Growing Watercress at Home in Your Garden or Backyard

Growing watercress at home is not so hard!

Watercress growing in a back garden or yard is perfectly possible.

You need a source of clean, preferably running water and some shady, cool space for your watercress to grow, undisturbed.

Why not learn how to grow watercress?

Growing watercress - the wild kind

Watercress growing wild - image thanks to Mick E.Talbot

Growing watercress at home in your garden or backyard can be a good way to ensure a steady supply.

Why bother growing watercress?

Watercress is a great food plant. It contains vitamin C and some B. It has a reputation for helping the body to become balanced. It has even been touted as a possible cure for cancer.

Clearly it is a valuable food plant.

Wild watercress dangers

Water cress grows wild in many places, However, there can be problems with using wild watercress.

There is a parasite known as liver fluke, which can affect humans. The eggs of this charming beastie can lurk in the water of ditches, streams and ponds and can be harboured by plants growing in such places. Sheep and other ruminants can be affected and there is a fairly common pond snail which is also part of the life-cycle. Recent research shows that several species of water snail may harbour juvenile liver fluke.

Liver fluke infestation can be serious - and does not occur just in the far East. It causes abdominal pain and can be hard to treat. Cases have been found in the US and Europe - and one of the commonest causes is eating uncooked watercress, usually near where sheep are kept.

If you can be reasonably sure that your local stream is unpolluted and if it harbours no fresh water snails and if there is no stock grazing nearby, then the watercress is probably safe! That's quite a few ifs...!

If you are lucky enough to live near wild watercress that has been eaten continuously by local people, then maybe you will be OK to join them. It would seem a shame to neglect such a wonderful source of free, nutritious food needlessly! Nevertheless, we live in cautious times and most people will not fancy the outside risk of infection.

A safe supply

Wild watercress growing in streams may or may not be safe and finding out can be difficult. To ensure a safe supply of watercress, it's best to buy it or grow it. If you do eat watercress from ponds or streams, it is safest to cook it thoroughly.

Watercress is available in supermarkets and farm shops but it's not always easy to find. It does not last so very long. It has to be either vacuum packed or stood in water - and even then it goes off quite quickly.

So to be sure of a regular and safe supply, growing watercress at home looks like a good option.

Commercial watercress growing is often done to a very high standard. In the UK it has been grown for generations in the south of England. There is even a railway named the Watercress line which goes through the traditional growing areas. Growers take care of pests by creating a spray of water above the crop which deters them. Sustainable growing is becoming more common but nevertheless, there are a lot of demands placed upon the water supply.

Growing watercress at home should be a sustainable option for some people. Obviously, you will be reducing your "food miles" (and carbon use) by growing watercress in your backyard.

Growing watercress - some simple ways

Watercress likes a bit of moving water around it, at least some of the time. Stagnant water or half dried out ground just won't do.

One way to supply its needs is to plant it in a large pot and half submerge the pot in water. Fill the bottom of the pot with small stones and gravel. Then add soil and potting compost. A little ground limestone is also a good thing to add, as watercress likes growing best in alkaline conditions.

The pot should be stood somewhere where it is easy to top up and refresh the water, so next to the tap or water butt is ideal. Don't put the pot in full sun. Watercress likes fairly shady conditions.

You can start your watercress growing by taking shop bought sprigs and keeping them in water for a few days. Small rootlets will quickly develop from the cut stems. Alternatively, you can take watercress from a wild source and start it in much the same way. Wild watercress is reasonably easy to find in streams in late summer and early autumn, when the plant is at its largest.

If you want a more extensive watercress bed, you can make or buy a pond and try to establish it there. You will need to get the water moving for successfully growing watercress. You can use a pump or maybe a solar device to get the desired movement. You need to make sure that your pond water is reasonably clean - and free from water snails which might carry liver fluke. I have heard of an old baby bath being pressed into service for this. You need enough depth for there to be mud for the watercress to root in and a little moving water, too.

Some alternatives to watercress growing

Does watercress growing at home sound like too much effort? The Latin name for watercress is Nasturtium officinale which means "nose twisting". (The wild kind is also called Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum and various hybrids can occur.) Garden nasturtium has a similar peppery taste to watercress.

Land cress (also known as American cress or Greek cress) is very easy to grow and can be available for most of the year. Neither of these two plants need excessive amounts of water. I'm a big fan of Greek cress. It self-seeds and needs little cultivation beyond keeping weeds at bay.

There are also lots of mustard family plants which can provide a peppery taste - as well as plenty of vitamins.

I haven't yet managed to develop a large watercress colony - mainly because I haven't yet got a garden pond. The small patch I have is growing in a large bucket. It seems to survive quite well (about two years now) but clearly a pond would be much better. In the mean time, the Greek cress is a great substitute.

Inspiring urban growing

For an inspiring story of urban growing check out: Growing an urban food growing initiative based in Milwaukee. They use watercress as a big part of their growing programme.

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