Grow Easy Care Salad Greens in Winter

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ANNE KITZMAN
Learn how to grow salad greens in winter.

Learn how to grow these easy care salad greens in your garden all winter long.

Grow Winter Salad Greens

“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.