Learn how to grow these easy care salad greens in your garden all winter long.
"Well sir, I'll tell you," said my neighbor, Wulf Knausenberger, when I asked him about the luxurious thicket of peppery edible leaves crowding the banks of his homestead's everflowing spring.
"I was out walkin' one day when I noticed some wild watercress in a stream, and I thought it'd be kinda nice if I had a little growin' here on my place. So I pulled up a few plants, brought 'em home, and planted 'em there in the spring. That was years ago and, ever since then, I've always had an abundance of watercress salad greens . . . not just in the fall and spring, but all winter too. Even when the temperature plunges well below zero, I can still count on that cress."
"How is that possible?" I asked.
"Oh, it's no problem at all. That spring water comes out of the ground at a constant 550 degrees Fahrenheit . . . which keeps the plants from freezin', no matter how cold the weather might get. Sure, when the thermometer dips down to zero or lower, the top leaves of the cress do turn a little dark . . . but I've never seen 'em frostbitten."
And so began my love affair with watercress . . . a plant that sometimes seems absolutely anxious to put heaping platefuls of smartly flavored, vitamin-rich greens on the table at the very time (winter) that most other salad plants have long since given up the ghost.
Watercress is probably the easiest "garden" plant you'll ever attempt to grow . . . especially if, like Wulf, you're lucky enough to have an ever-flowing spring on your property. Once you've planted a few sprigs of the cress in the bubbling natural well, you'll find this member of the pepper family quite capable of thriving and multiplying with great speed entirely by itself. About all you should have to do after that is harvest some of its foliage from time to time which, interestingly enough, seems only to encourage the plant to grow even faster.
"I never have to weed or feed my watercress or worry about insect control for the plants," says Wulf. "At least not here in New Jersey, although I have heard that sow bugs sometimes damage the cress down in Virginia. Up here, though, watercress seems virtually immune to both disease and insect damage. Maybe that's because its thick beds are such naturally good homes for frogs, crayfish, and other aquatic life that eat plant-damaging and disease-carrying insects of all kinds."
During the winter, the leaves of Wulf's watercress stay at or near the surface of the water bubbling from the Knausenberger spring . . . and Wulf harvests them by snipping off the upper part of the plants with a pair of scissors or a knife (carefully, so their roots won't be dislodged).
By late spring — just about the time the first lettuce is ready in the garden and my friend is hankerin' for a switch to some other salad makin's anyway — the cress grows as much as a foot out of the water and becomes too coarse and too peppery for most folks' taste. This is also the time of the year that it produces hundreds of tiny white flowers . . . which attract bees . . . that, in turn, busily begin to convert the watercress's pollen into a particularly tasty honey.
Once these blooms have passed their prime, Wulf pulls most of the overgrown water plants from the spring (leaving just a few to expand into next fall and winter's crop), and adds them to his compost pile. And that once-a-year thinning is all the attention (other than harvesting, of course) that Knausenberger ever gives his cress. As I've already pointed out, watercress is an awfully easy plant to raise when you have a steadily flowing spring on your property.
As a matter of fact, if that spring is big enough and wells up out of a limestone base, you might even consider going into the watercress business commercially. Local supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants are — of course — your logical markets . . . and you must line those markets up before you begin deliveries, since cress tends to be perishable once it's cut. Farmer's Bulletin 2233 (available from your county agricultural agent) contains more detailed information about setting up and operating such a business.
And if you have no spring of clear, pure water at all? No problem. You probably won't be able to do it commercially, but you can still raise enough watercress for your family.
Take a fair-sized fish tank, put a small amount of good compost and soil in its bottom, and poke in a few slips of watercress (Nasturtium officinale). The stems should quickly root themselves and be off and running. Other than cutting away a few plant tops from time to time for salads, you should have to do little for the cress but siphon out the tank's old water whenever it becomes cloudy and refill the container with fresh.
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