Growing Rocket in Your Vegetable Garden

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Rocket

The number one leafy green in my garden is not lettuce or spinach, but the rustic Mediterranean green known as arugula or rocket (Eruca sativa). Much more than just another green, rocket leads a double life as a weed-smothering companion to my onions in spring. In autumn, rocket becomes an edible green manure. When chopped and turned into the soil or heaped upon the compost pile in either season, rocket leaves become a natural biofumigant, suppressing diseases with their mustard oil glucosinolates.

It wasn't always like this. My love affair with rocket got off to a rocky start, because with my first crop I waited until the leaves grew large to pick them. By then they tasted like burned tires, but a gardening friend urged me to try again, but to harvest baby rocket next time. I'm glad I persisted, because young rocket leaves are truly delicious in salads, sandwiches, and pureed into pesto. Even better, I soon discovered that rocket is one of the few spring greens that will produce mature seeds in time for replanting in fall.

“Rocket

How to Grow Rocket

Starting with a packet of seeds, plant arugula by scattering the seeds over a prepared garden bed and patting them into place with your hand. Under good conditions the seeds will sprout in only a few days. As soon as I have thinned seedlings to 4 inches (10 cm) apart, I place a row cover tunnel over rocket plantings I plan to use as salad greens. Garden fleece is the only way to prevent flea beetles from finding the plants and peppering them with holes, and I like my salad rocket to be picture perfect.

Flea beetles do mar the leaves of rocket grown as a companion crop to spring onions, but the holes magically disappear when the leaves are cooked. This is the destiny of my big spring crop of rocket grown in the onion patch. Washed, chopped and steamed, the tender greens form the foundation for rocket recipes such as my favorite, rocket pesto.

Under row cover or between onions, the spring rocket crop passes quickly as lengthening days trigger the plants to bolt, and leaf quality deteriorates as the plants grow tall and produce flowers. Rocket flower buds and flowers are edible, and the petals are particularly good when snipped into summer salads.

Rocket and onions

I pull up or turn under bolted rocket plants in spring, leaving behind at least one pair of plants to produce seeds for my fall crop. As starry rocket flowers give way to fat seed pods, I often provide stakes to keep the hip-high seed spikes up off the ground. When the seedpods turn tan and start popping open in August, I gather and store some seeds for replanting the next spring, and then crunch the seed-bearing branches over places where I want to grow rocket for autumn harvest. The fresh seeds show their eagerness to grow by germinating overnight.

When grown in autumn, cool autumn weather helps rocket keep its eating quality for weeks rather than days, and rocket plants show little interest in bolting when days are getting shorter rather than longer. Best of all, flea beetles are much less active in fall, so autumn rocket grows without aggravation from the little chewers.

Garden Arugula Recipes

The first tender rocket leaves of spring go into salads, usually mixed with lettuce to balance rocket's rich, smoky flavour. Rocket salads need not be elaborate because the greens deliver so much flavour. My rocket salad blueprint includes a soft cheese or olives for saltiness, some fruit for sweetness, and toasted nuts for crunch. From there I match the dressing to the flavours in the rest of the meal.

Rocket harvest in autumn

Cooked rocket can be substituted for spinach in any recipe, but I prefer to braise coarsely chopped arugula in olive oil with a few cloves of garlic and eat it as a side dish, as Europeans have been doing for thousands of years. Like spinach and chard, rocket can be blanched and frozen, but most of mine end ups as thick green rocket pesto to spread over pizza or focaccia, or to toss with hot pasta or potatoes. Rocket pesto also can be used as a condiment for fish or meat, or as a basis for creamy dips or spreads.

