Arugula is the perfect cool-weather crop for anyone who wants to add zest and interest to their salads and recipes.
It’s easy to grow in cooler weather and can be grown twice a year in many locations. Arugula is also fast-growing and fairly small so it’s perfectly suited to container gardens, patio gardens, or any small space you want to turn into your very own salad bar.
Arugula is a peppery, crisp leafy green that often provides the spice in mesclun salad mixes. It’s incredibly easy to grow and will reward you with a harvest just 4 weeks after planting it.
Also going by the names of rocket and roquette, arugula has a fascinating history. The leaves and the oil from the seeds were once considered an aphrodisiac and also had medicinal purposes. Today, most gardeners grow the plants just to enjoy eating them.
Here’s what you need to know about how to plant and grow arugula in your garden, plus potential problems to watch out for.
What is arugula?
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Arugula (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa) is a member of the Brassica family of plants, which makes it closely related to vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and mustard greens (another spicy salad green).
Like other Brassicas, arugula prefers cool weather to grow in. It’s grown as an annual for its leaves, although the flowers are edible as well.
The taste of arugula ranges from mildly peppery to a pretty good kick of spice, depending on the variety you’re growing and other factors. The leaves also develop bitterness as they get larger and older.
This is one of the reasons baby arugula is popular at stores. Small leaves are usually more tender and mild.
Because it grows in the same conditions as many other salad greens, you can easily grow arugula in with other leafy vegetables and make your own salad mix. No more paying $7 a box for salad mix that’s half slimy!
Arugula growing conditions
Learning how to plant and grow arugula is great for beginner gardeners because it’s a vegetable that requires little care and is easy to grow. Still, every plant has certain needs or it won’t grow well.
Here are the most important growing tips for keeping your arugula happy:
Arugula is a cool weather crop.
Arugula loves cool weather and can even tolerate light frosts. Avoid trying to grow it in the heat of midsummer, or you’ll be disappointed with your results.
Some varieties of arugula are more heat-tolerant. So-called wild arugual, or Italian wild arugula, are less prone to bolting in heat. Consider selecting one of these if you live in a place where spring tends to come quickly.
Arugula needs full sun.
Like many vegetables, arugula grows best in full sun. The one exception to this is if you are trying to grow it in a warm climate. In this case, plants will benefit from a little shade, especially during the afternoon.
Add compost to your soil before planting arugula.
There aren’t any special soil requirements for growing arugula, but it will do much better with a good supply of nutrients. Compost is often the best way to give plants the nutrients they need, but you can also use a slow-release fertilizer.
Practice crop rotation.
Avoid planting arugula where other Brassica plants were last year. Planting related crops in the same spot each year causes diseases and pests to build up in the soil, giving you problems later on.
This can be easier said than done because the Bracissa family is large and full of cool season favorites. If you’ve planted a lot of cole crops, make sure to keep an eye on them to watch out for shared pest such as cabbage worms, flea beetles, and aphids.
Luckily, arugula’s fast growth means it sits in the garden for less time than other, slower-growing Bracissas so it has less time to attract pests.
Arugula Varieties to Try
Many arugula cultivars have been developed to enhance flavor, speed up growth, and slow bolting. Here are a few of the top ones to try:
How to Plant and Grow Arugula
Arugula is very easy to grow from seed, and this is the option most gardeners choose. You can simply order or pick up a packet of seeds and sow them directly into your garden at the right time.
When to plant arugula
Planting time mainly depends on what time of year your region gets cool (not cold) weather. For many gardeners, this will be in either the spring or fall.
To plant in spring, you can start your seeds as soon as the soil can be worked. This usually works out to about 1-2 weeks before your last average frost. The idea is to wait until hard frosts have passed but get your seeds out while light frosts are still a possibility.
You can also start arugula seeds indoors, or even grow the plants indoors if you have a large window or grow lights. Because arugula grows quickly, most people don’t start seeds inside, but it’s a great way to get larger harvests out of a small garden.
Many people start their seeds in degradable seed starter trays or peat pots, then transplant the whole biodegradable pot. Although they’re popular and easy to find, they’re not my favorite. The pots tend to not break down as readily as you’d guess, which can hinder root development.
My favorite way to start seeds is by using Root Riot cubes. They’re a hydroponic grow medium, but also work very well for starting plants for soil. When you’re ready to transplant, just scoop the whole grow medium cube out of your tray and plant it in the ground! The photo below shows kohlrabi seeds I started indoors in Root Riot cubes:
I light my seedlings with an inexpensive clip on grow light. It isn’t super powerful, but it’s enough to get the seeds going for a few weeks before you place your plants outside. I prefer smaller clip-on LED grow lights for seed starting because the small pods dry out very quickly under my larger grow light panel
To plant for a fall harvest, sow your seeds in late summer or very early in the fall. You want your plants to have time to mature before a hard frost comes through. If you have a long, hot summer, you can start seeds indoors for transplanting when the weather finally turns cool.
If you live somewhere with mild winters where temperatures don’t dip below 22-25°F, you can sow arugula throughout the fall and harvest it all winter long.
