Arugula, also known as rocket or salad rocket, is a leafy green vegetable with a peppery flavor. It is a versatile and nutritious plant that can be grown in various climates and seasons. Whether you’re an experienced gardener or a beginner.
This comprehensive guide will provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to successfully grow arugula. From preparing the soil to harvesting the leaves, we’ll cover everything you need to know to cultivate this delicious green vegetable.
What is Arugula?
Arugula, scientifically known as Eruca sativa, is a leafy green vegetable that belongs to the Brassicaceae family. It is known for its distinctive peppery and slightly bitter taste, which adds a unique flavor to salads, sandwiches, and other culinary dishes. Arugula is a cool-season crop that grows best in moderate temperatures, making it an excellent choice for spring and fall planting.
Varieties of Arugula
There are several arugula varieties available, each with its own characteristics and growth habits. Some popular arugula varieties include:
- Regular or Wild Arugula: This variety has deeply lobed leaves and a more intense flavor.
- Italian Arugula: Also known as “Selvatica,” this variety has broader leaves and a milder taste.
- Dragon’s Tongue: This arugula variety has striking purple veins on its leaves, making it visually appealing.
Nutritional Benefits of Arugula
Arugula is not only delicious but also packed with essential nutrients. It is a rich source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as folate, calcium, and iron. Arugula also contains antioxidants that can help protect against chronic diseases and promote overall health.
Selecting a Growing Location
Arugula thrives in cool and mild climates, preferring temperatures between 50°F and 70°F (10°C to 21°C). It is a cool-season crop and can tolerate light frosts. In regions with hot summers, it is best to grow arugula in the spring or fall to avoid bolting, which is the premature flowering and seed production of the plant.
Sunlight and Shade
Arugula prefers full sun but can tolerate some shade, especially in regions with intense summer heat. However, it is important to provide at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight to ensure optimal growth and flavor.
Arugula thrives in well-draining soil with a pH range of 6.0 to 7.0. It prefers fertile soil that is rich in organic matter. Before planting, prepare the soil by removing any weeds, rocks, or debris. Amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to improve its nutrient content and drainage.
Planting Arugula Seeds
Choosing Quality Seeds
When selecting arugula seeds, opt for high-quality, fresh seeds from a reputable supplier. Look for varieties that suit your taste preferences and growing conditions. It is also a good practice to choose open-pollinated or heirloom seeds, as they allow for seed saving and future plant propagation.
Indoor Seed Starting
If you live in a region with a short growing season, you can start arugula seeds indoors. Fill seed trays or pots with a seed starting mix, which provides a lightweight and well-draining medium. Sow the seeds thinly and cover them with a thin layer of soil. Place the trays in a warm location with ample sunlight or under grow lights. Keep the soil consistently moist until the seeds germinate.
For outdoor planting, sow arugula seeds directly into the garden bed once the soil temperature reaches around 40°F (4°C) in early spring or 6 to 8 weeks before the first fall frost. Create furrows or shallow trenches in the soil, sow the seeds, and lightly cover them with soil. Space the seeds approximately 1 inch apart. Water gently after sowing to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
Caring for Arugula Plants
Arugula plants require consistent moisture to thrive but should not be overwatered. Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season, especially during dry periods. Avoid overhead watering to prevent the spread of diseases. Water at the base of the plants or use drip irrigation to deliver water directly to the root zone.
Arugula is a relatively low-maintenance plant and does not require heavy fertilization. Before planting, incorporate organic matter into the soil to provide essential nutrients. If needed, you can apply a balanced organic fertilizer once or twice during the growing season, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Weeds can compete with arugula for nutrients, water, and sunlight, so it’s important to keep the garden bed weed-free. Regularly inspect the area and remove any weeds by hand or with the help of a small garden tool. Applying a layer of organic mulch, such as straw or wood chips, around the plants can also help suppress weed growth.
Pest and Disease Management
Arugula is generally resistant to most pests and diseases. However, it can occasionally be affected by flea beetles, aphids, or caterpillars. Monitor your plants regularly and take appropriate action if you notice any pest infestations. Organic insecticidal sprays or companion planting with pest-repellent herbs can help manage pest populations. Proper spacing, good air circulation, and avoiding overhead watering can minimize the risk of fungal diseases.
Determining the Right Time to Harvest
Arugula leaves can be harvested at any stage, depending on your preference. For baby arugula, you can start harvesting the outer leaves when they are around 2 to 3 inches long. For more mature leaves, wait until they reach 6 to 8 inches in length. Harvesting in the morning when the leaves are crisp and cool can ensure the best flavor and texture.
