Nothing beats a summertime omelet of duck eggs, goat cheese, and fresh herbs piled on a high bed of rocket lettuce (aka arugula). If you’ve never tried it, you’re missing out. So, treat yourself to a hot cup of coffee and a summertime omelet on arugula, your breakfast expectations will never be the same.
Suddenly, you’ll start to wonder why you don’t have a whole bed of summery, green rocket growing in the garden. Let’s plant some today to save you the disappointment, okay?
Arugula by Any Other Name
It took me a while to realize that arugula (Eruca sativa) is commonly known as “rocket lettuce”, especially in the UK. Technically, rocket lettuce isn’t a lettuce at all, but a brassica. That means it’s part of the cabbage family, with broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts. This sneaky, name-changing, green, garden staple is a quick grower. You can plant a bed of arugula and start harvesting within the month!
Rocket lettuce has a long and dramatic history in the west. Virgil considered it an aphrodisiac, as did many a medieval abbot. In fact, during the Middle Ages, many monasteries forbade arugula and cultivated milder greens instead.
These days, rocket is a favorite of health-conscious foodies. Pile it on top of grass-fed burgers with homemade asiago and onion buns, or wrap it up with falafel and tangy cucumber sauce. It’s also a fabulous topping for pizza, with buttery burrata and sun-dried tomatoes. You get the idea. Arugula is a bit fierce: it’s a green with attitude and just the barest hint of scandal, but let’s be honest—that’s why we love it so much!
Where to Scatter Seeds
Arugula seeds will grow well in a wide variety of different soils. If you want to make your arugula as happy as possible, give it dark, humus-rich, well-drained soil. Plant your seeds in full sun, dappled sunlight, or partial shade.
Full shade is a little too dark for rocket leaves, and if you’re in a hot climate, full sun will wilt them. Like most greens, rocket likes to sunbathe for a while, and then cool off in the shade a bit.
When to Plant
You can put rocket lettuce seeds in the ground as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. Even if the nights are still frosty, your seeds will be ok. Continue planting these seeds every 2-3 weeks throughout the season for a continuous harvest.
This little green grows quickly, and leaves taste best when they’re young too, so start harvesting about 3 weeks after germination. Arugula reaches maturity at around 50 days after germination. You can continue to harvest until then, although the leaves will get a bit tougher and more bitter as they age.
I like to pull up my older leaves at about 4 weeks (or 30 days) after germination. Then the next generation of rocket can take over. If you’ve been re-seeding every couple weeks, you’ll never miss a salad!
You can also sow arugula in late summer or early fall for an autumn harvest. Continue planting until hard frosts end the growing season in early winter.
Planting Rocket Lettuce
I’m a notoriously careless gardener. When I plant rocket, I just scatter the seeds and lightly cover them with topsoil. Naturally, there are better ways to do this. Conscientious growers plat arugula about 1/4 of an inch deep and about an inch apart, in neat rows. Space the rows about 10 inches apart for a beautiful, orderly garden bed of healthy little plants.
This conscientious method gives you plenty of space between rows to re-seed easily. No crowding out new plants or accidentally pulling up fresh arugula when you meant to clean out the old plant for you!
Still, arugula won’t fail if you’re careless. It’ll just be a little more of a jumbled, wild bed of greens. Since seeds germinate within a couple days and grow quickly, repenting of a careless planting is easy. Just harvest several handfuls one day to thin out the mess a bit.
Caring for Your Arugula Bed
Arugula likes the soil to stay evenly moist. Especially during germination, try to keep the soil moist, but not sodden. Don’t drench your rocket lettuce plants, but make sure that you can feel a bit of cool moisture when you touch the soil.
In hot, sunny weather, it’s a good idea to give your plants partial shade with an umbrella or canopy. Too much hot sunlight will produce heat stress, and stressed-out greens tend to bolt.
Since rocket lettuce is such a quick crop, you don’t need to worry about fertilizing at all. In contrast, if you’re growing continuous crops one after the other, you’ll want to refresh the soil at least once during the growing season.
I like to apply a compost tea or a light fish emulsion to the bed about mid-way through the summer. It’s a great, easy way to give the ground a boost. Ideally, apply your compost tea right before a rain storm to avoid ending up with any compost flavors on your rocket leaves.
Dealing with Pests
Since arugula is a part of the cabbage family, it’s vulnerable to many of the same pests that afflict other brassicas. Slugs, cabbage worms, and the dreaded cabbage white butterfly caterpillar are all potential threats.
But, arugula, unlike other brassicas, doesn’t have a long growth span, so it’s not always easy for this pests to intrude on your harvest. If you are planting a continuous harvest though, invest in some preventative measures.
Set out beer traps in the garden to lure your slugs to an early demise. Try raising guinea fowl to combat cabbage worms and caterpillars. If pests are consistently plaguing your plants, change location. Plant your next round of rocket in a bed on the other side of the garden and give your pests a disappointing surprise.
Grow arugula with garlic as another way to keep away pests. Alliums are notorious for keeping away destructive animals, whether they’re deer or slugs.
Arugula also shares space well with nasturtiums, onions, thyme, and beans. Pick other plants that like a bit of shade at times and cool breezes.
Avoid planning rocket lettuce with other brassicas because they all attract the same pests. You definitely don’t want to set out an all-you-can-eat buffet for caterpillars and slugs, right? Additionally, arugula and strawberry plants aren’t the best companions either. But that’s ok, you probably have your strawberries in a pretty strawberry pot or planter, right?
Harvesting Rocket Lettuce
One of the simplest ways to harvest arugula is just to go out with a basket and a pair of scissors. Mow down a little row of rocket lettuce and fill the basket. Just note that this vegetable doesn’t store well longer than a day or two, so harvest what you need and don’t bother stocking up.
Don’t be afraid to harvest the flowers. Older arugula will start to produce pretty, little, white edible blossoms. They taste a lot like the leaves, but a bit gentler. Throw them into a salad with some nasturtium flowers, violets, and pansies: it’ll be both gorgeous and delicious.
You can also harvest arugula by pulling up the whole plant, rinsing off the dirt, and plucking out any roots that are too obvious. This is a great way to harvest older rocket lettuce. It clears out your row for fresh planting and fills your salad bowl with good things.
If you decide to save some rocket seeds for future planting, you have to let the plant grow to maturity. After about 50-60 days, your plants with sprout seed heads. Leave those seed heads out it the sun, drying on the plant for a few days if you have good weather.
Then, cut the whole stem and seed head from the plant. Let the seed head dry out until the seeds are too hard for you to dent with a fingernail. Then, put as many as you can fit in a large paper bag, and make sure to push all the air out of the bag before closing it up. Then set it on the floor and tread on it for a while to crunch up the dried seed heads and release the seeds.
After that, you can either leave the crushed, dried pods in the bag with the seeds and store them as they are, or you can clean the seeds. To clean arugula seeds, place them on a fine screen and winnow away the chaff.
Dried arugula seeds can last in a cool, dry place for up to six years. However, they will have the best germination rate within the first two years. Store them in a dark jar or in a paper bag. If your summers get hot, try storing the seeds in the back of your pantry, or in a drawer to prevent heat damage.
Cool Weather Abundance
Because of its ability to thrive in cool, early spring and late fall temperatures, rocket lettuce bookends the growing season with its subtly spicy flavor. It adds variety and excitement to summer salads and is one of the first springtime crops in northern climates.
It’s easy to grow, low maintenance, and full of interesting flavors. Plant some and embrace the funky foodie within!