Arugula, tasty green & good for pollinators

Gardeners are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to plant early spring salad greens and arugula should be on the top of any list. Arugula is a tangy tasting cool season salad green in the mustard family that should be planting in early spring here in Central Kansas. This unique green is also known as, rocket, garden rocket, rocketsalad or Italian cress. This multipurpose green is not only a tasty edition to a salad garden, but when left to bolt and flower in early summer, it will provide good forage for pollinators.

How to grow arugula

Arugula is an annual that grows quickly from seed, very similar to radishes. Since arugula can tolerate a light frost it should be planted several weeks before the last frost date in our area. The average last frost date in Central Kansas is usually around April 17th to April 19th.

Average frost dates for Kansas
seedling arugula
arugula seed

Plant arugula seed from mid-March through early April. If you are a gardener who tracks soil temperature, plant arugula when soil temperatures are near or a little above 40 degrees. Tracking soil temperature is a better way to more specifically target the best time to plant arugula since spring temperatures can vary widely from season to season. The K-State Mesonet is a good resource for tracking soil temperatures in your area of Kansas.

Young arugula leaves

Plant seeds in full sun in well drained garden soil, a raised bed, or container. Sow the seeds shallowly since they are small. Make a successive planting two weeks later to extend the harvest. Keep the soil moist to encourage quick germination.

It is ok if the planting is dense since the plants can be used in a cut-and-come-again fashion. It takes 5 to 6 weeks for arugula to reach harvest size. Leaves can be harvested as soon as they are a couple inches long by carefully cutting them at the base. Harvest leaves a few at a time to allow the plant to continue producing new leaves from the main stalk. The tender young leaves have a spicy and pungent flavor often described as tangy, peppery, or mustard like.

By regularly harvesting young leaves the plants will be less likely to bolt and set flowers. Don’t forget that drought and heat will intensify the flavor of the leaves.

Good varieties to try are Astro or Wild Rocket which are slower to bolt, but there are many great options. Some growers also find that locating arugula in part shade will extend the harvest season and slow bolting as well.

Let arugula flower for the pollinators

As the temperatures heat up, arugula will naturally bolt and begin flowering and setting seed. The leaves aren’t quite as tasty to eat at this time, but the arugula flowers are known to be a good resource for a number of pollinators. The research below documented the benefit of arugula flowers to pollinators.

“A total of 20 major species of insect pollinators were recorded. The highest abundance of pollinator species belonged to Hymenoptera. The most prominent insect pollinator species were Apis mellifera followed by other three honey bee species of A. ceranaA. florea, and A. dorsata respectively. Some species of solitary bees were also recorded. “Shakeel M, Ali H, Ahmad S, Said F, Khan KA, Bashir MA, Anjum SI, Islam W, Ghramh HA, Ansari MJ, Ali H. Insect pollinators diversity and abundance in Eruca sativa Mill. (Arugula) and Brassica rapa L. (Field mustard) crops. Saudi J Biol Sci. 2019 Nov;26(7):1704-1709. doi: 10.1016/j.sjbs.2018.08.012. Epub 2018 Aug 17. PMID: 31762647; PMCID: PMC6864147.

A fall planting of arugula in Kansas is also possible. Seeds planted in mid to late August should have enough time to produce a crop before the average first fall frost which is typically in mid to late October.