Wouldn't you love to eat home-grown salads? Growing your own food locally and organically not only provides you with healthier food -- it tastes better.
Here's a great idea for growing fresh, flavorful salad greens right at your backdoor: a salad table -- basically, a shallow wooden frame with a mesh bottom. Plus, with legs attached, it allows you to grow great salad greens at waist level from April through November.
The salad table was designed in 2006 by University of Maryland gardening expert Jon Traunfeld, who got the idea from a metal version he saw being used on an organic farm in southern Maryland. Easy to construct and use, a salad table is portable, takes up little space, and is a great way to get into growing fresh food at home. Plus, it provides excellent growing conditions: The 3 1/2-inch depth is perfect for salad greens; the special growing medium allows for rapid growth; there are no weeds; and you'll see few pest problems.
Salad tables can be used on decks, patios, backyards, courtyards, or driveways. In the mid-Atlantic region, the table should be kept in full sun from April 1 to June 15, moved into light shade from June 15 to September 15, and back to full sun from September 15 to December 1.
You can grow a variety of plants in a salad table. The plants that grow fastest and produce the biggest crops include lettuces (leaf, romaine, butterhead, etc.) and all types of broccoli (arugula, broccoli rabe, kale, mustard, and Asian greens such as mizuna and komatsuna). Chard, spinach, beet greens, and basil will also grow well, but slower. Bush green beans grow very well in the shallow frames. With a deeper frame, you can grow tomato, pepper, and cucumber.
One to two pounds of salad greens are routinely harvested per salad table -- that's about 11 square feet of space -- at each cutting. You can cut greens that have reached between 4 and 6 inches in height about 25 to 40 days after sowing seeds. The plants re-grow and can be cut a second time three weeks after the first harvest. This can lead to 7 to 8 pounds of green beans per salad table during a three-week harvest.
Building a Salad Table
To build a salad table that's 33 inches wide by 58 inches long, you will need the following tools and materials:
- Untreated framing lumber: two 10-foot-long two-by-fours and two 12-foot-long two-by-fours
- 2 1/2-inch galvanized deck screws
- 3/8-inch staples
- 1 pound of 1-inch roofing nails
- 3-by-5-foot roll of aluminum window screening
- 3-by-5-foot roll of 1/2-inch mesh hardware cloth (galvanized wire mesh; comes in a roll)
- Tape measure
- Tin snips
- Staple gun
Salad Table How-To
1. Make the frame by taking two 58-inch two-by-fours and attaching them to two 30-inch two-by-fours with galvanized screws. The two interior cross pieces are attached 18 3/4-inches from each end of the long piece, making three equal sections.
2. Staple window screen on the outside bottom of the frame.
3. Center the hardware cloth over the window screen; pull it taut and staple to the frame bottom.
4. Nail roofing nails around the frame for added support.
For more information and step-by-step pictures of building a salad table, visit growit.umd.edu.
The best growing medium is 50 percent soilless mix and 50 percent high-quality compost. The commercial soilless mix usually contains peat, perlite, and vermiculite, but new organic soilless mixes contain coir (shredded coconut fibers) and rice hulls. Work water into the soilless mixes to get them moistened. Then, combine the soilless mix evenly with the compost and fill the frame to the top -- it will settle some, and that's fine.
When choosing seeds to plant, try lettuces of different textures and colors. Jon Traunfeld really likes 'Merlot' for its rich red color, 'Speckled Trout' for its splashes of color, and 'Cocarde.' You can also find unusual mustard greens and kales with interesting textures and shapes, such as 'Osaka Purple' mustard and 'Red Russian' kale. Try growing three or four kinds of basil. You can find a good selection in your local retail stores, and there are many excellent mail-order companies.
To plant a salad table in rows, begin by taking the edge of a piece of wood, a ruler, or stick to make shallow furrows in the growing medium. They should be about 4 inches apart. Then, carefully sow the seeds so they are about 1 to 2 inches apart. Lightly cover the seeds and press down. Arugula and mustard green seeds are very small, black, and bouncy. Lettuce seeds are a little larger and they are either very light or very dark in color. The darker seeds are harder to see against the dark growing medium. Be prepared to thin plants after they come up so that they are 1 to 2 inches apart.
Once your salad table has been planted, only water when the growing medium feels or looks dry. Once the plants are up and growing well, you can water them daily with about 1 gallon of water; it takes less than 1 minute to do this. The salad table does need to be fertilized, as there are not enough nutrients in the compost and soilless mix. Fertilize after the plants are up, and use 1/2 the label rate because the compost will supply some nutrients. You can use either a dry fertilizer or a liquid fertilizer, but the latter has to be applied more frequently. Good results have been seen with cottonseed meal and other dry organic fertilizers and Osmocote (chemical slow-release fertilizer).
Special thanks to Jon Traunfeld, director of the Home and Garden Information Center and state master gardener coordinator at the University of Maryland, for sharing this information. For more information on the Maryland Master Gardener Program, visit mastergardener.umd.edu. For more information on the Grow It Eat It campaign, dedicated to teaching and encouraging Marylanders to grow some of their own food, visit growit.umd.edu.
For more helpful gardening information, check out our vegetable garden center. Plus, show off your prized vegetables or vegetable garden by entering a photo in our vegetable garden contest.