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How to Grow Cress

Cress in garden
Garden cress in the garden

Garden cress also called broadleaf cress–and other cresses: curly cress and watercress–are quick growing cool-weather vegetables. Sow cress in the garden early in spring, as early as 4 or 6 before the last frost, or grow cress indoors year-round. Cress is quick growing from seed; it will be ready for harvest 15 to 20 days after sowing. Sow successive crops until mid-summer. Sow cress again in early autumn for autumn and winter harvest.

Description. There are several types of cress:

Garden cress (Lepidium sativum), also called broadleaf cress, has flat, bright green leaves to 4 inches long and 2 inches wide. Garden cress, a biennial, is also called peppergrass, pepper cress, and mustard cress. Golden-leafed broadleaf cress is sometimes called Australian cress. Garden cress is an annual that thrives in damp soil.

Curly cress (Barbarea vernapraecox), also called cresson, early winter cress, or Upland cress, has finely divided leaves resembling parsley or chervil atop thin, branching stems. Curly cress is dark green and is also called curled cress, curlicress, fine curled cress, moss curled cress, and extra-curled cress. Curly cress is a biennial that thrives in damp soil.

Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) is a trailing annual usually grown in water. Grow watercress indoors in pot set in a tray of water or along the side of a stream or watercourse. Watercress is an annual which grows in soil in gently running water.

Cresses grow easily from seed and also can be propagated from stem-pieces or cuttings. Cress will sprout on water-soaked paper towels or cotton.

Yield. Grow 1 plant of each cress per household member. Plant successive crops every 2 weeks for a continuous harvest.

Site. Plant cress in the shade or semi-shade. Grow garden cress and curly cress in moist but well-drained sandy loam. Grow watercress in a container of compost-rich, sandy soil submerged in running water. Cress prefers a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8.

cress seedlings
Cress seedlings

Planting time. Cresses are cool-weather annuals. Sow cress in the garden early in spring, as early as 4 or 6 before the last frost, or grow cress indoors year-round. Cress will germinate in about 14 days at 45°F (7°C). Garden cress is quick growing from seed; it will be ready for harvest 15 to 20 days after sowing. Curly cress requires 40 to 50 days to reach maturity but harvest can begin 15 days after sowing. Watercress requires 55 to 70 days to reach maturity but runner tips can be pinched off for use 15 to 20 days after sowing. Sow cress every 10 days for a continuous harvest through midsummer. Cress can become pungent and inedible in hot weather. Plant cress in late summer for an autumn and winter harvest.

Planting and spacing. Sow garden cress and curly cress seed ¼ inch (6.5mm) deep; sow seed thickly in wide rows; thin successful seedlings to 6 inches (15cm) apart. Space rows 18 to 24 inches (45-61cm) apart. Sow successive crops every 10 to 14 days. Grow watercress in submerged containers. Pinch back cress to keep it manageable.

Water and feeding. Cress requires even moisture. Do not let roots dry out. Grow watercress in gently running water. Grow cress in soil rich in aged compost.

Companion plants. Bunching onions, chives, peppermint, spearmint, and wintergreen. Cress can be inter-planted with other small crops.

Care. Keep soil weed-free. Avoid growing cress in direct sun. Pinch cress back to promote new foliage.

Water cress
Water cress growing in a window box

Container growing. Garden cress and curly can be grown in containers, pots, and boxes. Sow seeds thickly; cress is not bothered by overcrowding. Garden cress can be grown indoors on a windowsill. Use a container with good bottom drainage. Keep the soil moist.

Pests. Cress has no serious pest problems.

Diseases. Cress has no serious disease problems.

Harvest. Cut or pinch out cress tips as needed, cut-and-come-again. Begin cutting plants when they reach 3 to 4 inches (7-10cm) tall. Plants cut back to ½ inch (12mm) will quickly regrow. Cress is most tender at the early seed-leaf stage; harvest cress well before it matures. Sprouts can also be used fresh.

Storing and preserving. Cress will keep in the refrigerator up to one week. Seeds can be sprouted.

Common name. Cress, garden cress, broadleaf cress, peppergrass, pepper cress, mustard cress

Botanical name. Lepidium sativum

Origin. Asia

Common name. Curly cress, cresson, early winter cress, Upland cress, curled cress, curlicress, fine curled cress, moss curled cress, extra-curled cress.

Botanical name. Barbarea vernapraecox

Common name. Watercress

Botanical name. Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum

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31 Comments

  1. Hi, I’m growing garden cress for a school project. I am confused about whether garden cress should be sowed thickly, or if it should be planted 1/2 inch apart and then thinned. (I will be growing it until it reaches full maturity, not just sprouts) (Keep in mind that I’m growing this in 6 inch pots, in my apartment.) Thanks for this article!

    • Garden cress is often sown thickly and harvested as sprouts. If you want to grow the plant to maturity (garden cress can grow as large as 24 inches wide and 12 to 20 inches tall) then sow two or three seeds in each pot. When the seedlings reach 4 to 6 inches tall, cull the weakest seedlings and grow the strongest on to maturity.

    • Watercress is an aquatic plant. It grows best in submerged or shallow moving water. In the garden that is not always possible. Grow cress in a shallow pot and place the pot in a bowl or bucket with 2 to 3 inches of water–enough so that the growing media stays wet and the roots remain submerged underwater. Change the water once or twice a week–adding fresh water. The planting media can be an aquatic soil or a soilless potting mix containing perlite or vermiculite mixed with peat.

  2. for a school experiment, I have to research to see if depth makes a difference in the growth and germination of cress, leading to my question, does depth have an effect?

