This section is from the book "Commercial Gardening Vol4", by John Weathers (the Editor). Also available from Amazon: Commercial Gardening, A Practical & Scientific Treatise For Market Gardeners.
The cultivation of Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is carried on in various parts of Herts, Bucks, Essex, Berks, Surrey, Hants, and Dorset, in areas varying from 1/2 ac. up to as much as 15 ac. in extent; and although the greater consumption of such early salads as lettuces, radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes has entered into competition with it, the trade in Watercress is perhaps more extended now than ever before. There are two kinds of Watercress grown for market, viz. the "brown" and the "green". The brown is distinguished from the green by the purple brown on the leaf stalks and main veins, the green variety lacking this colour. From a cultural point of view the "brown" also differs considerably from the "green" in that it must be grown in pure spring water that has passed through a chalky subsoil, while the "green" Cress flourishes in clean running river or canal water, the latter being considered better by specialists. Another point of difference is that the "brown" Cress is best for winter and spring sale, from Christmas to the middle of June, while the "green" is favoured at other times.
WATERCRESS BEDS IN BERKSHIRE.
The upper photo shows beds in terraces; the lower one, beds on the flat.
Photos. W. J. V.
In most places Watercress is grown in natural spring or river water in beds or ditches, sometimes arranged in terraces and varying in width from a few feet to 20 or 30 ft., the depth in all cases being only 3 or 4 in. At Chesham, Bucks, however, Messrs. Beckley & Holliman have converted 10 ac. of gravel pits into excellent Watercress beds by means of artesian wells. These are sunk to a depth of 120 to 150 ft., with a 4-in. bore, and cost from £15 to £50 each. Each well throws about 1000 gall, of pure spring water per hour through the deep layers of chalk in the valley of the Chess. The main crop consists of "brown" Cress, although where the softer water from the Chess is available a certain amount of "green" Cress is also grown in about another 5 ac. The artesian well water has the advantage of being always of the same temperature (about 40° F.) in winter and summer, and as the beds slope gently from one end to the other there is always a stream of fresh, cool water running through the beds, which in this case vary from 30 to 35 ft. in width to 300 ft. or a little more in length, with a pathway about 4 ft. wide separating one bed from another.
Watercress is propagated by pieces of the plants placed in beds that have been cleaned out with hard bristle brooms, so that the gravelly bottom is quite freed from muddy deposit and weedy vegetation. The cuttings are placed in the stream with the heads facing downhill, and they root and grow so readily that picking may be commenced about six or eight weeks afterwards. Half the area is planted each year, between the middle of June and Christmas, and each bed is cut systematically every six or eight weeks during the year with a kind of shoemaker's knife. When the growth in spring, however, is too rapid, the plants are pulled out, roots and all, to give space to the others, and are then taken to watersheds and cut and packed for market. The men engaged in this work wear strong leather boots coming well above the knees. These boots cost about 50s. a pair, and last about eighteen months. Besides cutting and packing, the beds must be kept free from dead or decaying leaves and shoots, and also from scum. For this purpose toothless wooden rakes are passed over the plants in the direction of the stream, and all refuse is thrown on to the adjoining pathways, from which it soon melts away to nothing. It may sound curious in connection with an aquatic plant, but growers like to have nice warm rains falling on the Watercress beds in spring, as growth is thus greatly increased and larger quantities can be cut for market.
Watercress after cutting is washed and cleaned from old or yellowing leaves in the pure running water, and is then packed, bunched or unbundled, in "flats" holding 56 lb. net, or in "half-flats" holding 28 lb. net. A flat holds 16 dozen bunches, a half-flat holding just half the quantity, and measuring 20 in. by 16 in. by 6 in. The busiest period is from the end of March to the middle of June, when Messrs. Beckley & Holliman cut about 12 tons of cress weekly from their beds and send it all over the kingdom, although Brentford market absorbs the greater portion.
An acre of Watercress beds will yield, under favourable conditions and proper care, from 15 to 20 tons of cress per annum, and the prices realized vary from £9 to £12 per ton. The cost of production is great. Rent varies from £20 to £50 per acre, exclusive of rates, and wages take a big bite out of the returns.
The cost of carriage varies from 1s. 2d. per cwt. to London, to 2s. 3d to Manchester, 3s. 3d. to Blackburn and Preston, and 3s. 6d. to Blackpool and Southport. These prices have, however, been raised 25 per cent in 1912, and represent from 25s. to 19s. 8d. per ton to the railway companies, and in addition to rent make a heavy drain upon the resources of the Watercress grower. [J. W].