Arugula Is the Easiest Leafy Green to Grow
Not only is it a popular green that restaurants seem to put on everything, arugula is also super easy to start from seed and grow in your kitchen garden. After living and growing in many different climates, I can attest that arugula is one of those super greens that just keeps producing until the ground is frozen. Plus, you can harvest a ton from every little plant.
If you're not sold yet, read up on the 15 benefits of growing your own arugula, before scrolling down to learn how to plant, grow, and harvest your own peppery arugula leaves.
Arugula's growing season
When to Plant Arugula
Arugula is a member of the brassica family, along with kale, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, and several other dark leafy greens that are so good for you. This family is a cool-weather bunch, but arugula is that one member of the family that tends to do its own thing—every family has one of those, right?
Even though your seed packet might tell you to grow arugula in the cool season when the temperatures are above freezing but below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, I've found you can stretch arugula's growing season well into your colder and hotter months of the year. Arugula is just not very picky about temperature. It’s way more heat-tolerant than most salad greens, and it can even withstand some frost.
All that to say, you can grow arugula far outside of its optimal growing time, and in warmer climates, you can actually grow this green year round.
Growing arugula in warmer climates
My Rooted Garden clients in Houston, Texas, are harvesting arugula leaves from their gardens even when the temperature spikes over 95 degrees and all other leafy greens have long since bolted and gone to seed. Few other plants can stand the heat quite like this little green, and this characteristic alone makes arugula a must-have when you’re missing that garden-fresh taste of salads in the hottest months of the year.
If you're somewhere warm, wait until temperatures are at least below 90 degrees to plant your arugula. A mature plant will be able to better withstand higher temps than a seedling. I typically planted arugula in September in Houston so that I could harvest leaves all fall and into the winter. If I planted seeds in June or July, I would put them in the shade under larger plants like tomatillos and peppers.
Growing arugula in colder climates
If you live somewhere a bit colder, you can plant arugula before your last frost date, as soon as your soil is workable. Using frost cloth or cold frames will protect your little arugula seedlings from frost damage.
In the Chicago area, I plant arugula seeds as early as February. Arugula leaves from seeds I plant in early February are among the first cool-season plants I get to harvest by late March. My goal is to continue growing the plants throughout the spring, summer, and fall, for at least eight months total of arugula leaf production. I'll continue planting arugula all the way until I'm four to six weeks out from my anticipated first frost date of the fall. That means I can keep going until late November or so, especially if I use a frost cover over my beds.
Arugula's ideal growing location
Where to Grow Arugula
Broccoli, cauliflower, and kale might require a lot of space in your garden, but arugula is the weird cousin, remember? Its entire growth pattern is different than typical brassica family members. It can grow bigger if you let it reach full maturity, but it's also perfectly fine being grown in a small space if its leaves are harvested frequently. Following my intensive planting methods, you can plant as many as 9 to 16 plants per square foot, depending on how frequently you plan to harvest the leaves.
Arugula can be grown in raised beds, containers, and even pots. It has a shallow root system, so you only need to give the roots a good six inches to stretch down, though 12 inches is always preferable if you have a container that deep. (Explore my list of the best containers for growing salad greens if you need some inspiration for your arugula setup.)
As far as light requirements go, again, arugula is pretty easy going. You'll get better leaf production if you give your arugula plants six or more hours of sunlight per day, but your plant will live and continue to grow on just four hours.
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Now, let's sow some seeds
How to Plant Arugula
I recommend growing arugula from seed as opposed to buying a starter plant from a nursery or garden center. Those plants sown directly into the place where they'll grow will quickly catch up to stressed-out store plants. (Plus, you can buy like 200 arugula seeds for $4, the same price you'd pay for one starter plant.)
Arugula should be planted directly by seed into the garden or container where it will grow.
Arugula seeds look like kale seeds, which is to say, they’re tiny. The simplest way to sow these seeds is to take a bunch between your fingers and rub your hands together to scatter the seeds over your raised bed or container, right on top of the soil. Use your hand to rough up the soil a bit after. You don’t want to bury arugula seed too deep—it really just needs to make soil contact.
If planting intensively is not for you or if you'd like to have each plant grow to its full maturity, then you'll need to space each teeny tiny seed about four inches from one another in staggered lines.
Arugula loves growing in compost, so you can always add a thin layer of fresh compost over your newly planted arugula seeds, just be sure not to bury them too deep.
Water your seeds in well, and you’ll start to see seedlings emerge in six to ten days.
Time to cut some fresh leaves
How to Harvest Arugula
If you grow cauliflower, kale, or broccoli, you're looking at a fairly long time before you can enjoy harvests, but you'll be cutting your first arugula leaves just 30 to 45 days after sowing your seeds. Australians and Brits don't call arugula "rocket" because of how fast it grows, but the name certainly fits.
Average time to harvest arugula leaves based on size
- arugula microgreens: 14 days
- arugula baby greens: 3 to 4 weeks
- mature arugula leaves: 6 weeks
If you've planted intensively, then know that you'll need to begin harvesting leaves before the plants reach their full maturity. Most people prefer the taste of arugula leaves when they're only three to four inches in length anyways.
One way to harvest arugula is to use needle nose pruners to cut the older, outer leaves. You'll work one stem at a time, right at the base of the plant, careful to leave the newer leaves at the center of the plant to keep on growing. I harvest this way when plants are just starting out to preserve younger leaves, though this method is definitely more time-intensive.
Another way to harvest is what I call the ponytail-chop method. Grab a bunch of leaves in your hand like you’re gathering hair for a ponytail and cut all the leaves at once at the base, leaving only about one to two inches of greens at the bottom. You’ll take all the older leaves this way but leave the baby leaves coming up from the very center of the plants to now have a chance to grow with more airflow. This method is similar to what commercial farmers do to harvest many leaves at once.
A word of caution with the ponytail chop: We want to be able to come back and get as many harvests as possible from each plant, right? That’s why you want to avoid cutting too deep on the plant. Leaving one or two inches is usually enough to keep the plant growing and producing.
Harvest from a couple plants at a time and then visit different plants the next time you're in the mood for some tasty leaves.
Just from one little area, you’ll have enough arugula to add to wraps or salads, throw on top of a pizza, or even make pesto.
Once arugula leaves grow too large, I tend to no longer enjoy them fresh. If you've left your leaves on the plant a little too long, don't worry. You can still braise them in some grape seed oil or balsamic vinegar and throw them into a sauce pan to wilt. This will take less than a minute, and it’s the perfect thing to throw on top of pasta.
That’s all there is to it!
Now, if you’re saying, “But, Nicole, what about the soil and the watering and all that stuff?”, head over to Gardenary 365 and start your first month of membership. Inside Gardenary 365, you'll find our complete online gardening course library, including our popular course, Salad Garden School. This course is designed to help you set up beds and teach you how to find success growing organic salad leaves. You’ll find everything you need to grow arugula with me the right way!
Once you've mastered arugula, work your way down our list of the top ten salad greens to grow in your garden. You'll experience flavors unlike any you can find in the grocery store and even in many restaurants!
Thanks for bringing back the salad garden with me!