    • The depth a seed is sown is one factor in germination. A seed sown too deeply can be delayed in germination or may not germinate at all if sown too deep. A rule of thumb is to sow a seed to the depth of the seed’s diameter. You will want to closely monitor the depth you plant seeds for your experiment. Other factors are soil temperature, soil moisture, and sunlight. You should closely monitor all of these during your experiment.

  3. I can’t get hold of seeds during this current pandemic. Although I have managed to buy a pot of salad cress from a supermarket. Am I able to somehow turn this into seeds and put it in egg shells for an activity for my children to pass some time.

    Thank you

    • Garden cress can be propagated in two ways: (1) cress produces small pink to white flowers which are very small (2 mm or 1/12 in) in diameter and form a highly clustered inflorescence. The flowers will drop seed which can be sown for harvest. (2) cress can be grown from cuttings. Try rooting the cutting in light potting soil or in water. Upland cress is an aquatic herb you can grow on the kitchen counter. Seeds are available online from Urban Farmer. If you are looking for a quick seed project for kids–have them plant radish seeds which will grow and be edible in about 4 weeks after seed sowing.

  4. Thank you for the article. I am growing watercress in small pots (5.5″ tall and 5″ in diameter). The pots are submerged in a tub filled with water. I change the water weekly. I also add worm tea from my own worm farm regularly. The seeds were sown quite thickly 6 months ago. I’m in Australia so the watercress has just survived the hot summer. Now in autumn, they look happier with longer stems and bigger leaves. The longer stems are 4″ to 6″ at the moment. The pots are covered with white shoots or roots, in other words I can not see much soil. Some roots are extending through the bottom of the pots. My question is whether I should move them to bigger pots? Are they too crowded? Shall I separate them so there are less in each pot? They look like micro green watercress. They seem healthy but there are some yellow leaves at the bottom closer to the soil. Please advise. Thanks!

    • The yellowing of the lower leaves is a result of crowding and less light reaching the lower leaves. You can divide your watercress and move them to larger pots to form new colonies of plants. Gently separate the roots to divide small sections from the larger planting. Your instinct to divide the plants is correct.

  5. What can kill salad cress? I had just recently moved my cress into a home made wooden pot and more into the sun when it used to be in the shade (I am new to gardening) and it used to be healthy but after I moved it the leaves started to yellow and they withered so much that they were hanging over the pot. I have just done some research and I found that salad cress should be kept cool, moist and in part shade? So is that why it died. I wished I had researched dress first but I am a total spastic

    • You are a good plant detective; the move from cool shade to warm sun was more than the cress could take. Move it back to the original spot; the plants may recover.

  6. hello, for a lab I am adding gradations of calcium carbonate powder in my water to water the garden cress. Am I supposed to water it every day with the calcium or just on the first day? How tall should it be after 1 week? what is the maximum amt in grams i should add of calcium carbonate powder.

    • You are conducting the study; so you get to determine the parameters of your study. You may want to grow multiple cultures of cress with differing amounts of calcium added at differing times; you will then be able to deduce which application of calcium was most effective; you can measure yield at harvest but also growth rate during days or weeks of application and growth. You may want to visit with your instructor or proctor to set the parameters of your study. In the first week after germination, the cress will commonly be 1/4 to 1 inch (2.5cm) tall.

  7. I’m looking for something we used to call “mustard cress” in UK. Actually we mostly just called it “cress” because it was the main kind of cress available, and you could buy it in supermarkets already growing in punnets, take it home, cut it off with scissors, and put it in a nice crispy white bread and butter sandwich the same day.
    It has very small leaves when sprouting. Just little round leaves at the top. The smallest. I’m not sure if this is the same thing as “garden cress” which I never heard of before.
    Can anyone help me properly identify this kind of cress and tell me where to get seeds?

    • It is likely you are looking for what is commonly called garden cress. Cress seeds can be found online, also at organic produce stores and some health food stores. You may want to grow a few varieties to discover the cress you remember.

  8. Hi, my daughter wants to actually see her windowsill cress produce its own seeds. It’s the small, thin, stalky type you generally find in shop-bought egg and cress sandwiches. Do we just leave it growing? Does it take long? I’ve never thought about harvesting watercress seeds.
    Thank you. 🙂

    • Let the plants continue to grow; they will flower and produce seed which she can collect; flowers and seed will come in 55 to 70 days.

  9. I am doing a research paper on the impact of salinity on the germination of cress. I will grow the cress seeds on Petri dishes with different concentrations of salt. I was wondering if anyone knew the amount of salt which can be used and how it can impact the germination of cress. Also would garden cress or watercress a better choice?
    Thank you.

  10. I am doing a project for school and will be growing curly cress. I am planning on putting the seeds in the soil, mixing with a variety of organic and inorganic fertilizers, in solo cups and letting them grow. I was wondering what is the best soil for me to buy and where I can get the soil. Please let me know.

    • Visit a nearby garden center; they will likely have one or two seed starting mixes and potting soils. They will also have organic and inorganic fertilizers. You can select by ingredients or by price. Brands available vary by country and by region. Scotts Miracle Grow makes organic and inorganic products. You may also want to check a major seed company such as Johnny’s Select Seeds for the seed starting and potting mixes they offer.

  11. Hello! I am about to start growing Garden Cress indoors for a school project and was wondering how much light it needed. I will be using incandescent lights instead of normal sunlight as my house doesn’t have too many windows with good spots for my plants to receive sunlight. How much light should I give the Garden Cress and should I put them directly under the light?

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