Watercress - does it realise that this is January?

Stunning January watercress

 

The watercress in the polytunnel is putting on April growth in January as a reaction to this incredibly mild winter and this is a really welcome addition to the early salads. At this time of year our salads usually comprise 30% lettuce, 20% lambs lettuce and a mixture of spicy mustards balanced by milder baby leaf spinach, winter purslane and mizuna. This year is completely different. The winter hardy lettuces are struggling with the warm damp  weather. The polytunnel doors have barely been shut to keep the air flowing but the lettuces have struggled with mildew and rotting off despite not watering. Likewise, outside the lambs lettuce is suffering with mildew and slug damage and the effort in cutting smaller and smaller leaves make it hardly worth the effort. We have never bothered to grow watercress through our stream because of the concern with liver fluke and we are also excessively cautious not to manure any of the beds that we are going to use for watercress production. Beyond that we have found that watercress grows fantastically well if just planted in a raised vegetable bed and kept well watered. It grows particularly successfully in early spring and late autumn and is incredibly prolific. If growing early outside it works effectively with a clear sheet of plastic over the top to protect from the frost and this seems more effective than fleece because it also retains the moisture which watercress loves. As with a lot of things there is no comparison between shop bought watercress and homegrown for both crunch and flavour. Watercress flavour tends to deteriorate from the time that it is picked. Initially when it's first cut it can be up there with horseradish in heat but two or three days in the fridge will render it pretty bland. On the downside watercress is a veritable magnet for flea beetle in the summer. Fleecing, enviromesh, nothing works. They will find a way in somehow. This last year we used this to our advantage by growing two or three watercress plants at the ends of a bed of wild rocket. The  sacrificial watercress was smothered with holes and beetle and we treated it  with diatomaceous earth. The wild rocket was completely untouched. We let our early outside crop of watercress flower and seed before clearing the bed and planting summer lettuce and find that come mid autumn the residual watercress seed germinates and we get a crop that will last us through until the first hard frost (yet to happen this year). Definitely worth growing.