Arugula Plant Profile

Harvesting Arugula
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Arugula is one of those vegetables people either love or hate. It tends to have a musky odor and taste that can put off some people, while others find its peppery bite very refreshing. Don't feel bad if you aren't fond of arugula; you are in good company. Julia Child loathed it.

Arugula is a leafy vegetable with irregular, lobed leaves that are tender and delicious when small and young, but which turn bitter as they age. The taste is said to be peppery or mustardy, and the leaves are often added raw to salads or as a garnish on sandwiches or added to stir-fries or soups.

As a cool-season leafy vegetable, arugula is usually planted either in the spring for early summer harvest, or in the late summer for fall harvest. It is a fast-growing vegetable that matures in 40 to 50 days.

How to Grow Arugula
Botanical Name Eruca versicaria subsp. sativa
Common Name Arugula, rocket, roquette
Plant Type Annual vegetable
Mature Size 12 in. tall; 12-in. spread 
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Humus-rich, well-draining
Soil pH Sightly acidic to neutral (6.0 to 7.0)
Hardiness Zone Annual plant; grown in zones 3 to 11 
Native Area Mediterranean region
Toxicity Non-toxic

How to Plant Arugula

Arugula is a fast-growing green that is perfect for the early spring garden, but it can also be planted in the late summer for a fall harvest.

You can find nursery seedlings of arugula, but it is usually started from seed. You can start seed indoors four to six weeks before your last frost date, but arugula seed can handle chilly soil, and you might want to wait and direct-seed in the garden one to two weeks before your last frost date. Succession plant a new batch every couple of weeks, to prolong your harvest and take advantage of its short season.

Start by scattering the seeds over prepared soil, then press them down firmly. The seeds are small and should barely be covered with soil. As the seeds germinate and begin to grow, thin the seedlings to a 4- to 6-inch spacing. You can use the thinned seedlings on salads or other culinary applications.

Arugula Care

Light

As long as the temperatures stay cool, full sun is the best exposure. As the weather warms, arugula appreciates part shade, especially in the afternoon.

Soil

Arugula isn't a picky plant, so it will grow in most types of soil. It grows best in well-draining but moist soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0.

Water

The biggest maintenance chore is keeping your arugula well watered. Regular water will keep plants from bolting too quickly.

Temperature and Humidity

Arugula likes cool weather—45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal—but it can be damaged or stressed by frost or snow. Keep the row covers handy and protect your plants if extreme cold weather is predicted.

If you are surprised with a sudden heatwave, try to shade the plants, in addition to keeping them watered. Plant later seedings in the shade of taller plants, like tomatoes and beans.

Fertilizer

Arugula grows so fast that a single application of a high-nitrogen fertilizer or rich compost mixed into the soil at planting time is usually all that is needed. Additional feeding is required only if the leaves are light green and clearly undernourished, as sometimes happens in very poor soil. Like other leafy vegetables, nitrogen is the key nutrient for arugula.

Varieties of Arugula

  • 'Apollo' is a Dutch heirloom with smooth, oval leaves and a milder flavor. It holds up fairly well in the heat. 'Apollo' matures in 40 to 45 days.
  • 'Astro II' is another milder arugula that matures early, in 35 to 38 days.
  • 'Olive Leaf': Also known as 'Rucola Selvatica A Foglia Di Oliva', this is a wild, Italian type. It has an intense, but not overpowering, flavor. It matures in 45 to 50 days.
  • 'Sylvetta' has narrow, spicy leaves and is slow to bolt. Germination to maturity takes 45 to 50 days.

Harvesting

You can start harvesting young leaves when they are about 3 inches long. Harvest just a few outer leaves as a cut and come again variety, and allow the rosette to continue growing. Mature plants can be harvested as a head, just above the soil line. Depending on the weather, they may re-sprout and fill back in.

Once the plants bolt by sending up flower stalks, the leaves tend to turn bitter. But don't be too quick to yank out the plants; the flowers pack a lot of flavor without the heat of the leaves.

Young leaves are very tender and are best eaten fresh, in salads or on sandwiches. Older leaves are also great when eaten fresh, and they make nice additions to stir-fries, egg dishes, or soups. They should be added toward the end of cooking. The fragile flowers can be tossed on top of salads or soups, sprinkled on sandwiches— and even added to drinks.

Common Pests and Diseases

Being a Brassica, arugula has a host of pests that love it. Luckily it has a short growing season, and it is out of the garden by the time most insects start arriving. If you find it to be necessary, place row cover tunnels over the plantings. Slugs do the most damage, but be on the lookout for eggs of cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and the diamondback moth, as well as aphids and flea beetles.