To harvest arugula, simply cut the leaves off at the base using a sharp pair of scissors or garden shears. You can selectively harvest individual leaves or cut the entire plant at once, leaving a couple of inches of growth to encourage regrowth. Avoid tearing the leaves, as this can lead to bruising and reduced shelf life.
After harvesting, gently wash the arugula leaves to remove any dirt or debris. Shake off excess water and allow the leaves to air dry or pat them dry with a clean towel. Store the arugula in a perforated plastic bag or airtight container in the refrigerator. Freshly harvested arugula can typically be stored for up to a week.
Using Arugula in Culinary Delights
Raw Arugula in Salads
One of the most popular ways to enjoy arugula is in fresh salads. Its peppery flavor adds a zesty kick to any salad mix. Combine arugula with other greens, such as lettuce or spinach, and add your favorite salad toppings and dressings. Arugula also pairs well with fruits, cheese, nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette.
Cooking with Arugula
Arugula can also be cooked and used in various culinary preparations. Sauté it lightly in olive oil and garlic for a simple side dish or incorporate it into pasta, stir-fries, or soups. Adding arugula to pizzas, sandwiches, or wraps can provide a burst of flavor and nutrition.
If you have an abundant harvest, you can preserve arugula for later use. Blanch the leaves in boiling water for a minute, then transfer them to an ice bath to cool. Drain the leaves, pat them dry, and freeze them in airtight containers or freezer bags. Frozen arugula works well in cooked dishes but may lose some of its crisp texture.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
Bolting is a natural process in which arugula plants prematurely produce flowers and go to seed. It is triggered by high temperatures, prolonged daylight hours, or other environmental stresses. To prevent bolting, choose heat-tolerant arugula varieties, provide adequate shade during hot summer months, and harvest leaves regularly to delay flowering.
Pests and Diseases
While arugula is relatively resistant to pests and diseases, it can still encounter some issues. Common pests include flea beetles, aphids, and caterpillars. Monitor your plants regularly and take appropriate action if an infestation occurs. Fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew or downy mildew, can be minimized by providing good air circulation and avoiding overhead watering.
- Succession Planting: To ensure a continuous harvest, consider practicing succession planting with arugula. Instead of planting all your seeds at once, sow a small batch every couple of weeks. This staggered planting will provide you with a steady supply of fresh arugula throughout the growing season, rather than a large harvest all at once.
- Companion Planting: Arugula can benefit from companion planting with certain herbs and vegetables. Planting it alongside crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans can help repel pests and attract beneficial insects. Herbs like dill, coriander, and mint also make good companions for arugula.
- Seed Saving: If you’re interested in saving arugula seeds for future planting, allow some of your plants to bolt and produce flowers. Bees and other pollinators will help cross-pollinate the flowers, which will eventually form seed pods. Allow the pods to dry on the plants, then collect and store the seeds in a cool, dry place for future use.
- Container Gardening: Arugula can be successfully grown in containers, making it an ideal option for those with limited space or urban gardens. Choose a container that is at least 6-8 inches deep and has drainage holes. Fill it with a well-draining potting mix and sow the seeds according to the instructions. Place the container in a sunny location and water regularly.
- Microgreens: If you’re short on time or space, you can grow arugula as microgreens. Microgreens are young, tender greens that are harvested when they are only a few inches tall. They are packed with flavor and can be used as a garnish or added to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.
- Crop Rotation: To maintain healthy soil and minimize the risk of diseases and pests, practice crop rotation with arugula. Avoid planting arugula in the same location year after year. Instead, rotate it with other crops from different plant families to break disease and pest cycles.
- Organic Pest Control: If you prefer to use organic methods for pest control, there are several options available. Neem oil, a natural insecticide, can help deter pests like aphids and caterpillars. You can also make homemade pest sprays using ingredients like garlic, onion, or chili pepper. Beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings can also help control pests in the garden.
- Arugula Flowers: Arugula flowers are not only visually appealing but also edible. They have a milder flavor compared to the leaves and can be used as a decorative element in salads or as a garnish. Additionally, the flowers can attract pollinators to your garden, benefiting other plants as well.
Growing arugula is a rewarding experience that allows you to enjoy fresh, flavorful greens throughout the growing season. By following the steps outlined in this guide, from selecting quality seeds to harvesting the leaves, you’ll be well on your way to growing a successful arugula crop. Experiment with different varieties and culinary preparations to fully appreciate the versatility and taste of this peppery green vegetable. Happy gardening and bon appétit.