Arugula or rocket (Eruca vesicaria sativa) is an easy to grow, quick maturing Italian green that has rocketed in popularity the last 20 years. I love growing it in cold frames early in spring for the first taste of fresh greens. Because of its cold tolerance it can withstand freezing temperatures and still survive. I’ve even seen a fall crop overwinter with a little winter protection. It’s best eaten while the weather is cool. The dark green, tender leaves have a nutty, spicy flavor. If grown in the heat, overcrowded, or water stressed, the leaves turn chewy and the flavor spicy hot.
While you can grow and eat arugula all by itself in salads or sautes, I like making a nutty, spicy pesto from it. However, most people use it mixed in salads with milder tasting lettuces and spinach.
When to Plant
Direct sow arugula seeds as soon as the soil has dried out enough to plant — as early as the beginning of April. Sow small patches of seeds every 2 weeks to extend the harvest season. Stop sowing seeds in early summer with the hot weather, but start again in late summer for a fall harvest.
Where to Plant
Arugula grows best on lose, well drained soil, amended with compost. Unlike many other vegetables, arugula can be grown in part sun and still yield a good crop. I’ve even planted it in a container successfully on my deck for a continuous crop of greens all summer. It can be planted in its own bed or grown in between slower to mature vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage. Since arugula will be harvested withing 40 days of sowing, you’ll get a quick green crop before the larger plants get too big to shade it out.
How to Plant
Sow seeds 1/4-inch deep and about 1-inch apart in rows or broadcast evenly over a raised bed. Thin plants to 6- to 8-inches apart once they germinate. Eat the thinnings as baby greens in salads.
Care and Maintenance
Arugula seeds germinate and grow quickly. Keep the soil evenly moist and well weeded. Fertilize them with fish emulsion if the leaves are yellow. Protect young leaves from flea beetles by growing arugula under a floating row cover. Flea beetles are small black insects that eat shotgun-like holes in leaves. These row covers let air, light, and water in, by keep the flea beetles away from the leaves.
Arugula can be harvested about 20 days after seeding as baby greens or allowed to mature to full size in about 40 days. Cut baby greens with a scissor, snipping the plants an inch or so above their base. They will regrow for a second harvest. You can also pull individual large plants.
There are some varieties of arugula with special characteristics. ‘Astro’ is a heat tolerant variety with long, strap-like leaves. ‘Sylvetta’ is also called “wild arugula”. It has smaller, more serrated leaves and a stronger flavor. It’s also know as rucola selvatica. A very fast growing arugula variety is ‘Surrey’. It has leaves similar to ‘Astro’ in shape.
Excerpted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.