Arugula is a salad green with a very distinct, peppery flavor. It can take some getting used to the first time you taste it, but many people quickly find themselves hooked on arugula’s spicy nature.
If you enjoy arugula in salads or to cook with, you’ll be happy to know it’s an extremely easy vegetable to grow. It thrives in the same conditions as other cool-weather greens like kale, spinach, and lettuce.
Here’s a complete guide to growing and caring for your own arugula plant as well as how to overcome pests and problems you may encounter.
What Is Arugula?
Arugula (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa) belongs to the mustard family (also known as the cabbage family or Brassicacae). It’s a cool-weather crop that grows quickly and has a tangy, spicy flavor.
Native to the Mediterranean, arugula is now widely grown around the world. It was an important crop, even in ancient times, and has recently experienced a surge in popularity. You’ll see it called by several other names, including rocket and roquette.
You can grow arugula as an annual vegetable in almost any region (USDA hardiness zones 3-11). In some areas with mild climates, it may even overwinter.
Most varieties of arugula have thin, deeply cut leaves. Just a few leaves can go a long way as far as flavor is concerned, and arugula is a popular addition to salad mixes. The flowers are also edible and bloom yellow or white.
Arugula has become a very popular green to include in salad mixes and can be cooked in many different ways. It’s also very easy to grow in a home garden or in pots.
Like many other leafy greens, arugula doesn’t do well in the heat. Plants will quickly bolt as temperatures rise, which means they send up a flower stalk, causing the leaves to turn bitter.
Arugula does equally well in the garden and in containers. It grows quickly and doesn’t take up much space, so you can easily grow it even if you’re short on garden area. There aren’t many pests that bother an arugula plant, making it easy to care for.
Top Arugula Cultivars
On the whole, arugula is a very easy to grow and low maintenance plant. However, cultivars have been developed to improve things like flavor, heat resistance, and disease resistance.
Here are some of the top choices to look for:
- ‘Astro’– One of the best varieties for beginner gardeners. Grows quickly and has good heat tolerance. Smaller leaves have a mild flavor for those who are still getting used to arugula.
- ‘Sylvetta’ aka ‘Wild Rocket’– A wild arugula variety that is especially popular with chefs. Leaves are very deeply cut and have a pungent flavor. Slow to bolt.
Many chefs like arugula that has an oak-leaf shape or is deeply cut because it adds a decorative element to food as well as a lot of flavor. There are also varieties with rounded leaves that taste just as good.
- ‘Red Dragon’– Leaves have an oak leaf shape with striking red to maroon veins. Popular for adding color to salad mixes. Very peppery.
- ‘Garden Tangy’– Very good flavor and good heat tolerance. Plants are quick to grow and have large yields even in small growing spaces.
- ‘Apollo’– Leaves are spicy but without the bitterness other varieties can have, which makes them more palatable to many. Heat tolerant with large, rounded leaves.
Growing Arugula Plant from Seed
Arugula is very easy to grow from seed and can be sown directly into your garden (or containers). It grows quickly enough that you don’t need to start it indoors, although you can if you wish.
When to Plant Arugula
Because it likes cool weather, you should plant arugula as either a spring or a fall crop. If you have very mild winters, you can also harvest through the winter-time.
For spring planting, sow arugula seeds as soon as the ground can be worked, which is usually a few weeks before your last average frost. If you want to start seeds indoors, do so about 3-4 weeks before your last frost date.
For a fall crop, sow arugula seeds in late summer. It may be helpful to keep them under a shade cloth, since temperatures will be hotter. As cooler weather comes, seedlings will start to take off.
Arugula is very easy to grow from seed either indoors or outdoors. The seeds will germinate quickly, and plants are ready to harvest in about a month.
If you live in a mild climate, you also have the option of sowing seeds anytime in the fall and harvesting arugula over the winter.
Before planting your seeds, you’ll need to pick out the right spot for your arugula. Overall, it’s not a very picky plant, but these tips will help you get a large and healthy crop:
- Light– Arugula grows best in full sun but will also tolerate part shade. In hot climates, partial shade is the better choice, especially if plants can get shade during the afternoon.
- Soil– Arugula will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, so don’t think your soil has to be perfect. However, the ideal soil is well-drained and moderately rich. Add compost or a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer before planting for the best results.
- Temperature– As stated already, arugula loves cool weather and will struggle in the heat. Ideal growing temperatures are between 45-65°.
- Spacing– You can grow arugula plants fairly close together, especially if you plan to harvest often. For full-sized plants and leaves, space them 6-8 inches apart.
How to Plant Arugula Seeds
Before planting your seeds, get your garden spot ready by weeding, clearing out debris, and raking the top of the soil so it’s smooth. If you’re starting seeds indoors, fill up seeding trays with a good quality seed starting mix.
Arugula seeds are small and should be planted only about ¼ inch deep. Sow seeds about 1 inch apart in rows that are spaced 10-12 inches apart. Alternatively, you can simply broadcast your seeds over the whole area and press them down into the soil (you’ll thin them later).
Planting arugula in rows will make it easier to harvest later. You can plant seeds close together because you’ll be thinning plants out once they get larger. Feel free to grow arugula seeds with other salad greens to make your own salad mix.
If you are planting indoors in trays, sow one seed per cell ¼ inch deep. Wherever you planted your seeds, water them well afterwards and keep the soil damp as they germinate.
Arugula seeds are quick to germinate, and you should see seedlings popping up in just a few days. To make sure you have a continuous harvest later on, keep sowing seeds every 2-3 weeks throughout the spring.
