Arugula: Superhero of the Organic Farm


Carol Ann Sayle

I just finished sowing this year's 15th crop of arugula. It was a bit difficult to get the soil moist enough for germination, as the air is dry and the heat is horrific. But motivation drove me. First I walked back and forth between the two 100-foot beds with a water hose, spraying the arid soil, with its miscellaneous pebbles and past-crop debris. Just enough water to help the tiny seeds stick. After broadcasting the seeds rather thickly, I sprinkled them again, multiple times, to set the seed. Not expecting any rain to help them rocket out of the soil in their normal three days, I then installed drip tape and left it on until the soil was deeply moist.

We grab handfuls of arugula and let schoolchildren smell and then sample it. Verdict: they love the
smell; they detest
the taste.

Arugula is a mustard, and mustards are a hardy lot, capable of germinating and growing year-round down here on the southern frontier—even through our torrid summers. Oh, sure, your "Red Giant" and your "Florida Broadleaf" will be so spicy that your eyes may bug out as you ingest them, but, they will grow in the heat. In sympathy to our farmstand customers' taste buds, we don't use these regular mustard types for summer eating, but we do occasionally grow them as an organic "fungicide," as that is one of their surprising talents.

One spring, Larry's tomato crop at our rural Gause farm developed a severe problem, following an extremely dry and warm winter. Texas A&M University professors came to the farm, were puzzled by the tomatoes' sudden mass deaths, and took specimens back to their lab. After a late night of testing and re-testing the vines, they diagnosed the problem as a fungus known as "tomato wilt." Because we are certified organic and do not use chemical or synthetic fungicides (which the professors ordinarily would have favored), they recommended covering the entire field in mustard greens. After removing the rest of the tomato crop, Larry broadcasted Broadleaf mustard. Additionally, in standard rotational practice, he will not grow tomatoes or other nightshades there for a few more years, just to be sure.

This past April, my stellar strawberry crop—the best in years—suddenly died, with huge amounts of strawberries going soft. A&M seconded our fungal opinion, and after removing the strawberry corpses, I sowed beds of ... arugula. In addition to the anti-fungal properties, we would have a lot of arugula! What we couldn't sell, we turned into the soil as a green manure. A nice way to make up for having had to cancel the pick-your-own strawberry events.


Carol Ann Sayle

Our arugula is extremely tasty, its flavor ranging from peanutty/spicy in winter to vigorously spicy in summer. Schoolchildren, on tours of the farm in the cool months, always ask if we are growing "peanuts" here! We grab handfuls of arugula and let them smell it and then sample it. Verdict: they love the smell; they detest the taste.

But their parents, wishing fervently for greens in the heat, when it is impossible to grow spinach and kale, crave what their kids dislike. So in addition to our three native plants (amaranth, purslane, and lambs' quarters), and French sorrel, we produce a LOT of arugula. First, bushel baskets of baby arugula—teensy and tender and bright with flavor—and then equally-good adolescent arugula (six inches in length), which we bunch.

Many of our customers, like nationally known populist writer and speaker Jim Hightower (former commissioner-founder of the certified organic program at the Texas Department of Agriculture) are travelers to Italy, where arugula is a staple salad green. Returning to the farmstand, they have claimed that our arugula is the best they've ever tasted.

The chef at Austin's Olivia restaurant, confirming that assessment, wondered why. "Terroir," I answered. As a chef, he understood immediately. The soil here is just what arugula likes. And the harvest of it at a young and tender age makes the most of this soil's character.