Welcome to chef Dan Saurer’s salad table.
Oh, and never mind the dirt.
Yes, while one might expect a salad table to be a new feature at Fort Wayne’s Friendly Fox bistro, where Saurer is a co-owner and executive chef, this salad table is in Saurer’s side yard.
It’s an ingenious twist on a raised bed that the 29-year-old proponent of locally produced food uses to grow greens and other salad fixings for family meals.
I finally got tired of working with the northeast Indiana hard clay soil, so I just built it up and ordered some good black dirt, he says. My wife would say I’m not much of handyman, but that just goes to say that if I can do it, anyone can.
Indeed, says Jon Traunfeld, a University of Maryland gardening expert whom some call the granddaddy of salad tables, that’s one of many attributes of an idea he had a half-dozen years ago.
While working with urban master gardeners who had limited space with both soil and sunlight, he dreamed up a waist-high workbench-like frame with a mesh bottom that could be filled with as little as four inches of soil and planted with salad vegetables and herbs that have relatively shallow root systems.
The table could be placed outdoors wherever there was space – on a patio, a balcony or sidewalk. Presto! A productive garden – with no ground needed.
I went on the Martha Stewart show in 2009, and they built one, and that spurred a lot of interest, he says. They put it on their website, and since then, we’ve had people from all over calling and emailing.
Traunfeld says the salad table he designed has spawned all kinds of variations. People have put them on wheels so they’re even more portable, made them deeper to accommodate longer-rooted crops, covered them like a greenhouse to extend the growing season and designed systems to catch and reuse the water that drips out the bottom.
Some growers have even rigged up lighting so the tables could be moved indoors for the winter.
Gardeners also have pointed out that growing tender greens off the ground tend to make the crops more critter-proof. Crops also can be planted throughout the growing season and will produce into fall.
A lot of older people like them. Maybe they’ve had a stroke or whatever and they can’t get to the ground anymore, Traunfeld says of the tables. They also can be built to accommodate a wheelchair. People say they’ve given them gardening as an outlet again.
School systems in Maryland have picked up on the idea, he says, and he thinks it could be adapted for college cafeterias and prisons.
Materials – lumber and mesh – cost about $40, Traunfeld says. But the tables can be made from leftover or recycled wood, leaving as the only cost seeds or plants, soil and fertilizer. He recommends a 50-50 mix of potting soil and peat moss or compost.
Saurer’s table isn’t portable like Traunfeld’s, but he likes the idea and might try it next year.
He says he went into action after reading about salad tables and being given a tour of the chefs’ raised-bed gardens at Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.
I was very jealous of them, the Ivy Tech-trained Saurer says.
So, he salvaged wood from an old children’s play set and created an 8-by-5-foot box 28 inches high. That gave him about 40 square feet of garden space, he says.
He planted three kinds of spinach, lettuce, rainbow Swiss chard, oregano, tarragon and spearmint. Because of his bed’s depth, he also could plant three kinds of tomatoes – heirloom Cherokee purple, black cherry varieties and a Rutgers hybrid.
Rounding out the garden are a jalapeño pepper plant, zucchini and yellow squash plants and sweet pea vines climbing an old patio chair pressed into service as a trellis.
The final touch is a mosaic made from pieces of tile salvaged from a recent kitchen flooring job that Saurer created on the sides of the frame.
While many gardens are scorching this summer because of the hot, dry weather, Saurer says his is producing nicely because he can water it more easily and the soil doesn’t compact.
He doesn’t use any of the veggies he grows in the restaurant, but reducing my carbon footprint by doing so remains a long-term goal.
This is good practice, he says, for when I do have enough land to supply the restaurant with local fresh vegetables.