Use these step-by-step instructions and build your own vertical pallet garden, perfect for growing your own food in small spaces.
By Niki Jabbour
Groundbreaking Food Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2014) by Niki Jabbour is a stellar collection of unique food garden plans from some of the best gardeners and designers in North America. Choose from 73 plans, each with its own theme and detailed illustration. In this excerpt, learn how to construct a kitchen garden from used pallets that won’t take up much space.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Groundbreaking Food Gardens.
Pallet gardening is popular, and for good reason! With a little time and even less money, gardeners can turn an old pallet into a handy vertical garden. An upcycled pallet, mounted on a wall or fence — preferably just outside the kitchen—makes a handy planter for compact crops like curly parsley, leaf lettuce, and Swiss chard, and even dwarf tomatoes and nasturtiums.
Joe Lamp’l is passionate about getting people to grow more food—even in tiny urban lots and concrete balconies—and he has embraced the concept of a pallet garden for its incredible versatility. Pioneered by Fern Richardson in her blog Life on the Balcony, pallet gardens are typically mounted to a wall, fence, or other structure, but handy gardeners can also make “feet” or a stand so that pallets can be freestanding on decks and patios. Plus, an edible pallet garden is very low-maintenance, requiring little ongoing care aside from regular watering and an occasional dose of liquid organic fertilizer.
A pallet garden is a great project for do-it-yourself types, as well as those on a tight budget. Two people can assemble and plant a pallet garden in about an hour if all materials are gathered beforehand.
Picking the right pallet. Sourcing a pallet should be easy—many businesses are happy to share their used pallets at little to no cost—but Joe says to “look for pallets made of untreated wood and also seek out pallets marked HT, which stands for heat treated, as a safe alternative for treating pests.” He also suggests inspecting the pallet for splintered wood or stray nails. Once you’ve found one that makes the grade, give it a good hosing off to remove dirt and grime.
The best plants for a pallet. When choosing plants for an edible pallet garden, Joe advises looking for dwarf or bush types of vegetables and herbs, as well as compact fruits like strawberries. In his plan he includes a wide selection of favorite edibles: salad greens, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. “Peppers and tomatoes will need to go in the top section because they are the tallest and will need room to grow and possibly staking,” says Joe. “The big thing is to work with compact and determinate tomato varieties wherever possible.” He also suggests tucking nasturtium seedlings throughout the pallet garden for a “punch of edible color.” Other options include a pallet filled with culinary herbs or salad greens.
1. Tomatoes: ‘Celebrity’, ‘Fresh Salsa’, or ‘SuperTasty’ (determinate)
2. Peppers: ‘Sweet Heat’, ‘Great Stuff’, or ‘Baby Belle’
3. Lettuce mix: ‘Healing Hands’, ‘Alfresco’, or ‘City Garden Mix’
4. Herbs: ‘Red Rubin’ or ‘Genovese’ basil, sage, spearmint, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and cilantro
5. Summer squash: ‘Saffron’ or ‘Dwarf Summer Crookneck’
6. Cucumbers: ‘Bush Champion’, ‘Salad Bush’, or ‘Spacemaster’
7. Watermelons: ‘Bush Sugar Baby’ or ‘Golden Midget’
• 1 untreated shipping pallet, hosed clean
• 4 mounting L-brackets, one for each corner of the pallet
• Weather-resistant screws
• Roofing nails or staples
• Landscape (weed barrier) fabric
• Plastic sheet or other waterproofing material (optional)
• Thin plywood, cut to the size of the pallet
• Potting soil
• Hammer or staple gun
• Eye protection (always a good idea when working with tools)
1. With the help of a friend, position your pallet against the wall or fence where you want it mounted and use your level to make sure it’s straight. Using a pencil, mark on the fence or wall where you would like to install each of the four L-brackets. Situate the top left and right L-brackets so they’ll be about
2 inches from the top of the pallet, while the bottom two L-brackets should be about 6 inches from the bottom of the pallet. Once you’ve marked their positions, move your pallet to the side.
2. Drill pilot holes slightly smaller than the diameter of your screws into the supporting fence or wall. Using your drill, screw the L-brackets into place on the fence. (It’s much easier to install the brackets before the pallet is filled with soil and plants. Then, once you’re ready to hang it, all you’ll need to do is slide it into place and secure it with the screws.)
3. Move the pallet to a flat surface and lay it down so that the side with the largest openings is facing up. This is the side that will be mounted against the wall.
4. Cover the back and bottom of the pallet with the landscape fabric, cutting it to size. This will prevent the soil from falling out. Pull the fabric tight and secure with roofing nails or staples, placing one nail or staple every 2 to 3 inches around the perimeter of the pallet as well as down the center beams. If you want a layer of plastic or another waterproofing material between the pallet and the support, add it now. This additional layer will protect the side of the house or wall from moisture and grime from the pallet garden.
5. Attach the thin sheet of plywood to the cloth-covered back of the pallet and secure with nails every 6 inches.
6. Flip over the pallet and fill the rows with premoistened potting soil. Tilt the pallet so that it’s almost vertical to let the soil settle a bit, then add more soil until the rows are full.
7. Now it’s time for the fun stuff! Grab your plants and start packing them into the rows between the slats.
8. Mount the pallet. Have your friend help you position the pallet between the pre-installed brackets. (Aren’t you glad you mounted those already?) Using your drill, screw the brackets to the pallet.
9. Check for settled soil, filling where necessary, and water well. Take a few minutes to admire your new space-saving, high-producing vertical pallet garden!
Excerpted from Groundbreaking Food Gardens by Niki Jabbour, illustration by Elayne Sears used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Groundbreaking Food Gardens.