Last week on the farm felt victorious. I fixed our lawnmower in time to tame the eager grass, then the following morning patched a hole in our main irrigation line without a call to the plumber. It’s been a good but unusual month. The first week was the cloudiest on record, with less than a minute of sunshine in total, that was the report I heard over the radio from Boston (I think we had a bit more here). Now the skies are blue, but the wind is cold; fair skin is being flecked with freckles despite the chill.

We have many tools for taming grass on the farm. We have two ride-on mowers, a brush cutting deck for the tractor, a line trimmer, 40 rabbits, and sheep that are rotated through once or twice a year. On Tuesday I towed our mowers from their open air winter covering, a stable which was once home to Duke. Duke was my Aunt Marie’s horse. When he died she buried him on the property. Although I never knew Duke, spring, life recharging all around, makes me remember those I will always miss.

I got the mowers to the field, then, a friend, a mechanic, dropped by, his three boys with him. They ignored us and headed to the compost pile. In the end, it took some starter fluid and a new belt to get one of the mowers going, a simple fix. The newer of the two never got there. It has a laundry list of needs and won’t be operating any time soon. But as long as we have the one we’ll be okay.

As for the leak, I’ve handled small repairs for years, coached by friends that plumb for a living. This past winter, during that really cold snap in February where the temperatures hit lows they hadn’t managed since the 1950s, our pipes burst. I had a cold that wouldn’t go away, but was left with no other choice than to shimmy my shivering, sniffling self into the crawl space under the house. I knew this was too big a problem for me. So I called a plumber. Two showed up, and we deployed to separate entries to the claustrophobic underbelly of my grandparent’s old house. Divided by the old stone foundation, they shouted back and forth:

“How big is the hole in the pipe?”

“I can’t tell exactly. Looks like a split eyebrow from a good punch. Needs maybe seven or eight stitches, I’d say.”

A sigh loud enough to be heard in the attic filled the cramped tunnels. Happily, I was able to fix the irrigation line myself with just a trip to the plumbing supply store.

It is spring now. Our asparagus is late because of the cold, and we are feeding the pigs the thick matt of mugwort and nut grass that we are (slowly) weeding from the beds. But stinging nettles seem to be loving this cool May. I plan to mow them in the next few days, guided by lore which warns that once they stand above the knee, their lauded diuretic properties go from beneficial to not. So I’m enjoying the last of them because I am a great believer in not only their deliciousness, but their healing powers.

A couple of hours in the library confirmed my faith. Stinging nettles, my research suggests, have tremendous health benefits. They are a digestive and anti-inflammatory. Ingesting nettles as a tea, juice, or cooked and eaten as you would other greens, will improve your health. Holly Bellebuono, award-winning author and Island herbalist, drinks up to a gallon of nettle tea a day. She approves nettles in any form, but prefers tea made from freshly picked plants, and though she grows her own patch, Holly acknowledges that the “energy” of wild-grown nettles may add something to the equation (my guess is, soon the scientists will figure out how to quantify that energy, finally discovering what Holly and I already know).

A few things to keep in mind when making stinging nettle tea: Steep fresh nettles for 30 minutes in hot water and you will retain the vitamins in their purest form; or simmer nettle leaves for four hours for a more mineral-rich if slightly less vitamin-filled tea. As for cooking, I have been soaking my nettles to get the dirt off them. (My patch has aphids, added protein from my vantage, so I don’t mind, but I soak them because I don’t like grit). After soaking I transfer them, with the water still clinging, to an oversized skillet where I’ve warmed some garlic or garlic chives in a healthy amount of olive oil. I cook nettles slowly over low or medium low heat (look at the pan — you want them to relax into the oil not sputter and dance). I let them go until they are nice and soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding some salt and some more olive oil to finish.

I am such a fan of nettles I want to finish by sharing a few thoughts on the ancient practice of “urtication.” Urtication involves intentionally stinging yourself with nettles as therapy. Stinging nettles contain formic acid, the same substance that give fire ants their name. As any barehanded harvester or cook knows, direct contact with the leaves causes an unpleasant tingling. But the momentary discomfort is worth it. Urtication reduces arthritic pain. Guitar players massage nettles to neutralize damage to their hands. I have adopted the practice to protect my own overused hands and I have recently extended my regime and now harvest nettles barefoot, to help my feet — they have taken a beating, I’m beginning to feel.

Nettle socks and mittens anyone?

Recipe for Nettle Soup

Serves 4 to 6

This is a simple, restorative soup recipe which can be adapted easily. For a heartier dish, add cooked farro or barley or cooked white beans or garbanzos. A poached egg on top also makes a nice addition.

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, whites mainly, halved, cleaned and thinly sliced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 new potatoes, peeled and diced
3/4 pound nettle leaves, soaked
6 cups chicken stock
High quality extra virgin olive oil for serving

Heat the oil over medium-low in a large soup pot. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until they soften, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is fragrant, about three minutes, then add the potatoes and nettles. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper, stir to coat them with olive oil, then add the chicken stock. Increase the heat to medium high to bring the soup to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the potatoes and nettles are tender, about 30 minutes. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper and serve drizzled with good olive oil.


Chris Fischer is a chef, farmer and operator of Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark. His 2015 book, The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook, recently won a James Beard award for American cooking. Catherine Young collaborates with Chris on writing and recipes.