How to Build a Lettuce Bench for Nearly Year-Round Salad Greens
My family loves eating salads and we eat a lot of them. When I first discovered the concept of the lettuce bench, also referred to as a salad bench or salad table, I immediately gathered the necessary supplies to build my own.
When I began to read about this outdoor planter, I learned that the salad table was designed in 2006 by University of Maryland gardening expert Jon Traunfel. Apparently, Mr. Traunfeld got the idea from a metal version he saw being used on an organic farm in southern Maryland. Regardless of how Mr. Traunfeld devised the idea, it is a fairly simple concept that I wish I'd thought of myself.
The wooden version is easy to construct and very easy to maintain. Wheels can be added to the legs of the salad table making it portable and can takes up little space on your patio or deck. The 3 1/2-inch depth is perfect for salad greens and other shallow-rooted plants. There are very few weeds, you'll see few pests and because the bench stands waist high, harvesting your greens is easy on the back.
Constructing Your Salad Bench
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
- wood putty to fill screw holes for a more polished look
- paint, if you are going to paint your bench
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 support.
5. For additional support, you may choose to screw a few scrap boards to the underside of the screen. Over time, the weight of the soil will create a slight bow in the screen.
The first year we planted lettuce in our lettuce bench we had extra soil from our raised bed gardens that we purchased from this wonderful farmer in Vermont. The soil was nearly black in color with so much rich composted materials, we thought that it would work perfectly in our lettuce bench. We were wrong. The lettuce grew abundantly, but the soil was far too dense and we would need to 'fluff' it occasionally so that the lettuce roots could breath more freely.
This year, we opted for an organic potting blend that is much lighter. We filled each of the three compartments to the top (the soil will settle a bit) and then we were ready to plant.
[it has been a few weeks now since we planted this years salad greens and it is clear that this was a wiser choice for the soil. The plants are growing hardier than ever]
Seeds or Plants
For us, the choice was a simple one. At our local feed store, they sell a variety of lettuce plants. Rather than wait for the seeds to sprout and then mature, we would enjoy our lettuce in a few short days.
If you decide that you would like to plant seeds, here are a few quick tips:
Begin by taking the edge of a ruler and make shallow furrows in the growing medium. They should be about 4 inches apart. Carefully sow the seeds so they are about 1 to 2 inches apart. This method is the same method you'd use to plant radishes or carrots. Lightly cover the seeds and press down gently. Again, like radishes and carrots, be prepared to thin plants after they come up so that they are 1 to 2 inches apart and aren't overly crowded.
If you are growing lettuce, this bench size will provide you with plenty of salad. I had read that I could expect to harvest one to two pounds of salad at each cutting. From my personal experience, I can tell you that I very rarely have needed to buy lettuce during the growing season and we eat a salad every evening for dinner.
When you are ready, simple clip the lettuce leaf near the base of the plant. The plant will continue to re-grow and soon, you will be able to clip more greens.
Individual Salad Trays
We considered building individual salad trays when we built our lettuce bench, but opted not to. I think that the individual trays are a great idea, especially if you intend on starting your lettuce table from seed. You could start earlier in the season and then when the weather warmed, you could insert the trays into your table.
If you decide to build trays, you can use the same materials as the salad bench. You could also use scrap wood or perhaps wood scavenged from a wooden pallet. Measure and cut your boards so that they slide easily into each table section. You will need to make three trays. Inexpensive drawer pulls can be screwed into the top of the tray at each end making it easier to remove the tray from the table when you wish to.
Choosing Your Lettuce Plants
It was recommended that we keep our salad bench in full sun from April through mid-June. Later, we were encouraged to move the bench to a partly shadier location so the lettuce wouldn't burn. The summer heat can be too much for these plants. However, the table does get heavy once planted and we had no desire to move it to any other location. During the sunniest days of summer, the lettuce would, in fact, wilt from the overbearing heat, but at dusk we would give the bench ample water and a bit of compost tea from time to time and the lettuce would perk back up come morning.
Because our salad bench has given us such an abundance of salad greens, we're considering growing lettuce throughout the winter months, as well. We will need to make a few alterations, but I'm hopeful that we can make it work.
Insects Can Be Good for Your Garden
Every garden attracts bugs, but not all insects are bad. It's best to learn the difference between those that'll hard or distort your plants and the others that will help your garden to thrive.
It is helpful to plant things like dill, cilantro and coriander to attract more beneficial insects. Planting certain crops together also helps them grow by warding off the bugs that may be attracted to one but not the other.
There are several ways to rid your garden of damaging critters without using harsh chemicals that you really don't want on your food.
Your Garden Need Not Be Enormous
Just the thought of creating a garden gets people excited which leads them to the creation of a garden that is too large to manage. Building a bench like this is a good way to grow some of your food without becoming overwhelmed.
Devoting an entire garden to herbs and vegetables may seem like a great idea until the weeds start pushing through or when you forget to water your plants during the week and find them drooped over and panting for moisture on Saturday. Try to keep things simple if you don't have the time to have a big garden.
Plant near your home for easy access and only plant enough to treat yourself to a few home-grown meals.
Save Time and Buy Seedlings
Sure it may sound romantic planting a garden from seed and there are many people that do, but you may not have the experience or the time so don't set yourself up for failure.
Rather than devote your efforts to growing testy seeds that may not germinate, you could purchase plant seedlings, certainly the first year year you grow a garden, especially lettuce.
Seedlings generally come in cell packs of 12 or 24; they are a great value. Plant and water your seedlings immediately and before you know it, you'll be mixing your first salad!