Most people think they have to chase around the woods and streams to find watercress. Not so. Though it's more at home in a fast, shallow stream, this snappy, clean-tasting green will grow very well in the garden. You just have to give it a wet spot and preferably some shade to grow in. You'll have to water it often to assure rapid growth.
You can start seeds in small clay pots set in a pan of water indoors and later transplant them to an outside location when the hard spring frosts are past. Or you can start a few plants indoors by sticking some store-bought leafy watercress stems into moist potting soil. Just make sure you keep it well watered.
When the stems have developed roots and are producing new leaves, transplant them to the garden six to eight inches apart from each other. In four to five weeks, you can start harvesting by cutting off the top three to four inches of the plants.
Giving the plant the moist conditions it needs will be any gardener's main challenge with watercress. Once you find the right spot - perhaps next to a small pool, or in a low, wet area of the garden - you can show off your success with this highly prized green. It really adds flavor to sandwiches, omelettes, freshly caught trout and salads.
Here's an easy way to create a false stream on the shady side of the house so you can grow watercress. Dig a trench (preferably near a downspout or an outside spigot) that will hold a few sections of orangeburg pipe, cut in half lengthwise. (Orangeburg pipe is a man-made fiber pipe, often six inches in diameter, used in sewage systems. You can cut it with a saw.) Remember that since you're cutting it in half, you only need to buy half the total length you want to end up with.
Butt the sections together and place them in the trench, so the rim of the pipe is at ground level. Just about fill the pipe with small stones or stone chips. Then place narrow, perforated plastic seed flats in the pipe trench. Fill them with peat moss and soil, and sow your watercress seeds or put in cuttings.
Let the water from a garden hose or the spigot run into the stones in the pipe sections. As long as the stone bed beneath the flats stays wet, your watercress should flourish - from first thaw to last freeze.
If you have a drainage problem where you've built your stream, you can run a "lateral" of perforated soil drainpipe from one of the ends.
Sometimes called winter cress or spring cress, upland cress is a biennial, which means it will go to seed the second year of its growth.
Plant seeds early in the spring, and soon after start harvesting the young leaves and sprigs. The plants will survive most winters and send up flower stalks early the next season. You can have a spring harvest of some leaves before the seedstalks appear.
This article is a part of our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Lettuce and Greens / Planting.