If you see an unexpected dip into the teens in the weather forecast, throw a piece of clear plastic sheeting over your rocket plants or cover them with a floating row cover for frost protection.
Because arugula is cold tolerant, it’s a great candidate for growing in a cold frame or poly tunnel all winter long. For great ideas on how to garden all year long on a budget, make sure to read The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener. It’s a fun, modern book about gardening all year long, no matter where you live. The author lives in Canada – if she can garden in winter, you can, too!
- No matter where you live or what season it is (even winter), you can enjoy fresh produce right from your garden with this helpful book.
- Full of techniques for year-round growing and harvesting. Gives you information for what to plan and when.
- Explains the equipment you need during the cold seasons.
How to Grow Arugula from Seed
When it’s time, start by preparing the area of your garden where you want your arugula to be.
Weed the area, add compost, and rake out the soil surface so it’s smooth. As an alternative, you can also plant your arugula in long, shallow containers for easy access and harvesting.
Then, sow your seeds about ¼” deep and 1” apart. Or simply scatter your seeds over the top of the soil and plan to thin them out later. The seeds are very small.
Water the area where you planted your seeds and keep the soil moist as they germinate. Germination for arugula usually takes 7-10 days, so you should see seedlings popping up in about a week.
Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them so that they are 6” apart. You can eat any sprouts you thin out!
To get a continuous harvest in the coming months, keep sowing seeds every 2-3 weeks so that you’ll have new plants coming up when other ones are getting old. Make sure to plant a more heat-tolerant variety like astro as warmer weather approaches.
Caring for your arugulaplants
In general, you can pretty much ignore your arugula plants and they’ll grow well without you. However, there are two important tasks you can do: weeding and watering.
Arugula has a shallow root system, which means that weeds can easily steal nutrients and water away from the plants. Weed regularly around plants and be gentle so that you don’t bother the root system of plants that are getting established.
A shallow root system also means that your plants aren’t going to go deep in search of water. You should water them regularly when rain is lacking so that the leaves stay tender and plants don’t start bolting.
Keep in mind that container-grown arugula will need watered more frequently, perhaps every day in hot weather.
When watering seedlings and young plants, especially shallow-rooted ones, it’s important to use a gentle garden watering wand instead of your normal hose nozzle. We wrote an entire post about the best garden watering wands (and let you know which one we personally use in our garden).
Arugula pests and problems
Arugula usually grows so quickly that not much has time to bother it, but there are two likely pest culprits you might run into: slugs and flea beetles. Aphids can also be a problem, especially in Southern states.
Slugs come out in force when the weather is wet. They are especially drawn to mulched areas and small seedlings that are easy to eat. You can combat them by putting crushed egg shells or diatomaceous earth around your plants. Or try some slug traps.
Flea beetles are hard to spot, but they make their presence known by the appearance of tiny holes in the leaves of your plants. They may not cause enough damage to warrant any action, but if they become a nuisance, put floating row covers over your plants.
Arugula is rarely affected by pathogens, but it can develop fungal diseases in damp conditions. Make sure you space plants properly and practice crop rotation to avoid this.
You may also encounter aphids on your arugula. These sap-sucking insects cling in clusters to the bottom of the leaves and stems, sucking phloem from the plants and depriving it of vitality.
At the time of writing, I’m dealing with a severe aphid infestation on my fall turnips and radishes. If I had arugula growing right now , the aphids would probably be attacking it, too. Luckily, aphids are pretty easy to kill with horticultural soap or neem oil. Just make sure to spray generously because even one aphid can start a whole new colony!
Now that you know how to plant and grow arugula, it won’t be long before you can start harvesting. The leaves are best harvested small, when they are about 2-4” long.
You can harvest arugula by pulling up the whole plant when it gets to the right size or by harvesting just the outer leaves to keep the plants growing. Tear or cut leaves off at the base to harvest them.
Once plants start to flower, the leaves will still be edible but become very, very bitter. If you see flower heads forming, plan to harvest the last of the leaves from your plants before they bloom.
Arugula flowers are also edible. Depending on the variety, they may be more or less bitter than the leaves. Some people actually prefer arugula flowers to arugula leaves, so give them a try!
Whether or not you decide to eat arugula leaves, do yourself a favor and get a worthwhile salad spinner. After years of battling a cheap, crummy salad spinner, I got the OXO Little Salad and Herb spinner. I love it and use it literally every day (I’m a weirdo who eats kale for breakfast…). It holds enough for a generous salad for two and doesn’t take up all your cabinet space. My daughter hasn’t even managed to break it, so it holds up well to frequent, rough use.
- The Little Herb and Salad Spinner 4.0 is simple to use: just pump to spin your herbs or lettuce dry
- Patented brake stops immediately with a simple press. BPA free, Material : Plastic
- Soft, non-slip pump locks flat for compact storage and the non-slip base keeps the Spinner steady on countertops
If you love the bright, spicy taste of arugula, it’s time to add it to your garden! Getting the hang of how to plant and grow arugula couldn’t be easier, and it’s a very rewarding vegetable to grow.
Plant it on its own or mixed in with greens like lettuce, spinach, mustard, and endive to make your own colorful salad mixes.
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.