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Operation: Urban Garden

by Matt Makowski

Urban Garden

Following these basic plans, you can grow your own greens and herbs without a plot of land.

With just a few basic tools, spare parts you may have lying around, and a little gardening know-how, you can sidestep the produce aisle at the grocery store by growing greens and herbs in a garden of your own — even in a concrete jungle. The medium is a salad table, and the most exotic parts you’ll require to build one are roofing nails and mesh hardware cloth.

At its essence, a salad table is a waist-high shallow platform with a mesh bottom that allows water to drain for growing greens and herbs you would throw in a salad. With a little manipulation to the plans, you could easily grow vegetables that require a deeper reaching root system, but let’s stick to the basics for now. Jon Traunfeld, who is the director of the University of Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center, developed the plans for this particular one.

Using untreated construction lumber, the total cost in materials runs about $35 — not including roughly $20 in seeds, fertilizer and the growing medium. In Jon’s plans for growing lettuces, greens, herbs, beans, radishes and the like, you should utilize a 50:50 mixture of “soil less” growing media with good compost. He suggests LeafGro as compost, which is made in Maryland from leaves and grass clippings. As for the soil less media — it contains peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite that you add water to before mixing it with the compost and filling the sections of the salad table, because the moss will repel water when dry. Or you can go with a pure soil-less media if you prefer.

Reaping What You Sowed

About a month after planting your seeds, you should start to see harvestable baby greens — if you opted to go that route. The University of Maryland Extension suggests a “cut-and-come-again” method as being the most efficient. Use some garden shears to cut your crop close to the base, and the plants will produce new leaves that can be harvested again in 2–3 weeks. With a little luck, you may even be able to get a third cutting out of your plants.

If everything goes according to plan, a single salad table will produce up to two pounds of greens per cutting. With bagged salad greens running around $.75 an ounce, that rings up somewhere between $24–48 per table based on an eight-week cycle. If you successfully grow crops three times per year, that could equate to as much as $96 in greens. Their elevation and portability are just another benefit of the project. “They’re portable so you can move them to avoid the intense heat and sun of summer. Since they are elevated, they protect plants from rabbits and groundhogs and let you plant, care for plants and harvest without bending,” says Annette Ipsan, horticulture educator for the University of Maryland Extension — Washington County.

(2) 58-inch 2x4 boards
(4) 30-inch 2x4 boards
(4) 32.5-inch 2x4 boards
(4) 36-inch 2x4 boards
Small box of 2.5-inch galvanized deck screws
3/8-inch staples
Small box of roofing nails
3-foot by 5-foot roll of aluminum window screening
3-foot by 5-foot roll of mesh hardware cloth
3 cubic feet of soil-less growing medium (including optional compost)

The tools:
Handsaw (optional if you get the folks at the lumber yard to cut the wood for you)
#2 Phillips screw bits (for the drill)
Tin snips or wire cutters
Staple Gun
Safety Goggles

Once you’ve got everything ready, let the fun begin.
I opted to have the folks at Home Depot cut the wood into the appropriate sizes for me. Not because I thought I was unable, but because it was too cold to do it outside myself at the time and I wanted to build the table inside.
Start by attaching the 58-inch pieces of wood (long side) to the four 30-inch cross beams using the 2.5-inch screws. Start at either end creating a large rectangle, then attach the other two 19 9/16-inch from either end to create three equal sections.
Center the swath of window screen on the bottom of the frame while stretching it taut and staple it to the bottom and sides using the staple gun.

Next, center the hardware cloth over the window screen, again, pulling it taut, and staple that to the frame bottom. Use the roofing nails underneath and around the frame for additional support.

Use the tin snips (or wire cutters) to make a diagonal cut at each corner of the hardware cloth so you can fold it up onto the ends of the frame to staple it and nail it. It will be difficult to attach the legs if the mesh is folded and bunched on the sides where the legs attach.

Make the legs by attaching the broad side of 32.5-inch 2x4 to the broad side of a 36-inch 2x4 using the screws. Length-wise, one end should be level with the ground, and at the other end, the 36-inch board should be 3.5-inches taller.

Once you have four legs, attach them to the table so the shorter piece of 2x4 is supporting underneath the table while the longer piece is screwed into the side of the table. And now you have a Salad Table to get dirty.

In a large bucket, add the soil-less medium and work water into it before adding the optional compost. You will be required to do this in multiple batched depending on the size of your bucket.

Fill the three sections of the table with growing mix and level it off, don’t pack it.

Plant your seeds in straight rows four inches apart by pressing a small 1-inch wide hole into the growing mix. You can make four rows 30-inches long, or seven rows 17-inches long.

Drop the seeds into the holes you’ve pressed and sprinkle seeds into them and cover them with about a quarter-inch of the growing mix by brushing it onto them from the surrounding area. Press down slightly to make sure seeds have contact with the soil mix.

The germination period of plants varies. A member of the cabbage family show signs in as little as 2–4 days, and lettuces in 6–10 days. Spinach, chard, basil and the like can take 7–10 days to peek through the soil. Be patient, and keep the soil moist, but don’t soak it. You probably won’t need to water everyday until the seedlings start to emerge. And remember, when watering, be gentle — use a watering can or water breaker attached to a hose. The table will need about a gallon of water per day once you start to see signs of life and may increase slightly depending on the crops’ needs. Just remember to keep them green.