Emma Cooper is utterly smitten with edible and useful plants, and is never happier than when she’s in the garden, up to her elbows in compost. She’s in the process of building a new garden, and you can follow her progress on her gardening blog, The Unconventional Gardener. Her latest book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, is all about unusual edible plants and the people who grow them. It’s available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.
Growing cress is a fun activity for kids, and – if you never did it – a good rite of passage for beginner gardeners, because cress shows you how easy it is to get plants to grow from seed. It used to be an unusual vegetable in that it is eaten at the seedling stage, but these days sprouting and micro-greens are so popular that cress has faded into the background somewhat. But it’s easy to grow, fits on a windowsill and can be grown all year round, so it makes a great crop!
|Cress seeds are normally sown indoors, on damp tissue paper in a plastic tray. It’s easy to wash and recycle a tray that was used for food packaging, but you can also be more playful and sow cress seeds in eggshells for ‘eggheads’ or any number of small containers. Although the seeds are small, handling them is not an issue – you want to sow them thickly across the tissue paper, so that a small forest of seedlings will spring up. If you want to have cress for your sandwiches and salads every few days, then keep sowing fresh batches of seeds in new containers.|
You need to keep the tissue paper moist, as the seedlings will die if they dry out. An easy way to help with this is to put the tray into a sealed plastic bag, but make sure it’s large enough to ensure some air flow, as you don’t want the seedlings to go moldy. Check every day whether you need to add more water, but never leave your seedlings sitting in a puddle, and always use clean water.
Cress seeds germinate quickly, and if you sow your seeds in the morning then it’s not unusual to see the first signs of life by bedtime. Some of the seeds will start to show tiny white roots, and by the next morning there will be green shoots as well.
After a week or so your cress seeds will be 2 inches tall, and ready for harvesting. Cut through the stems with scissors or herb snips when you want to eat it. Try sprinkling cress on whatever you’re having for dinner – it will add some extra vitamins along with a nice, fresh crunch!
Cress can also be grown outdoors, but only during the warmer months, and it will take about 4 weeks to produce a harvest. The main growing period for cress outdoors is between April and July. You won’t need to pay as much attention to watering unless the weather is very hot, but you will need to watch out for slugs and other critters!
Cress has quite a mild flavor, but it can be grown alongside mustard that is hotter and spicy. Mustard grows slightly faster than cress, so if you want to harvest them both at the same time then sow your mustard seeds 3 or 4 days later, and then care for them in the same way.
The type of cress that is grown as micro-greens is often called Garden Cress, but there are other plants called ‘cress’ that you can grow in different ways. Watercress is sometimes found growing wild by rivers and streams; it likes damp, chalky soil. It’s very healthful, with plenty of vitamins and minerals. You can eat the leaves raw, in salads and sandwiches, but also cooked – watercress soup is very popular.
|If you buy a bunch of watercress from the market, you can root the stems in a glass of water. Keep the water fresh by changing it every couple of days, and very shortly the stems will start to grow roots. Once they have, you can pot them up into compost. Keep the pot standing in a tray of water to keep it damp. You can keep it indoors, or put it outside – it isn’t killed by frost, but it will lose its leaves in cold weather. Watercress can also be grown from seed.|
Land cress (also known as American cress or winter cress) looks and tastes a lot like watercress, but is happy in dry soil and more tolerant of cold weather. Sow seeds in July or August for a winter crop. Harvest leaves a few at a time from each plant, as you need them, and your land cress will last you all winter.
|And there’s a very unusual plant called paracress that can be grown from seed. Also known as the eyeball or peek-a-boo plant, this one grows yellow and red flowers that look like glowing monster eyes! It’s also called the toothache plant, as chewing the leaves makes your mouth go a bit numb. Their flavor is quite strong, and you wouldn’t want too many in one go, but most people grow paracress for the flowers. These ‘electric daisies’ are fizzy! It’s an interesting sensation, and a fun plant to try, a bit like growing your own pop rocks.|
So that’s how cress can take you on a gardening journey, from sowing your first seeds, through to keeping a vegetable garden going through the winter, and on to unusual and fascinating edible plants. Have you tried it?