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Growing Arugula for Gourmet Greens

Arugula is a type of easy-to-grow leafy salad green that adds a slight peppery kick to salads and mesclun mixes. It can be considered a gourmet item that’s a bit expensive to buy. Happily, growing arugula is quite easy!

Be sure to check out these other easy to grow veggies, too. 

Contributed by Jodi Torpey

arugula growing in a white planter, scissors nearby

Get to know Arugula (aka Rocket)

This gourmet green is known by a number of different names such as Italian cress, rocket (for its speedy growth), roquette, rucola, rugula, and garden rocket. Arugula leaves resemble radish leaves somewhat, with their dark green and deeply lobed leaves.

The common arugula (Eruca vesicaria) is the one most familiar to gardeners and cooks alike. However, wild arugula (Diplotaxis spp.) is another tasty green to add to the vegetable or herb garden.

Planting and growing arugula is similar to growing leaf lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard, except arugula forms rosettes that can grow 10-12 inches wide and tall.

Arugula plants grow best when they have plenty of moisture and are timed to mature in cool weather, something that adds to their reputation of being cold-hardy. If temperatures turn too hot, too quickly, arugula can bolt or go to seed prematurely. To avoid bolting, time the planting in your area for cool spring weather and then plant another crop for fall.

Most arugula types can withstand a light frost without any cover, but plants can grow well in cold weather when planted in cold frames or hoop tunnels.

7 Arugula Varieties for Your Garden

The most common arugula to grow is the familiar salad arugula, but you can choose to grow on the wild side with other arugula types, too.

Salad Arugula (Eruca spp.)

Astro is known to be more tolerant of hot weather than other types of argulas; harvests begin 21-38 days.

Italian arugula is a fast-growing type with delicious edible flowers; 21-28 days.

Balboa is a vigorous arugula variety that’s known to be heat tolerant; 28 days.

Speedy has serrated leaves like wild arugula, but has the mild taste of salad varieties; 30 days.

Wild Arugula (Diplotaxis spp.)

Wasabi arugula is a wild variety that tastes just like the spicy wasabi paste; 28-35 days.

Rustic arugula is a savory Italian variety with deeply indented leaves and tiny yellow flowers; 28-35 days.

Bellezia is another wild arugula type with serrated leaves and a long harvest season; 35-50 days.

close up of rocket plant

How to Plant Arugula

You can plant arugula from either seeds or transplants, but most gardeners prefer to direct sow seeds for two reasons: to reduce the possibility of transplant shock and because plants grow so quickly.

If you prefer to grow from transplants, either buy transplants or start seeds indoors in early spring. Plants take about 4-6 weeks to reach transplant size. Time the planting before the last average frost date in your area for a spring harvest. A fall harvest can be planted in mid-to-late summer.

Wait for the garden soil to warm to at least 35 degrees before planting. The best weather for growing arugula is when days are warm and nights are cool. Ideal air temperatures for the best flavor range between 60-70 degrees. Hot daytime temperatures can cause arugula to become bitter or bolt (go to seed prematurely).

Plant arugula seeds about ¼ inch deep and several inches apart in rows. Other alternatives are to spread seeds on their own or mix with other salad green seeds.

For a continuous supply of arugula, continue planting seeds or transplants every 2-3 weeks. Some gardeners get three seasons of arugula from early spring to late autumn and into winter using the succession planting method.

round green plants growing in soil

Requirements for Growing Arugula

Light requirements

Arugula has similar light needs to lettuce, so you can plant in full sun or partial shade. If temperatures turn too hot too quickly in spring, protect plants with some shade cloth to keep plants from going to seed before they’re ready.

Soil requirements

Arugula grows in amended and well-drained garden soil. Before planting either arugula seed or transplants, prepare the planting bed by digging in a well-balanced fertilizer and spreading a 1-inch layer of high-quality compost over the planting site.

Water and fertilizer requirements

Make sure plants receive adequate moisture after planting and through the season. Don’t let soil dry completely. Plan for keeping soil moist with drip irrigation or a soaker hose set up along the garden rows.

A layer of organic mulch placed around plants will reduce weeds and help keep soil moist. Arugula has low fertilizer needs, but you may want to feed plants every few weeks to ensure a good harvest.tea cup filled with arugula leaves, top, leaves on blue background, bottom

Arugula Growing Problems

To prevent birds from getting to seeds and young plants, use a lightweight cover cloth over the planting area. Covering like this can also help speed germination by keeping the soil moist.

To avoid crowding plants and reducing air circulation, thin plants after the second set of true leaves start to grow. Thin to space plants about 10-12 inches apart, and use the thinnings to top early spring or fall salads.

After thinning, side dress with a nitrogen fertilizer or add a water-soluble fertilizer to a watering can.

arugula growing in soil

Common Insect Pest Problems

Avoid aphids by companion planting with members of the carrot family, like dill, cilantro and fennel. The flowers will attract the kinds of beneficial insects that eat aphids. If aphids appear on plants, wash them off with a strong spray from the garden hose

Flea beetles can eat holes in arugula leaves. One way to avoid flea beetles is to plant and protect plants with row cover tied down tightly at the edges. You could also plant arugula in tall containers several feet off the ground where beetles can’t reach plants.

How to Grow Arugula in Containers

Like lettuces, arugula grows well in containers. Fill containers with a well-draining potting mix and plant seeds or transplants spacing to fit the size of the container.

Harvesting Arugula

Baby arugula can be cut at any time the leaves reach 2-3 inches in length; use small scissors to snip just the outer leaves so the plant can continue to grow, much like you can harvest leaf lettuce. Harvest leaves often until the weather turns hot or the plants up a flower stalk. The small white flowers are edible, too.

Keep harvesting arugula leaves while the greens are young and tender. After clipping leaves from plants, rinse with cool water, dry and store arugula in airtight bags in the refrigerator. Use as quickly as possible.

arugula, tomatoes and olives on a pizza

Uses for Arugula in the Kitchen

Arugula is a good source of iron and vitamins A and C and the leaves make a spicy addition to garden-fresh salads. The leaves also make a nice side dish when steamed like spinach or sauteed with other vegetables. You can also toss fresh leaves into soups to let them wilt slightly right before serving.

If you use your kitchen creativity, you can find all kinds of uses for fresh arugula. Swap out leaves for lettuce in sandwiches, wraps or pitas; whirl leaves with fresh mint for a new take on pesto; create interesting salads by mixing arugula with white beans or grilled steak; sprinkle on top of hot pizza, or mix leaves into fruit salads.

Propagating Arugula

If you want to try to save seeds, let a few plants go to flower and let the seed heads fully mature. Cut the entire flower stalk to finish drying and collect seeds over a tarp or sheet. Separate seeds from other plant material and store them in a cool, dark and dry place. They should last for several more seasons.

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