Watercress is one of the so-called “superfoods”, rich in vitamins and minerals. For example, studies have found that it offers one of the highest levels of calcium found in any cultivated plant, making it a welcome addition to any diet.
If you’ve ever seen watercress being grown you’ll no doubt have seen it flourishing in fast-moving rivers, swaying rythmically in the current. You might therefore be surprised to learn that watercress can actually be grown very successfully in your garden.
Growing watercress, as it turns out, is an awful lot easier than you might initially think, and means you’ll always have a constant supply of these delicious, peppery leaves on hand for salads.
The Benefits of Growing Watercress
As a cultivated plant watercress has a number of distinct benefits besides its’ nutritional content.
Ease of Care – Established watercress plants require minimal maintenance. They need no staking, no netting and no additional fertilizers. Indeed once you’ve got your plants established they can almost be forgotten about, besides of course when harvesting. For anyone looking for a low-maintenance crop then this is one to consider.
Ground-Covering Nature – Watercress is quite a dense and bushy plant when growing, which can make life even easier for you. Its’ ground-covering nature means that weeds struggle to gain a foothold, being drowned out by the watercress. As a result your watercress bed will require minimal weeding.
Minimal Pest Interest – Watercress are quite an unusual cultivated crop. While many common food plants, like carrots, potatoes or cabbages have a range of nasty pests and parasites that can infect them, I have found watercress to be almost free of any pests. Even slugs and snails seem to turn up their nose, which can be an oddly satisfying experience.
Shade Tolerance – Watercress, as the name suggests, is a plant of damp areas. Too much direct sunshine can dry the plants out, either stunting their growth of even killing them altogether. As a result watercress is best grown in a shady part of your garden. This is perfect as it takes up a place that few other plants will tolerate.
How to Grow Watercress
Watercress is very rarely available as fully-grown plants. Instead, you’ll likely have to start them from seed. This can be purchased from larger seed merchants, though in my experience can be difficult to find in more traditional garden centres.
The seed is incredibly fine, so you’ll need to take care when planting. Certainly don’t open up the packet on a windy day or you may find your seeds scattered in all directions!
Fortunately, watercress seeds germinate quite easily. Simply scatter them liberally over a seed tray filled with moist compost. There’s no need to cover them with further compost. Then cover the tray to keep in the humidity and wait. Check the tray every few days to ensure it is moist enough and within a week or two you should find miniscule seedlings begin to appear.
At first, these seedlings will be barely visible to the eye, so you’ll need to be patient. Leave them to grow until they’re properly established, with stems an inch or two in length.
At this stage your watercress can be planted out in their bed.
Planting Watercress Seedings
As discussed previously, watercress essentially requires two factors to grow well. These are shade and moisture. Fortunately, these things tend to go hand-in-hand.
Select an area of your garden which only receives a small amount of sunshine each day and water it heavily. Then liberally plant the seedlings out, some 3-4 inches apart.
The seedlings can be quite tender, so work hard in the first few weeks to regularly soak this area of your garden. The goal is to keep the soil damp at all times, especially when the plants are young.
As the plants establish themselves and start to grow you’ll find that their ground-covering nature helps to trap in moisture, meaning less watering is required.
Apart from a good soaking on a hot summer’s day your watercress should grow happily under such conditions, soon producing so much foliage that you can begin harvesting at all.
When you grow crops like potatoes you spend months tending your crop before reaching one big harvest. Watercress, however, is quite the reverse. With watercress you can habit small amounts continually throughout the season.
Watercress have quite shallow roots, so “plucking” stems tends to end up with you accidentally pulling up the whole plants, roots and all. For obvious reasons this isn’t ideal.
The best way to harvest watercress when you want it is to take out a sharp pair of scissors or secateurs and to cut small pieces of multiple plants. In this way the roots will remain in the soil and you won’t give any individual plant too much of a shock. Soon enough you’ll find those stems regrowing, ready for further harvesting later in the season.
Watercress is a crop that tends to turn quite quickly it has been picked. For best results, aim to consume your watercress as soon after harvesting as possible.
However if you want to store your cress for a few days then this can be done quite successfully in the fridge.
Simply place the cut stems into a plastic tupperware box and gently lay a piece of kitchen towel over the top. This will absorb any excess moisture, and prevents the rotting of your cress.
Place the lid on firmly to prevent your cress drying out and place in the salad crisper of your fridge. Under such conditions watercress can keep for a surprisingly long time.
So next time you look longingly as a bag of limp watercress in the supermarket, just remember how easy it is to produce your own delicious home-grown watercress for a fraction of the cost, and with a very minimal investment of time.
(Images c/o Ed Ogle, John Tann, coniferconifer, Wendell Smith, Jon Sullivan)