To make rocket pesto for the freezer, I puree cooked rocket ( that has had its excess water squeezed out) with enough olive oil to make a slurry, plus a little sea salt. I spoon the pesto into muffin tins, and move the pucks of pesto to freezer bags when they are frozen hard. Great rocket pesto also includes garlic, cheese and nuts, which don't do well in the freezer. But adding chopped fresh garlic or other ingredients to thawed rocket pesto gives you the makings for many masterful meals.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"Love the way you have incorporated such a great amount of info on a single plant...Thank you! Plus, we often use the edible flowers to garnish salads and such. They are as peppery as the greens and as lovely..."
Kristen on Saturday 11 February 2012
"I appreciate your information and am eager to try your ideas."
Margie Bailey on Saturday 11 February 2012
"This is very interesting. I didn't know about biofumigation. Upon further reading I see that it is necessary to finely chop the plant material before digging it in for the glucosinolates to be released into the soil. How do you normally do this? Apparently it isn't enough to just turn it under. On farms it is recommended to mow it, but in a soft home vegetable bed, this would be a bit difficult... Any advice is surely welcome. "
Marsha on Saturday 11 February 2012
"Marsha, when I want to chop greens into the soil, a manual grass edger (rounded blade on a sraight handle) can make a mess of them fast. Frequently I find on-farm studies that suggest specific techniques which often require machinery. When replicating farming techniques in a home garden seems like too much trouble, I turn to the power of compost for recovering biological riches from rich materials like arugula greens."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 11 February 2012
"Thank you Barbara for your suggestion; the grass edger sounds like an excellent, low-tech solution. While composting the arugula certainly recovers many biological riches, it would not provide the protection against pests and weeds (biofumigation) that I find so intriguing."
Marsha on Saturday 11 February 2012
"I use hedge trimming shears (manual or electric) to cut them into small bits in the garden...works like a charm."
DR-T on Saturday 11 February 2012
"Great article. Arugula (rocket) also has many health benefits. It is a rich source of sulforaphane – a powerful anti-cancer, anti-microbial and even anti-diabetic compound. It’s also a potent trigger for detoxifying blood and cells and helps promote production of cancer-preventative enzymes. It aids digestion and is a source of many vitamins and minerals. There's more info and videos on how to stop it bolting to seed and harvesting at http://themicrogardener.com/need-herbs-in-a-hurry-grow-rocket/."
Anne on Tuesday 14 February 2012
"i want to know lab repport about aurgula"
km.mashar@gmail.com on Sunday 11 March 2012
"KM, which aspect of argula has you curious? The boldface words in the text include some of my research links, but there are more."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 12 March 2012
"I wanted to know a little bit more about the life cycle of rocket, and in the space of a few paragraphs you have answered many of my questions and given me a few other pieces of information that I didn't even know I wanted! Petals and buds being edible is something I never considered, thank you."
Gavin on Monday 17 December 2012
"Thank you Barbera for your useful article.I brought the seeds from London and have tried successfully here in home garden at Karachi, Pakistan. They have not demanded any special care. It has been almost two years now. In the beginning the leaves were fine and big in size. Now the leaves are very thin and long. What can I do to improve the quality. Would appreciate any good advice from any person. "
Syed Aslam Ali on Wednesday 6 March 2013
"Increasing nutrient levels, perhaps by using a bit more fertilizer when you prepare the soil, usually leads to larger leaves on all leafy greens. Season plays a role, too. Young plants grown in spring rarely attain the size of fall-grown arugula plants. "
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 7 March 2013
"I have been raising arugula for years. It is delicious at just about every stage, although the mature leaves can some times become bitter. I grow it in the Spring and Fall as well. The fall crop is usually the best. Even the large stems are crunchy and very tasty. I never bother with lettuce.... arugula is my green! "
Robert Duff on Wednesday 22 May 2013
"Great article! I am growing arugula for the first time on my patio in Boston. They get about 4 hours east sun plus 2 hours of filtered south sun. They are very leggy and have all gone to seed! The spicy bite of my plants' tiny leaves is great with my other more docile greens, mostly oakleaf and butter lettuces. How much sun is too much? I am also growing scarlet runner beans. Could I plant the runner beans n the east side of my arugula planter or would the roots compete? Thank you,"
Chikkinlittle on Monday 10 June 2013
"Sad to say, your arugula has passed its peak and should probably be pulled out to make room for something more productive. Scarlet runners are a good choice for partial shade, and they love summer warmth. For patio greens, you might consider getting a sorrel plant. You harvest only the young leaves, for their lemony sour tang, but they keep coming on all summer, and the perennial plants come back in spring. "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 11 June 2013
"Thanks for the info and recommendations! Pulling flowered rocket and pushing more runner bean seeds!"
Chili little on Wednesday 12 June 2013
"Me and my husband really love the arugula but i wonder if this can be planted in the tropical country like the Philippines? kindly share your idea.. "
Julia on Sunday 4 August 2013
"Julia, you can probably grow baby arugula for salads and sandwiches. As the plants mature their flavor would suffer from humid heat, but young plants will probably be okay."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 5 August 2013
"I just planted my first 'rocket' and it has already started to flower. What does this mean ?"
Max on Saturday 7 September 2013
"Max, arugula can rush to bloom quickly when it's in the mood. I would make another sowing now for plenty of nice greens through autumn."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 9 September 2013
"I have planted the rocket salad close to a year now in two pots as an experiment to see if it would grow in my hot humid island but My aragula plants just seem to wilt n die every so often. Why..? And so far only one is having the chance to grow tall n am sure is going to flower soon if it does die on me. Any answers please??"
Marie on Monday 28 April 2014
"Arugula is a cool-season plant, so it will be difficult to grow in a tropical environment. Keeping the roots cool would be essential to plant health. You are probably seeing wilt diseases because of warm soil temperatures. I suggest trying papalo (Papaloquelite) as an alternative crop. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells seeds, listed among their herbs. The young leaves taste like lemony arugula."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 28 April 2014
"I live in NJ zone 6B/7A. I grow parsley, basil, thyme, sage, oregano chives and chervil, all successfully. For several years now I have planted arugula from seed and it has failed miserably. One year I planted seed according to directions directly into soil in the spring. They sprouted beautifully. The little sprouts turned yellow and disappeared. Next year I decided to try them in a large pot. This time I used 100% sterile commercial potting soil direct from the package. Same thing - turns yellow and disappears. What could I be doing wrong? BTW: I do have flea beetles. They turn my daisy leaves into lace doilies! "
Mike Jarosz on Tuesday 6 January 2015
"What do you mean by "crunch the seed-bearing branches" over places where you want to grow arugula for autumn harvest? I'm new to gardening and I would appreciate knowing what to do now that my plant has started to flower. Thank you!"
Natalie on Saturday 25 June 2016
"I planted arugula in spring but forgot to use the shoots until the white flowers appeared and then I thought it was a weed with pods.I am thankful I found your site now I can make good use of the plants in fall and grow some for food the next time"
lloyd on Sunday 15 July 2018

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