Arugula Plant Care
Caring for Seedlings
The two biggest things you can do for your arugula seedlings are watering and weeding.
Small plants don’t have deep root systems yet, so you’ll need to water them before the soil dries out. Always water the soil around your plants and avoid getting the leaves wet because wet leaves encourage disease.
When seedlings get a few inches tall, thin them to a spacing of 4-6 inches. This keeps them from getting overcrowded, and you get to eat the plants you thinned as microgreens!
You’ll also want to keep your arugula weed free as it grows so that nothing is competing with the seedlings for nutrients and water. Make sure to weed gently so that you don’t accidently pull up any plants.
As your plants continue to get bigger, watering is still one of the most important tasks you can do. Arugula will keep growing in dry conditions, but the leaves will become more bitter and unpleasant tasting.
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You don’t need to drown your plants, but make sure they get consistent water throughout the growing season.
Plants will start to slow their growth and bolt as temperatures rise in the summer. Leaves will still be edible but quickly become tough and bitter. To delay this, you can put up some shade cloth over your plants in the summer, or give them some sort of complete shade during the afternoon.
Pests and Problems
Because arugula grows quickly, you can often get a good harvest without any pest or disease problems. However, some pests like flea beetles, slugs, and cabbage worms may show up at some point.
Slugs do the most damage when conditions are cool and damp, which is usually in the spring. Make sure you protect seedlings from slugs by surrounding them with crushed egg shells or diatomaceous earth. Use slug traps if necessary.
Flea beetles also emerge in spring when temperatures hit about 50°F. You may not even see these tiny insects, but you’ll start noticing little pinprick holes in the leaves of your arugula. Flea beetles often won’t do enough damage to warrant action, but covering your plants with floating row covers is the best way to protect them if the damage gets severe.
You may get through the whole season without noticing any pests on your arugula. However, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your plants because something can spring up at any time.
Cabbage worms and cabbage loopers come out a little later, and you may avoid them by planting early. If not, use floating row covers to protect your plants and handpick any worms you see.
Bigger pests like rabbit, deer, and groundhogs may be a bigger danger to your arugula, especially when it’s small and tender. Take measures to keep them out of your garden!
How to Harvest Arugula
When to Harvest
Arugula can be harvested at two different stages: baby leaf stage and mature leaf stage.
Many people prefer baby arugula over the larger version because it’s more tender and less bitter. It still has a spicy flavor but isn’t overwhelming.
Baby arugula leaves are usually ready to harvest about 3-4 weeks after planting. Just keep an eye on your plants to see when the leaves get 2-4 inches long. Don’t wait too long to pick them when they get to this stage because they grow quickly.
Full-sized arugula leaves pack more of a punch and will give you a lot more arugula to work with. They also stand up better to being cooked.
Plants will reach mature size 5-7 weeks after seeds are sown. Check to see how fast the specific variety you planted grows because the exact time frame depends a lot on the cultivar.
The best time of day to harvest arugula is either in the morning or evening. Whenever you harvest, get the freshly picked leaves out of the sun and heat as soon as possible to keep them fresh.
Arugula is best treated as a cut-and-come-again plant. This means that you can pick leaves almost continuously from your arugula plant as long as you leave it time in between to regrow.
To harvest, use a sharp pair of scissors or garden clippers to cut off individual leaves close to the base of the plant. Pick the outer leaves first and let the inner ones keep growing. Be careful not to cut into the crown of the plant, or it may stop producing.
You can pick as many leaves as you want as long as you leave at least ½ of the plant intact. Give each plant a chance to recover its growth before you harvest again.
If you notice that a plant is about to bolt, you can cut the whole thing off at ground level and use any good leaves. Or let it flower and harvest some of the blooms when they open. They have their own peppery flavor and make a great addition to salads and sandwiches.
Extending the Season
If you live somewhere with mild winters, you may be lucky enough to grow arugula all winter without any problems. If you live somewhere with cold winters, it will be a different story.
Don’t forget that arugula flowers are also edible. If your plants bolt too soon, make the most of it by harvesting the flowers when they bloom.
Although it likes cool weather and can take light frosts, arugula won’t make it through a hard freeze. However, there are some ways to extend your growing season.
You can buy or build a cold frame to put around your arugula. A cold frame is basically an unheated greenhouse that warms up with sunshine and provides some protection against freezing temperatures.
You can also try something like a garden quilt or garden fabric to cover plants when temperatures dip below a certain mark. Or mulch them heavily with leaves, pine needles, or straw to give plants extra insulation.
Like many other greens, arugula is best when it’s harvested and used fresh. However, there are still a few ways to store it for later.
For short-term storage, you can wrap bunches of leaves in a damp paper towel and place them in a perforated plastic bag. Then, put the whole bundle in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. The leaves should keep for 7-10 days when stored this way.
For longer storage, you can blanch and freeze arugula, although it doesn’t keep its flavor as well in the freezer as other greens do.
Arugula will always taste best when it’s freshly harvested from your garden, but you can refrigerate or freeze it to preserve any extras that you have.
A better option is to make arugula into something like a pesto and freeze it this way. Or chop it up and cover with olive oil before freezing to retain the maximum amount of flavor. You can freeze it in shallow containers or ice cube trays.
Enjoying Your Hard Work
Now that you know all about growing and caring for your arugula plant (or plants), you can enjoy the fruits of your labor! Though salad is the most popular use for arugula, you can also use it on pizza, in omelets, and in many more creative ways.
You can also learn how to grow other leafy greens like Swiss chard, kale, spinach, and lettuce. Or try growing something like tomatoes or bell peppers to fill in during the summer heat when arugula won’t grow.