On an evening walk with a friend around Capitol Hill last night, I happened upon a vegetable garden overburdened with chard leaves and purple kale — both perfect plants for overwintering. Sadly, the garden also had a freshly sown row of basil that will likely never grow, let alone germinate. Basil needs warm soil and even warmer temperatures to prosper — it is really a summer crop best planted in June.
Prepping, planning and planting the fall garden is often a confusing task for people. I think the cooler temperatures throws everyone off and gardeners don’t completely grasp that the days are growing shorter and the sun has shifted its course. (Or rather, the earth is tilting on its axis so the sun sits lower on the horizon.) At the end of the season many casual gardeners start losing steam and simply toss seeds into the ground rather than crafting a garden plan, but the shifting season need not impede your success. Conversely, this is the time of year when we can plant things that the heat of summer will not allow.
For fall, consider cool season crops like many members of the Brassica family — broccoli, arugula, mustard greens, cabbage, and more. If you haven’t planted already, many of these will need to go in the ground as starts. (You should begin to seed your winter garden in July — this local planting guide is an excellent resource and includes a near flawless calendar.) Arugula, on the other hand, can be sown by seed and grows quickly, coming to maturity in as little as thirty five days. Arugula, often used as a salad green, is a leafy plant which produces long flat leaves with a distinct peppery flavor.
For those of us living in apartments or condos, arugula also does very well in pots. Using a long or wide shallow container, fill with potting soil to the container's rim. Sow arugula seeds in the top layer of potting soil anytime through mid-October, and lightly cover with a sprinkle of potting soil. Keep the seed bed moist daily and within a week small green sprouts should poke out of the soil. Keep soil well watered, but not wet – you will need to do this less as days grow shorter and cooler.
When the leaves are big enough to harvest, cut individual arugula leaves at the base of their stem where it attaches to the main stem. (You can decide for yourself when the leaf is big enough.) For a mellow, spicy flavor and a tender green, harvest when leaves are young— about three to four inches. If you prefer a stronger flavor and a thicker, crunchier stem, allow them to grow to five to six inches and cut the entire stem at its base. Keep doing this until plant growth slows to a halt — a signal that the plant is going dormant for winter.
With little attention required, arugula sown in fall will often produce leaves that are tasty through late spring making this a great choice for the casual winter gardener. Arugula will eventually bolt (go to flower) as winter turns to spring and the days start getting a little warmer. You can further your harvest by cutting the plant back often — leaves will continue to grow from the center of the plant. As the plant gets old, the spicy bite will become more pronounced and the stems of each leaf will turn tough. If too strong and thick, strip the woody stem of its leaves and use both the leaves and flowers in your salads. Woody stems can be chopped finely and used to make a gremolata or as stuffing for savory dishes.