Gardener’s Notebook by Joshua Burman Thayer
In this time of the winter solstice, we’re inclined to move slower and spend more time close to home. Thanks to our wonderfully mild Bay Area winters, we can continue to cultivate our soil and plant cool-season crops.
December brings optimal planting conditions for arugula. Eruca vesicaria sativa (or brassica eruca) is a personal favorite edible that I like to grow around my longer-lasting crops. Like its wild radish ancestors, arugula is a rewarding and accommodating addition to your raised beds in this cool season. If you can still see black, bare soil in your garden, consider this plant.
Easy to grow, arugula has been in cultivation for millennia. When you see the name “sativa” as part of a plant’s Latin name, it generally denotes an extended time in human cultivation. Arugula is mentioned in the Bible as oroth and is found in the Jewish Talmud as long as 1,500 years back. Rome and Egypt respected arugula as food that is medicine. In the Arab world, arugula seeds are called jir-jir and further East, in modern day India, those seeds are called gargeer by Hindi speakers. In these regions, arugula has long been used as an aphrodisiac and for medicinal purposes. Modern science backs this up with lab proof that arugula is high in vitamin C and potassium.
Known familiarly as rocket, this plant will explode in your raised beds or in a skirt around your fruit trees. What’s more, there is no need to buy expensive 6-packs of starts, since you can expect a packet of seeds to sprout one plant per seed and then watch each little plant grow at a successful rate. These traits of successful seeding and spreading are what allowed arugula to naturalize all over temperate Eurasia. Similarly, you can let it spread wherever you have empty soil spaces. I find it a great joy when I return to a client’s estate and find that the rocket I seeded has spread underfoot in the orchard or taken over a fallow raised bed.
Bi-weekly Arugula Haircut Harvest
Every 2–3 weeks you can scissor cut the arugula back to a height of 4–6 inches. These harvested tips make the most tender edible leaf. Arugula’s ability to resprout and shoot up again (like a lawn) make it a prime candidate for your home-grown salad greens mix. Its readiness, ruggedness, and spiciness make it a wonderful addition to the plate.
Catch Crops in the Margins And Gaps
Crops like radish, peas, arugula, and chard are great catch crops. That term refers to catching the gaps between seasons with fast and easy growing plants that you can direct sow. Make the most of your raised bed square footage, and also consider amending and cultivating annuals under your fruit trees.
Happy holiday gardening.
Joshua Burman Thayer’s Gardeners Notebook is a monthly feature in this newsletter. Look for his articles in Edible East Bay’s print magazine and check out his design site: nativesungardens.com