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The Kitchen Gardener

Growing your own

October 08, 2003|Emily Green

Now that summer has passed, it's the perfect time to plant arugula, and keep planting it week after week for a steady supply of fresh young leaves. Sow it in the heat of the summer, and it will immediately bolt or try to produce seeds instead of lots of tasty foliage. The high heat is telling it to let the leaves die -- there's no time to waste before propagating itself.

But wait until autumn, when the scorching weather has passed and you are into California's second spring, and salad days are back. The plants will again grow slowly, producing lots of lush leaves.

Unlike many vegetables, arugula can be sown straight in the ground. It's got the robust growing habits of a weed. The soil should be loose and fertile. Water it lightly every morning, but don't drench it. Then see the leaves appear.

The secret to the best arugula is planting it regularly and eating it young. Lots of "baby" vegetables are short on flavor as well as size. But arugula grows sour with age. It owes its ability to survive snails and other nocturnal browsers to chemicals that it produces when nibbled. The bitter, even rank flavor of leaves of mature arugula is the mark that it has pulled the plant equivalent of a skunk defense. At this point, not even butter and a hot pan will redeem it. It's probably best to let the arugula flower. Bees will enjoy the blooms and you can collect the seeds and start over.

Arugula can be successively sown throughout the autumn, winter and spring, until the dog days of August leave you back at the mercy of the salad-in-a-bag trade.

-- Emily Green

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