OSIERS AND WATER-CRESS

Osiers, the shoots of which are cut yearly for making baskets, crates, lobster-pots, and eel-traps are a form of crop of which not nearly as much is made in the Thames Valley as their profitable return warrants. Properly managed they nearly always pay well, and, in addition, they are very ornamental, and for the whole of the summer, autumn, and winter are one of the very best forms of covert for game. They are commonly seen near rivers, especially in parts where the ground is flooded in winter. But osiers may be grown anywhere on good ground, and are a rapid and paying crop, giving very little trouble, though they need some attention even on the banks of tidal rivers. It is estimated that in the whole of Great Britain there are only between 7,000 and 8,000 acres of osier beds, but these average three tons of rods per acre, and the value of the crop when harvested is often at least L15 per acre gross return. As fruit cultivation is immensely increasing in England, there is a corresponding increase in the demand for baskets to put the fruit in. This is the main reason why osiers, unlike most farm crops, keep up their price. Immense quantities are now imported from Belgium, France, and Germany because our own crop is not nearly sufficient.[1] They do not require a wet soil or to be near water: all that the willow roots need is that the land shall be good and not too dry or sandy. Stagnant, boggy ground does not suit them at all, though they will grow well in light loam. Many species of osier are of most brilliant colouring in winter and early spring. In some the rods are golden yellow; in others the bark is almost scarlet with a bright polish, and the osier bed forms a brilliant object from December to February, just before the rods are cut. The kind of willow grown varies from the slender, tough withes used in making small baskets and eel-traps, to the large, fast-growing rods suited for making crates for heavy goods. The planter must find out for which kind there is the readiest market in the neighbourhood, and then get his land ready. It needs thorough clearing and trenching to the depth of from twenty to thirty inches. The young osiers should then be put in. These should be taken from a nursery in which they have been "schooled" for one year, as in that case they will produce a crop fit to cut one year earlier than if the cuttings have been put at once in the new osier-bed. The cuttings when transferred to the bed should be put in twelve inches apart in the rows, and these rows made at two feet distance from each other. They will need hoeing to keep the ground clear, which will cost Ll to L2 per acre for the first two years, and this should be done before the middle of June. When the osiers are well started they grow so densely that they kill out the weeds themselves. The rate of growth even on ordinary field-land is astonishing; they will add eighteen inches in a week. February and March are the months for planting, and March also sees the osier harvest when the time comes to cut them. In the fens the harvesting of the rods begins earlier, but this depends usually on the season, the object being to cut them before the sap begins to rise. Osiers particularly invite the attention of those who are desirous of planting coverts for game. They are a paying crop, and a quick crop, giving cover sooner and of better quality than almost any other form of underwood, and are also very ornamental. It is true that they are cut yearly, but this is not till the shooting season is over. Meantime there is no covert which pheasants like so much as osier-beds, especially if they are near water.

On Chiswick Eyot, which is entirely planted with osiers, there are standing at the time of writing six stacks of bundles set upright. Each stack contains about fifty bundles of the finest rods, nine feet high. Thus the eyot yields at least three hundred bundles. This osier-bed is cut quite early in the year, usually in January, and by February all the fresh rods are planted. Before being peeled the osiers are stood upright in water for a month, and some begin to bud again. This is to make the sap run up, I presume, by which means the bark comes off more readily. I believe that the Chiswick osiers, being of the largest size, are used for making crates, and that they are cut early because there is no need to peel them.

Water-cress growing is an increasing business in the Thames Valley, where the head of every little brook or river in the chalk is used for this purpose. This is good both for business in general and for the fish, for water-cress causes the accumulation of a vast quantity of fish food in various forms.

The artificial culture of water-cress is comparatively modern, and a remarkably pretty side-industry of the country.

Formerly, the cress gatherer was usually a gipsy, or "vagrom man," who wandered up to the springs and by the head waters of brooks at dawn, and took his cresses as the mushroom-gatherer takes mushrooms - by dint of early rising and trespass.

The places where water-cress grows naturally are usually singularly attractive. The plant grows best where springs actually bubble from the ground, either where the waters break out on the lower sides of the chalk downs, or in some limestone-begotten stream where springs rise, sometimes for a distance of one or two miles, bubbling and swelling in the very bed of the brook. There, among dead reeds and flags, the pale green cresses appear very early in the spring, for the water is always warmer which rises from the bosom of the earth. Trout and wild duck haunt the same spots, and one often sees, stuck on a board in the stream, a notice warning off the poor water-cress gatherer, who was supposed to poach the fish.