In reviewing my website stats recently, I was surprised to learn that of the hundreds of articles I've posted, dozens of chef authored recipes and online access to every episode we've ever aired, the most viewed page on our website, www.GrowingAGreenerWorld.com, was the step-by-step instructions for building a pallet garden that we featured in episode 221. Moreover, it's become a popular feature through my contribution to Niki Jabbour's new book: "Groundbreaking Food Gardens."
A pallet garden is pretty much what it sounds like - a pallet that's planted out with lots of mostly edible plants (but it can be anything really). What makes it so popular is that it takes advantage of vertical space, something even the most space-challenged apartment dweller can relate to. The key to a well-designed and productive pallet garden is to select plants that are ideally suited for small spaces and compact growing habits. In today's world, there are many varieties that offer dwarf, compact, patio, or bush varieties of their traditionally larger cousins.
You can mount the pallet on a wall or attach supports to the base to make it freestanding. I like this option as it gives you the most flexibility. But I have to admit, it's stunning when it's mounted on a wall.
What you'll need: In addition to the pallet and mounting or support material, you'll need a staple gun, drill, level, landscape fabric, thin plywood cut to size to cover the back of the pallet, potting soil (about six bags) and plants.
Pallets are everywhere, so take the time to find one in good condition and that is not chemically treated (marked on the pallet as "MB," for methyl bromide). Ideally, look for pallets marked "HT" which stands for heat-treated.
Place your pallet on the ground or sturdy table or saw horses with the widest openings facing up. This will be the backside. Lay out the landscape fabric or cloth to cover the back and bottom and cut to size. Pull tautly and secure with nails or staples. Make sure the fabric covers the bottom as well as the back to catch any soil that may otherwise fall out.
Next add the thin plywood over the cloth and secure with weather resistant screws.
Now turn the pallet over and fill with good quality potting soil or container mix. Don't use ordinary garden soil since it's too heavy and won't drain as well. Be sure to add most of your soil before adding the plants. Now, go ahead and tilt the pallet up nearly vertical to allow soil to settle without it spilling out between the cracks. Then continue to add soil until the pallet is full.
Next add the plants. I prefer vining plants such as melons, cucumbers or squash on the first or lowest level. In the middle level, herbs and leaf crops such as lettuces, and spinach are perfect. I like to mix in a generous portion of edible flowers. My favorite is nasturtium.
The top level is reserved for my tallest plants, like peppers and even container or patio tomato plants. Don't be afraid to pack them in; yet don't feel obligated to do so. Your plants will fill in nicely once established. Although it may look sparse to start, it will appear full and lush in no time. Position the plants so their root balls are securely placed between the slats and tuck them in firmly. Once you have all your plants in position, add additional soil if needed but be sure to reserve some to add once the pallet is mounted. Don't water yet due to the added weight.
Now it's time to mount the pallet or add the base support. If mounting to a wall, get two helpers. It's very heavy at this point.
Finally, make sure all the plants are positioned firmly in place and that the roots are in good contact with the surrounding soil. This is also the time to add the reserve soil to fill those voids. Thoroughly water the plants and soil. Again, you'll have more settling and some soil loss here so have some extra soil on hand and add as necessary.
Enjoy the harvest!
Joe Lamp'l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television, and the founder of The Joe Gardener Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living.