traditionally consumed in various ways to treat ailments – Native American Indians were known to smoke the leaves in a pipe in an attempt to cure bronchitis and other chesty ailments. The velvety leaves are also rumoured to make the perfect toilet paper but thankfully we have never had to call upon its services in this respect. We like to leave the mullein as a feast for the aptly named mullion moth, a small but important pollinating pal. Its larvae – the mullein caterpillar– emerge between May and July, their vibrant spotty bodies being a cheery sight. Just as long as they keep off our cabbages. And leave one or two leaves intact for us, just in case!
Are there are weeds that you let run wild in your garden? Share your weedy tales in the comments!