The herb-like vegetable for the adventurous palate

Story by Bob Westerfield and Amy Rogers

Just the name itself “arugula,” might seem somewhat strange to the average home gardener. It’s not exactly what you would call a staple in the average Southern summer garden. But if you are looking for something to spice up your salad or add a peppery zest to some of your dishes, arugula might be just the ticket. This specialty green is sometimes located in your grocery store, but is actually a very easy plant to grow in your home garden. This herb-like leafy green has a unique flavor and much more nutritional value than common ‘Iceberg’ lettuce and grows well in traditional gardens, raised beds, or containers.

Arugula goes well in pasta dishes, salads, and even on top of pizza. Photo by Cindy Shapton.

Arugula is a cool-season green that does not tolerate summer heat. With that requirement, it can be planted in the early fall or as an early spring crop. Arugula grows quickly, and can be direct seeded in the garden or started five to six weeks earlier indoors. Like most vegetables, arugula will require at least six to eight hours of sunlight per day. It definitely does best in well-drained, organically amended soils. For this reason, it’s a wonderful plant to grow in raised beds or some type of container. 

Perform a soil test to make sure the pH is adjusted to a range of 6.0-6.5. Arugula would be considered a medium feeder, needing nutrition at planting time and several applications during the growing season. Take care when applying granular fertilizers and don’t allow them to stick to the wet arugula leaves. They can easily burn and damage the plant. In a traditional garden, arugula can be arranged in rows a few feet apart and 10-12 inches between plants within the row. You can also broadcast arugula seed in a somewhat random pattern. If the planting becomes too thick, you can harvest whole plants to thin the block.

Here, arugula is being succession grown in containers. Photo by Gary Bachman.

Harvest arugula by picking the outermost leaves first and leaving the younger leaves inside to develop. Harvesting is good for the plant and encourages new growth. As arugula grows larger, it will begin to get a stronger, more peppery taste. Harvest can continue for several weeks to a month during cool temperatures. As temperatures begin to creep up into the 80s, the plant might try to bolt or flower and this will signal that your arugula is nearing an end. You can cut off the bolting flower stem and probably get another week or two of harvest. However, once the plant flowers, the flavor may become extremely strong and bitter. 

I have never had many problems with insects or disease while growing arugula. On occasion, some leaf-feeding insects might try to visit it. I have noticed in my garden, even the rabbits tend to avoid it and choose the less pungent lettuce. Because it is cool season, disease issues are far and few between. Watering below the leaf zone can assist in preventing any leaf spots or other disease issues. 

Arugula is considered a vegetable, although I kind of treat it as a seasoning herb. It can be eaten raw in salads or cooked like spinach or turnips. It can also be added to flavor meat such as fish, beef, or chicken. For those who prefer the somewhat non-flavorful ‘Iceberg’ lettuce, arugula may be a bit much to handle. You will definitely notice the flavor when it hits your mouth. But if you have somewhat of an adventurous palate, give arugula a try and you won’t be disappointed.

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