Roots and Shoots Q&A: Fall Planting and Foraging

Watercress

A closeup of watercress can help with identification (USDA)

Here are my responses to some recent questions from readers. Email me at rootsandshoots@highlandscurrent.org.

Q: We’re having construction done on our house and the yard has been torn up. What can we plant so we don’t have a muddy mess until spring? We want it to be lawn.
A: Most turf-grass seed, fescue and clover germinate when the soil temperature is above 50 degrees. This translates into day and night temperatures of 60 degrees to 75 degrees. Since our overnight temps have fallen into the 40-degree range consistently over the past few weeks, it’s too late. The seed will lay dormant on the soil and, over the winter, birds and other critters will eat it and you’ll have to start over in the spring anyway. 

Another option is to use wood chips to protect and prepare the soil for spring planting. A 2-inch layer of regular chips from an arborist will insulate the soil from the cycle of freezing and thawing as temperatures fluctuate. It will look better than mud, and be a barrier against compacting the soil from treading on it. Some of the chips will break down by the time you’re ready to plant grass and the rest can be raked up and used as mulch elsewhere around trees, in flower beds or in a vegetable garden. 

Since you’re starting from scratch with this patch of lawn, I want to throw in a promotion for sustainable lawn seed mixes. Overall, they use up to 70 percent less water and can be mowed less frequently or not at all. Mowing once a month sounds brilliant. Whatever you choose to plant, make sure it’s right for your sunlight conditions. HighCountryGardens.com is a good place to start learning about eco-lawns. 

Q: Can I still plant this fall?
A: This is a very general question, but yes! I will plant trees, woody plants, bulbs and perennials until the ground freezes. The plants will go dormant but set roots to grow in spring when the soil warms. 

Be sure to water the plantings well until the ground is frozen and mulch to protect them from being pushed out of the ground by heaving. Our winter temperatures have become inconsistent with fluctuations that freeze and thaw the soil frequently and the ground pushes up during these cycles. 

It’s still an ideal time to plant garlic, too. 

Q: I live in Garrison along the river, and many years ago I planted a tiny little bit of watercress along my spring overflow. I now have a huge crop of what I believe to be watercress but I’m not sure and would like a professional to let me know what is what. Eating look-alikes did not get me to age 81.
A: While I am not a professional in terms of foraging, which includes any food consumed from a wild source, I would recommend a search for “Nasturtium officinale” on the website of the USDA Forest Service at fs.fed.us. That will take you to the profile of watercress using its Latin binomial. It’s part of the Brassicae family and has a spicy, peppery flavor that deters wildlife browsing. 

Once you know the defining characteristics — pinnate leaves, hollow stems and white flowers in the summer months — you can go about identifying it for yourself. 

The Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County can be helpful as well with plant identification. You could take a plant of what you think is watercress to them or send a photo. I would always stick with .edu or .org sites on the internet and science-based organizations. 

Another thing to consider about watercress or other foraged plants growing in waterways is that pollutants in the soil and water can be absorbed by plants and cause medical issues. There is also a chance of ingesting harmful bacteria when eating raw plants. Cooking usually kills those. 

Watercress is listed as an invasive and noxious species in 46 states by the Forest Service. Introduced from Asia, it outcompetes native vegetation and replaces it without contributing to the ecosystem. Planting more of it can damage environments that are already under great stress.


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