Once you’ve cultivated a taste for arugula, you’ll probably want to eat it as often as possible, dressed very simply as the Italians do.
Arugula (Eruca sativa) is a non-heading, peppery green, also known as rocket or roquette. Popular in Italian cuisine, it’s been cultivated since Greek and Roman times. Usually eaten raw in salads, it can also be made into pesto, sprinkled on a just-cooked pizza or be tossed into hot pasta.
The smell of arugula leaves can be a bit “skunky” (my kids feel the same way about arugula as they do about cilantro) but as I’ve come to love the taste of it, I have come to love its smell as well. Hot weather makes the leaves get spicier. It also makes the plants go to seed pretty quickly. When arugula does start to flower, the plant stops producing new leaves and it’s time for the compost pile.
Arugula leaves are very perishable — they bruise easily and get limp fast – so they’re a perfect crop for the home gardener.
There are many different varieties of arugula and the look, texture and taste of the leaves varies a lot. In my experience, the “wilder” strains are the spiciest. They have longer, thinner, darker green leaves that are deeply cut with sharply pointed ends. The paler, domesticated arugula has thinner, more paddle-like leaves. Apollo is a good example of the latter type. Its leaves are relatively mild and great for arugula-only salads with goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and pears. Last year I bought Apollo from Seed Savers Exchange, but I see it’s also available from Gourmet Seed International. Another arugula I’ve grown is Runway, which is deeper green and has more jagged leaves, but is still quite mild in taste.
It’s rare to see arugula plants for sale in a nursery. That’s because it’s best to grow it from seed yourself. In early spring I sow arugula right in a garden bed, but I have also had good luck growing it in 4×6″ fiber pots. Once the seedlings have two to four leaves, I transplant little clumps of three to five plants into the garden. This works especially well in late summer when soil in the garden beds can be too hot and dry for good germination. Cover the bed with shade cloth and water frequently until the plants get established.
I must admit that I often have trouble growing arugula in the spring. Our weather usually goes from cold to hot in the span of about three weeks, and before I have time to make a salad, the plants go to seed. It helps to choose a relatively cool part of the garden where the plants will get a little shade. As a fall crop, it can’t be beat. Last year I covered my arugula with Garden Quilt in mid-October and was still picking it for salads a month later!