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Groundwork: Rocketship Launched

Arugula, or rocket, has been in season for the past two weeks at the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens west of Alexandria. Fits of 90-degree weather can make this cool-season crop a fleeting joy by middle to late spring, but with some artful planning and planting, arugula is a three-season crop here. It is also absurdly easy to grow. But let's take a step back.

The demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens west of Alexandria. (Adrian Higgins - The Washington Post)

Green Spring Gardens' demo garden is large, measuring 70 feet by 40 feet, though the raised growing beds are intersected by mulched paths. (Feet and veggies don't mix, so if beds are no wider than four feet, you can lean in and weed and thin seedlings and do all that good stuff without compacting the growing beds).

Cindy Brown and her team of gardeners directly sowed arugula on March 19. You can sow it in rows spaced six to eight inches apart, and thin seedlings four to six inches apart. They can be harvested early as baby greens when the leaves are about two inches. If you cut some of the leaves with scissors then, the remaining leaves can be allowed to grow to maturity, harvested at four to six inches long.

The Green Spring gardeners sowed three varieties, the standard arugula, Surrey and Astro. The standard can be harvested at baby stage three weeks after germination and about two weeks later as mature arugula. Surrey is deeply lobed like wild arugula but is valued because it is an early season variety, growing quickly, but still exhibiting a resistance to flowering, or "bolting" in garden talk. Arugula that has bolted goes from mildly tangy to fiery on the palate. Astro is more strap leafed, milder in flavor, and withstands the heat a bit better.

Arugula ready for harvest. (Adrian Higgins - The Washington Post)

Though you've missed the boat for spring sowing, pick up some packets of arugula seed now and store them in the fridge. Sow arugula in mid- to late-August (perhaps after pulling squash or cucumber vines) for a fall crop. Sow again early- to mid-September for a later fall crop. I also sow in early October for winter arugula. If you keep it covered with floating row cover, you can have fresh arugula pretty much all winter. If you grow it without protection, it may get frost damaged in January or February, but will grow afresh in March and early April for a really early season treat.

What are Cindy and the crew sowing this week? Carrots (Danvers, White Belgium); bush beans (Fin de Bagnol, Xera) and cucumbers (Japanese Climbing, Marketmore, Poona Kherra, Miniature White).

Cukes, Cindy? I'm still sowing lettuce....

-- Adrian Higgins

Arugula Soup. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

Arugula Soup
Makes 10 cups

Think potato-leek soup, with the addition of grassy, slightly peppery arugula greens. Leave it chunky, or puree until smooth. A sprinkling of Parmesan cheese on top would be a nice way to enhance each serving. As a pureed soup, it also would be good served cold, with a small amount of cream added.

Watercress, endive or kale may be substituted for the arugula; adjust cooking times accordingly.

MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be cooled completely and frozen for up to 3 months. It's best to freeze it in 1- or 2-cup portions, for easy defrosting.

Adapted by Cynthia Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, from a recipe in "The Victory Garden Cookbook," by Marian Morash (Knopf, 1982).

3 large leeks (root ends trimmed off), white and light-green parts only (5 cups)
Olive oil
8 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
About 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 4 1/2 cups; may substitute red bliss potatoes)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups packed arugula leaves, washed, then coarsely chopped

Cut the leeks lengthwise, then crosswise into thin slices. Place in a bowl of cool water and let sit for 15 minutes to dislodge any grit.

Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a large saucepan over medium heat. Drain the leeks well, then add to the saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until they have softened and become aromatic.

Add the broth; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.

Add the potatoes; after the broth returns almost to a boil, cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the arugula and stir to combine; reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes.

At this point, the potatoes should be tender; if not, cook for an additional 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

Remove from the heat. Use an immersion blender to partially or completely puree the soup in the saucepan. Divide among individual bowls; serve hot.

Per 1-cup serving: 105 calories, 3 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 151 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick

See our special report for more on vegetable gardening.

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, gardening, recipes  
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Adrian, I find that it may take several layers of Reemay to grow arugula in winter - a cold frame is better for me - but then I am 70 miles west from you!

Like you, I like that it can be harvested at many satges. This year I am trying shading to extend the season - as well as other heat sensitive crop like spinach. Shading does not work for mache though... bolts in mid-April!

Love the idea of soup. I often sauteed my arugula with a little garlic. Soup sounds goo. Thank you.

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | May 7, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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