Growing Crops: Cress

Cress is a catch-all term for three very different delicate yet spicy little salad greens. Despite the name, all three are entirely different species. Watercress (nasturtium officianale) is probably the one you’re most familiar with. It requires an aquatic environment to properly grow (such as the banks of a stream or pond), therefore is not recommended for the urban organic garden. Winter Cress (barbarea verna) – also called Upland Cress – will grow in regular soil and is a cool-season plant that can be harvested clear through the winter.

Garden Cress (lepidium sativum) – aka Peppergrass, Mountain Grass, Curly Cress, or Broadleaf Cress – is also a cool-season plant that will grow in regular soil. It is your best bet, as far as availability of the seeds for purchase:

Best Climate to Grow: Cool temperatures in the Spring and Fall are best; cress can tolerate a hard frost, therefore they can be planted before the last frost in Spring and harvested after the first frost in Fall.

Light Requirements: Partial shade will help prolong your harvest before cress bolts once the summer heat kicks in.

Soil Requirements: Light, fertile soil that retains moisture without becoming soggy. Slightly acidic pH (no lower than 6.0) is ideal. Amend as needed, preferably with compost.

Feeding and Water Requirements: Provided you started out with healthy soil, there is no need for additional fertilizer. Keep the soil moist at all times; drip irrigation is recommended. You will not mulch cress, as it spreads much like a groundcover and tends to act as its own mulch.

When to Plant: For a late Spring/early Summer crop, sow directly in the ground in early Spring 4-6 weeks prior to the last frost date. Sow successively every other week until no more than 2 weeks after the frost date, to ensure a steady supply of cress until the summer heat causes the plants to bolt.

For a Fall crop, sow directly in the ground about a month prior to the first Fall frost date.

If you are planting a Winter cress variety, you will sow directly in the ground late in the Fall for harvest throughout Winter and Spring.

Planting Depth and Spacing: Broadcast the seeds thinly over a pre-determined area of soil in your garden. Cover with a very thin (no more than ¼ inch deep) layer of fertile soil and keep moist. Thin to about 4 inches in all directions once the seedlings begin to grow. The thinnings can be eaten in salads or put in the compost pile.

Container Requirements: A shallow, wide container at least 4 inches deep is ideal for growing cress. It can be grown with other salad greens with similar soil and irrigation requirements in larger containers, as well.

Harvesting and Storage: Snip off leaves as needed, beginning when the cress is about 3 inches high. You can cut an entire plant back to half an inch and it will grow back quickly. Cress should be eaten fresh; it may last a week in the refrigerator, if stored properly in a lettuce keeper or wrapped in damp towels in the vegetable crisper section.

Harvesting Seeds: Your cress will bolt once the summer heat kicks in. Once the seed pods have matured, simply remove them and store them in a paper grocery bag in a cool, dry place in order for the seeds to completely dry out (if the bag has handles, hang it up to get it off the floor or ground to allow air to circulate around the bag and to keep bugs from crawling in). Once the seeds have completely dried (this could take a few months), store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until it is time to plant again next time.

Pests to Monitor: Mainly birds, just after planting. Visit our pest control beneficials, barriers, scare tactics, homemade organic pesticide, and commercial organic pesticide pages to see your options and choose your weapons.

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