Cress and tomatillo: zesty flavors for your garden

Casting around for a topic to write on this month, I thought to look through my box of seeds (it’s a file box with hanging folders) to pick out a couple of plants that gardeners might not be considering as vegetable garden additions. I landed on two: cress and tomatillo. In most ways, they are opposites: cresses like cool weather while tomatillos thrive in the heat. Tomatillos are native to the Americas (Mexico, in particular) while the various cresses migrated over here with the help of European settlers, then went wild. The plants are very different in size and shape. And they taste different and are used differently in the kitchen, but I’d say they both add zest to your meals in a similar way.

Let’s start with cress. Or rather, with the cresses, since they belong to different species, though they’re similar in flavor. Most people have heard of watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and probably have eaten it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for growing in your garden. It doesn’t actually require a flowing stream, but it does need a constant supply of water. I’ve been too daunted to try it myself.

However, there are several other types of cress that feature that same peppery crunch and are great additions to sandwiches, salads, or many other dishes. And they are easy to cultivate, as long as you remember to plant them in cool weather. They grow quickly, so there’s time to harvest a crop in spring or fall.

Look for seeds of plants in the species Barbarea verna or Lepidium sativum. They may be called garden cress, upland cress, peppergrass, or wrinkled crinkled cress. The leaves may be smaller or larger or differently shaped; they’re all good, so pick the one that’s available or most appealing to you. Plant in March (or September) either in good garden soil or in soilless mix in a container; they may take a while to germinate, so keep watering. Harvest at a few inches tall. If you like growing indoors, they make great microgreens. You could also try turning them into a ground cover around other plants. Discerning rabbits may enjoy them, but they are kind of spicy (the cresses, not the rabbits) so they might be left alone.

Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) as microgreens (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving on to tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), which goes into your garden in mid-to-late May at the same time as peppers. They are cousins, as it happens, along with other members of the nightshade family like tomatoes and eggplant. Tomatillos are even more closely related to ground cherries, a.k.a. Cape gooseberries (they are neither a cherry nor a gooseberry), with which they share a genus and a cute little husk covering their fruit. Like other nightshades, they aren’t seeded directly in the garden, but started indoors or bought as transplants.

You may be familiar with tomatillos for making salsa verde, but not know how easy they are to grow. If you can grow tomatoes and peppers, you can grow tomatillos. A lot of people have tried and given up, though, including me once upon a time, because they don’t know that unlike other nightshades, tomatillos require (or at least strongly prefer) cross-pollination. You can’t grow just one plant; you have to grow at least two. That does take some space, since they are large plants, but if you can spare it, you’ll be rewarded with a massive harvest.

Any variety is fine, including your basic small green types. We grew a large-fruited green variety called Gulliver in the Derwood Demo Garden for several years, but I don’t see it listed for sale now; it appears to have been replaced by some other large types, which are worth trying. I’ve also enjoyed growing the purple ones, and a delicious yellow variety called Amarylla. Harvest when the fruit is filling up the husk. You can make various salsas with raw or cooked tomatillos, add them to salads or cooked dishes for a bit of zing, or (my favorite) roast them.

Roasted ‘Amarylla’ tomatillos

Tomatillos may be subject to some of the same pests as tomatoes, including flea beetles, stinkbugs and hornworms, and a few fungal diseases. They usually grow vigorously enough, given healthy soil and a bit of fertilizer, that you’ll still get a crop even with challenges. They are basically weeds.

If you have space, try tomatillos! If you don’t, you can fit in some cress anywhere.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

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