Arugula has been trending these past few years. You can bet if you turn on a cooking show, they’ll probably be using arugula at some point. Many chefs and hip restaurants have made this leafy green with a peppery zing very popular. It is now commonly found in grocery stores throughout the Midwest.
While arugula may be having a heyday, this is not the first time human civilization has been enamored with this tasty green. The herbal of Dioscorides from Greece in the first century lauds arugula as “provoking venery,” which is a term I had to look up, and is something that I would prefer not put in print. Dioscorides also said arugula is “good for ye belly.” (Based on a 1655 English translation by John Goodyear)
Arugula, also known as rocket, has been a staple in Mediterranean cuisine and also can be found historically in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian dishes.
The arugula that most shoppers buy at the grocery store likely comes from California. Many local vendors at farmers markets may grown and sell arugula alone, or combine it with other greens as part of a mesclun mix. However, gardeners can easily grow arugula at home.
Arugula is a cool season crop, meaning it does best in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Summer heat and long days trigger the plant to flower, known as bolting. While the flowers are still edible, they tend to concentrate arugula’s peppery flavor and can be unappetizing. In addition, because arugula is an annual, flowering signals the end of the plant’s life cycle.
Arugula germinates readily from seed sown directly in the ground in early spring to early fall, and it is very cold hardy. Most types of arugula can survive 22 degrees F. Arugula protected in a cold frame or low tunnel could possibly survive the entire winter in the Midwest.
Arugula grown in the summer can be harvested within 20 days of seeding, while in the spring and fall harvesting will occur 30 to 40 days after seeding. To harvest, cut arugula leaves with scissors or sharp knife. Harvest regrowth as it occurs. Fall-grown arugula can go through multiple harvests into the next spring when the plant bolts.
Arugula does need well-drained soil as it can develop root rot in heavy clay or poorly drained areas. Flea beetles can be a routine problem on arugula. Flea beetles eat arugula leaves giving them a shot-hole appearance. Spring and summer grown arugula tend to have the greatest flea beetle pressure. I’ve found that growing arugula in fall has almost no problems with flea beetles as these pests vanish with the onset of cooler temperatures. Physical exclusion with floating row covers can help keep flea beetles off of the plants during the spring and summer.
Arugula has become a staple in my garden for the past two years and I have enjoyed this easy-to-grow crop. While the flea beetles can be a nuisance, the arugula still tastes good, even with leaves covered in tiny holes. My favorite is arugula on a fried egg, or toss a handful of arugula greens on pizza fresh out of the oven.
Chris Enroth is a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.