Q: Last spring, I fell in love with the arugula (Eruca vesicaria ssp. sativa) that was included in a seed packet of mixed salad greens. Does it grow well when sown in fall? How much cold can it withstand?
A: Until 20 years ago, this piquant salad green was rarely cultivated, though salad lovers in Italy and France eagerly gathered the greens found growing wild. Since then, arugula’s popularity has skyrocketed as people discover the pleasures of eating—and growing—this distinctly aromatic leafy green.
Like other members of the mustard family, arugula (sometimes called rocket, roquette or rucola) often grows better in the fall than in spring. In spring, the plants rush to produce flowers and seeds, so the harvest period for tender young leaves lasts only two to three weeks. But in fall, when days are getting shorter and cooler, the plants invest their energy in producing dense rosettes of leaves. Even when heavily picked, well-rooted plants often survive winter in Zone 7, or in Zone 6 beneath a plastic tunnel or thick mulch. Overwintered plants bloom heavily in spring, and the ripe seeds are easy to gather after the inch-long pods turn tan. You can save the largest seeds for replanting, and use the others as a pepper-like spice. (Use only your homegrown seeds for this; packaged ones are sometimes treated with a fungicide.) Try mixing them with peppercorns in a pepper mill, or crack them with a mortar and pestle before sprinkling them over hot pasta, rice or omelets.
Arugula seeds sprout in three to four days if the soil is moist, but in warm, sunny weather, keeping the seed bed moist can be a challenge. To prevent daytime drying, plant the seeds in rows or scatter them over a prepared bed, and cover them with 1/4 inch of soil. Dampen thoroughly with a light spray of water, then cover the seeded area with an old blanket or several small boards. Remove the covers after two days, and try to keep the bed moist a day or two longer, until a nice stand of seedlings pops up.
You can begin picking small leaves after three weeks or so, or pull entire plants to thin the remaining plants to at least 6 inches apart. In addition to enjoying zesty arugula greens in salads, try sprinkling them over pizza or substituting them for basil in pesto. If you get a bumper crop, quickly braise the leaves in olive oil with slivers of garlic to taste one of the finest cooked greens in the world.
Barbara Pleasant is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books about gardening, including The Whole Herb (Square One, 2004).
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