It’s too bad more people don’t like arugula.
Called “rocket” in Great Britain and “roquette” in France, this member of the brassica family is one tough little plant.
It is versatile, too, useful for salads and tasty when paired with eggs in omelets and frittatas. Arugula can be served as a cooked green, lightly sautéed in olive oil with minced onions and garlic. It even makes an interesting basil substitute for pesto.
This piquant green grows through all four seasons in Western North Carolina. It achieves star status, however, during the summer and winter months when other vegetables struggle against heat or cold.
As most gardeners know, growing lettuce in hot weather is a vexatious undertaking, an exercise in frustration best reserved for those desirous of building resilience against adversity.
Lettuce is difficult to germinate. Breaking the seeds’ dormancy requires light and soil temperatures below about 85 degrees. Once germinated, if lettuce is not frequently watered and given some shade, it acquires a disagreeable bitter taste and bolts. This is a natural process from the plants’ point of view, the change when energy goes into seed and not leaf production, but is entirely unhelpful to the gardener who wants to harvest leaves.
Arugula is easy to germinate. It needs watering once or twice a week. Reseeded every two to three weeks through the spring, summer, fall and early winter, arugula serves as a more than satisfactory replacement for lettuce.
I sow arugula seed thickly, broadcasting (scattering) them liberally across a prepared bed. Using the back of a rake, the seed is pressed shallowly into the soil and the bed watered and kept moist.
Arugula is at its most succulent when grown to just 3- to 4-inches tall and harvested; the quickest method is to use scissors and sheer the tops of the plants. Except in the dead of winter, there’s typically adequate regrowth from a single planting for three or so harvests.
Flea beetles, that pernicious pest, aren’t particularly interested in young arugula. When mature, however, a planting does need protecting; row cover, a light fabric similar to tulle, works beautifully. The fabric is draped over the arugula, with or without supports, and the covers’ edges secured tightly by being either buried in the soil or weighted down.
In the winter months, a heavier grade of row cover helps to protect arugula from drying winds, as well as provide a few degrees of frost protection.
There’s a wild version of arugula sold as Sylvetta. It is said to be even tougher than its cultivated cousin, though a less-dependable germinator. I’ve got a couple of seed packs to try this winter.
If all of arugula’s aforementioned virtues weren’t enough, it can serve the gardener as a green manure, helping to suppress nematode levels, among other benefits.
Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.