Create a vertical salad garden!
Create a vertical salad garden! Not everyone has space for a big garden, but a lettuce tower garden will help you to grow so much more in the smallest of spaces. And making one is cheap and super simple!
Simple to Make
What I love about this tower is that the items used to make it are super cheap and available. I’m using an off-the-shelf bucket made from food-grade plastic. Go for a taller version like this if you can – this one comes with a lid and handle. It’s 25 liters in volume, which is around 6.6 U.S. gallons. I picked this up from a hardware store, but you may be able to source one for free from restaurants or places that handle bulk foods – just ask around. And then I’ve got a length of pipe, about 4 inches or 10 cm diameter and a touch longer than the height of the bucket, so it will stick out a bit once it’s set inside.
I’ve got my potting mix – just a standard all-purpose or multipurpose mix and, of course, my salad plants. These are a mix of lettuces to give a variety of shapes and textures to liven up both the salad tower and, of course, lunch.
Prepare Your Tower
Let’s prepare the tower. The first job is to make our planting pockets. To start, let’s mark out their positions. The bucket is 16 inches or 40 cm tall, which gives enough space for three rows of pockets, starting a couple of inches or 5 cm from the base. Use a marker pen and ruler to mark out their positions. I’m marking out slits about 5 inches or 13 cm long then leaving 6 inche or 15 cm between the slits. This gives us five slits along our bottom row. Next, our top row – at the same position and spacings as the bottom row – marked out 4 inches or 10 cm from the top of the bucket. And, to finish, the middle row, which we’ll offset so the slits are in between those in the top and bottom rows. This makes the most of the space available so plants don’t get overcrowded. And the white color of the bucket will keep roots cooler in summer while bouncing back sunlight onto the plants for maximum solar gain. And it offers a really smart contrast against the green leaves.
Okay, so the bucket’s all marked up. Now we need to cut the slits. You can use a circular saw bit for this, but I haven’t got one of those so, instead, I’m going to use a Stanley knife. But first, drill some holes at each end which will make getting the knife in and out easier. Keep the lid on for this stage – it will help the bucket keep shape while you work, making things so much steadier and safer. So… drill your holes… then cut through with the knife.
The slits are done. Now I need to open them up to form the actual planting pockets. The simplest way to do this is to heat up the plastic around the slit till it becomes soft and supple. I’m using a heat gun – the sort used to strip off old wallpaper. You could also try using a very powerful hairdryer on its hottest setting. Just wave it back and forth all the way around the area of the slit. With that done, it’s time to wedge something into the slit to prise it open. I’m using a wine bottle. Just wiggle it into the gap, press it down then keep it in place for around 20 to 30 seconds as the plastic cools off. As it does it will firm up once again and set into position to create a protruding lip. Then just remove the bottle and move on to the next slit. Warm it up… pop the bottle in… hold in place… and remove. It doesn’t really matter what you use to open up the slit that creates the pockets. You could use a thick batten of wood for example. There we go… all done.
Finally, to finish, some drainage holes in the base. For this I’m just using a drill to make some holes right across the bottom. This will stop water from pooling and saturating the potting mix, which would cause roots to rot. Instead, excess water can just drain through and out the bottom.
Prepare the Central Tube
The tower’s complete. Now it’s time for the central tube, and to prepare it I’m simply drilling holes at regular intervals right the way around the pipe using a quarter-inch or 6 mm drill bit. Drill holes at half inch or centimeter spacings right the way across the pipe. This takes a bit of time but don’t skimp on it as it’s an important step.
This central tube is going to serve two purposes. It will help maintain a more oxygenated environment right the way down the middle of the tower and as we fill it with kitchen scraps, it will naturally feed the lettuces. More on that shortly.
Plant Your Salad Tower
Now it’s time to assemble, fill, and plant the tower. To begin with, add in a few handfuls of potting mix to the bottom of the bucket and then going in with the tube. Now it’s just a matter of filling in with more potting mix around the tube till we reach the top of the bucket. Press it down as you fill and hold the tube steady, so it remains upright and central. I should add I’ve pre-wetted the potting mix to get everything off to a good start.
And here are the salad plants. As I said, we’ve got various varieties of lettuce, which will give a variety of leaves to pick, a few at a time from each plant, cut-and-come-again style.
Use a stick or some other tool to make a hole at each planting pocket down into the potting mix. Now let’s ease a lettuce plant out of its plug, pop it into the hole and firm it into place. I’m looking for a nice tapestry of different leaf shapes and textures right the way across the wall of this tower, so am going to mix things up as I go, alternating different varieties of lettuce. To finish, in go five lettuce plugs into the top here, at spacings that line up with the middle row of planting pockets, so we’re again alternating the position of the lettuces to maximize the available space.
Watering and Feeding
The beauty of a salad tower like this one is we don’t need to worry about weeds because we’ve planted into clean potting mix, and our plants are unlikely to get attacked by slugs if we keep it on the patio. Our main priorities, therefore, are limited to watering, feeding… and harvesting!
Let’s give the new salad tower a thorough drink. Water from the top, then carefully water into each of the planting pockets. This is one of the main advantages of this sort of setup – the lips of each planting pocket cup and hold onto the water so it can drain through. Water every few days to help things along, or daily in really hot, dry weather. Lettuce will cope with some shade, but maybe rotate your tower from time to time so all the plants get plenty of sun to encourage more even growth.
Now to feed our plants – and this is where the central tube comes in handy. We’re going to fill it compostable kitchen scraps – vegetable peelings, apple cores, carrot tops – that kind of thing. Feed the scraps down into the tube then simply top up the tube from time to time as the kitchen scraps start to slump down and decompose. As they do, they’ll release nutrients through all those holes we drilled, and these nutrients 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 add what’s left onto the compost heap.
To keep the scraps from going smelly, I’ve fashioned this little hat from the top of a plastic bottle, complete with screw cap. Just pop it loosely over the top to keep any pong from wafting out and things like flies from getting in.
How to Harvest Lettuce from Tower Garden
And then, to harvest, just 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 at least a few months before it’s time to replace them.
In just two weeks, the lettuce tower will fill out beautifully. As well as giving something fresh and tasty to eat, this leafy tower looks simply stunning too!