Arguably our most valued crop here at Hawkwood is the winter salad leaves. They may lack the mass appeal of toms and strawbs, but they make up for this in longevity – spending up to twelve months in the ground; and in the dormant period their rare dependable fresh growth and emerald hue have us hunting and gathering them to the point of endangerment. But winter salads, like winter pansies, are in their pomp not in their appointed season, but in the sharp spring that bursts it.
The wild rocket, chicories and miners lettuce are all exhuberant right now, especially under the glass, where their last mad surge of youth will soon outsprint us. The secateurs will give way to their flowers, the flowers in turn to the compost heap, then summer rolls in another rotation.
Of the more punchy ingredients, those cockle-warmers of the winter leaves, watercress has been especially good. Every year we grow a bit more of it, and every year we have no regrets. Whilst OrganicLea was established to “sustainably rehabilitate the food growing heritage of the Lea Valley”, a heritage we’ve explored in various publications and presentations, we’ve largely neglected the area’s history of growing watercress, in favour of more cultivated plants of the garden. That is, until Hannah picked up the story in last week’s Local Food News, our “in-house” news sheet.
A native of very wet ground, watercress would surely have been enjoyed by the first folk to hang around the Lea’s marshes, and was likely harvested and managed in some way by the area’s first farmers and gardeners, the Saxons in the sixth century. In the nineteenth century, Hackney became noted for its cultivation of said Rorippa nasturtium-aquatica, great stands of it in Morning Lane and Hackney Wick, fed by the flowing Hackney Brook as it bubbled into the Lea. But as Hackney became more definitely part of London, the water quality declined. A cholera outbreak in the early twentieth century was blamed on the cress, and that was curtains.
The spectre of polluted water, either by man or by sheep, in the case of the potentially fatal liver fluke, (rightly) continues to deter people from foraging the peppery creepers. But our watercress is safely reared on filtered rainwater, as are our beds of its rarer cousin, the Walthamstow Yellow Cress Hackney Brook is now many feet under the rumble of Morning Lane, though no doubt many gardeners in the area safely nurture a bunch or two; and perhaps those clumps of cress I spot thriving upriver, in the small weirs beside the Navigation’s locks, are proud descendants of former aquatic gardens.
Curiously enough, watercress doesn’t even need to be grown in water: they like it damp, but can be happy in a soil bed, as in our glasshouse, as long as it’s well irrigated. The habit of flooding watercress beds has, I believe, much to do with weed suppression, and with moderating cold temperatures, so making it such a reliable outdoor winter vegetable.
The winter, and its woeful water excess, is behind us now, leaving us washed up and warmed by the wealth of watercress and winter salad. In their current ascendancy , they are a reward for, and lesson in, resilience: the resilience of all the gardeners who’ve been showing up here through the dark days. After troubled waters, the good times flow.