Not everyone has space for a salad garden, but this cheap to make salad tower will help you to grow so much more in the smallest of spaces. And creating one is super simple!
Simple to Make Vertical Salad Garden
What I love about this tower is that the items used to make it are really cheap and available. I’m using an off-the-shelf lidded white bucket made from food-grade plastic. The white colour will help keep roots cooler in summer while bouncing back sunlight onto the plants for maximum solar gain. It offers a really smart contrast against the green leaves too.
Go for a tall bucket to make a nice big tower. Mine is 25 litres in volume (6.6 US gallons or 5.5 imperial gallons). I picked it up from a hardware store, but you may be able to source one for free from restaurants or other places that handle bulk foods – just ask around. You’ll also need some chicken wire.
To fill your tower you’ll need an all-purpose potting mix and, of course, your salad plants! Go for a mix of lettuce plug plants to give a variety of shapes and textures to liven up both the salad tower and your lunchtimes – lovely stuff!
Planting Pockets and Drainage Holes
The first job is to make planting pockets in the sides of your bucket. My bucket is 16in (40cm) tall, which gives enough space for three rows of pockets, starting a couple of inches (5cm) from the base. Use a marker pen and ruler to mark out the positions of the slits you’ll make, which should be about 5in (13cm) long. Leave 6in (15cm) between the slits. In my bucket, this gives five slits along the bottom row. Next, mark out your top row at the same position and spacings as the bottom row, 4in (10cm) from the top of the bucket. And, to finish, the middle row, which should be staggered so that the slits are offset from those in the top and bottom rows. This makes the most of the space available so the plants don’t get overcrowded.
Now to cut the slits. You can use a circular saw for this, but if like me you haven’t got one of those, just use a sharp serrated knife. First, drill holes at both ends of each slit to will make getting the knife in and out easier. Keep the lid on for this stage – it will help the bucket keep its shape while you work.
Once you’ve cut your slits you’ll need to open them up to form the planting pockets. The simplest way to do this is to heat up the plastic around the slit until it becomes soft and supple. A heat gun works well for this, but you could also try using a powerful hairdryer on its hottest setting. Wave it back and forth all the way around the area of the slit until the plastic becomes pliable. With that done, wedge something into the slit to prise it open, for instance a wine bottle or wooden batten. Wiggle it into the gap, press it down, then keep it in place for 20-30 seconds as the plastic cools off and firms up. It will set into position to create a protruding lip. Then just remove the bottle and repeat for each remaining slit.
Finally, add some drainage holes in the base. Using a drill to make some holes right across the bottom. This will help prevent the potting mix from becoming saturated, which would cause roots to rot. Instead, excess water can just drain through and out the bottom.
Don't forget to sweep up all the little bits of plastic that come off when cutting and drilling the bucket - you don't want those escaping into the environment. Ideally, do this job in a garage or somewhere with a floor that's easy to sweep.
Prepare the Central Tube
The tower is complete, so now it’s time for the chicken wire. You need enough to create a tube about half the diameter of the container. This will serve two purposes. It will help maintain a more oxygenated environment right down the middle of the tower, and you’ll also fill it with kitchen scraps to naturally feed the lettuces. More on that shortly...
Plant Your Salad Tower
Dampen your potting mix, then add a few handfuls to the bottom of the bucket. Position the tube of chicken wire, firming it into the potting mix in the bottom. Fill in with more potting mix around the tube until you reach the top of the bucket. Press it down as you fill, holding the tube steady so that it remains upright and central.
Use your fingers or a stick to make a hole at a planting pocket down into the potting mix. Ease a lettuce plant out of its plug, pop it into the hole and firm it into place. A nice tapestry of different leaf shapes and textures right the way across the wall of the tower can look stunning. To finish, plant five lettuce plugs into the potting mix on the top, at spacings that line up with the middle row of planting pockets to again alternate the position of the lettuces to maximise the available space for roots.
Feeding and Watering Your Salad Tower
The beauty of a salad tower is that you don’t need to worry about weeds because you’ve planted into clean potting mix, and your plants are unlikely to get attacked by slugs if you keep the container on the patio. Your main priorities, therefore, are limited to watering, feeding – and harvesting!
Give your new salad tower a thorough drink. Water from the top, then carefully water into each of the planting pockets. The lips of each planting pocket cup and hold onto the water to give it time to drain through. Water regularly, which may be daily in really hot, dry weather. Lettuce will cope with some shade, but it’s a good idea to rotate your tower from time to time so all the plants get plenty of sun to encourage more even growth.
Now to feed your plants – and this is where that central tube comes in handy! Fill it with compostable kitchen scraps like vegetable peelings, apple cores and carrot tops. Feed the scraps down into the tube then simply top up the tube from time to time as they start to slump down and decompose. As they do, they’ll release nutrients that will work their way into the potting mix for the salad roots to soak up and enjoy. It’s a genius way to process scraps, and at the end of the season when you come to dismantle everything you can just bung what’s left onto the compost heap. How cool’s that?!
If you’re worried about the scraps becoming smelly, just fit a plastic plant pot into the top of the tube. That should keep any pong from wafting out and flies from getting in, and you can just remove it whenever you need to add more compostables.
To harvest, cut one or two leaves from each plant at a time, taking the larger outer leaves first so the smaller ones towards the middle can continue growing and more leaves can develop from the central growing point. This way you should be able to keep plants going for up to a few months before it’s time to replace them.