Planning a Mobile Salad Garden

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One of the challenges of dry camping is healthy eating. The further out into the wilderness you go, the longer it takes to get to a decent-sized grocery store with a reasonable produce selection. This encourages us to over buy on produce when we shop, leading to eventual waste.

I’m not saying the same thing didn’t happen when we lived in a house. I just had different excuses then.

Something that’s been on my overly ambitious to-do list since we began this journey is creating a mobile garden for fresh veggies. I dreamed of green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries, and more. I even plotted out the container sizes and found seats for them while we were on the road. (Mostly in the shower, with the sunlight open.) But I’m beginning to believe Matt’s hints that I go a bit overboard on these projects.

For now, I’ll stick with one large planter to start. I’m particularly lazy about making a healthy lunch. I figure a salad greens garden is my best bet! I want to be sure I’m actually getting some nutrition out of this so I’m starting with Spinach.

The tricky part about greens is that they prefer the cool days of spring or fall. Spinach in particular likes to bolt (grow flowers) when the temperatures rise and the days get longer. When this happens, the spinach leaves quickly take on a bitter flavor. So I started my search by looking for bolt-resistant, heat-tolerant varieties. I also wanted smooth leaves for easy cleaning, (can’t waste our limited water endlessly rinsing salads), and a rich green color, indicating a higher nutrient content. I settled on the Space variety.

Space spinach is out of this world! (I couldn’t resist…)     Photo: Osborne Seed Co

The Space variety checks all my boxes. Plus, it has “an upright habit”, meaning it likes to grow up instead of out.  Perfect for a compact gardening footprint. I can start to harvest around the outside of the plant within 4-5 weeks. And if the internet is to be believed, I could potentially continue harvesting indefinitely, as long as I can prevent bolt or freeze.

I suspect my first batch will bolt this summer. It tends to be 10° warmer in the RV than the outside temps. Even as we follow the weather, we will very likely hang out above the bolting “danger zone” of 85° on a regular basis in July and August. I’m hoping to plant a second batch this fall and keep it going all the way through early summer 2018. We shall see…

Now I want to add a bit of crunch to my salad. I chose Newham Butterhead. The Butterhead variety (aka. Boston or Bibb variety) have a a nice flavor with a dense heart for the crunch I’m looking for. Newham is considered a mini head. A standard lettuce head grows to 12″ in diameter, including the loose outer leaves, which are usually trimmed back to 8″ for packaging in the produce aisle. Mini heads only grow to about 6″. Perfect for a personal sized salad! Newham also has “an upright habit” and a vase-like shape. So I can get more lettuce in the same 6″ footprint.  Another winner!

Newham Butterhead Lettuce. So pretty!     Photo: High Mowing Organic Seeds

I might be able to cut a few outer leaves, but this variety is pretty dense. So I won’t be able to continuously harvest, like I can with my spinach. There is another trick to getting multiple harvests from one head, though. Once the plant reaches maturity, I can cut the leaves above the crown, leaving the “growing tip”. This will result in as many as 4 harvests, with a new head growing every two weeks.

Finally, I wanted to add some color to my salad. Pomegranate Crunch is a Romaine lettuce with a deep red hue. This should shake up the nutrient profile and the flavor. Again, this variety is a mini-head type, making it great for my tiny garden. It may be possible to pluck outer leaves, but I’m anticipating the same “cut and come again” harvesting method as the Newham.

Rich reds in Pomegranate Crunch     Photo: High Mowing Organic Seeds

This should make for a great salad base, to be supplemented with tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., from the grocery store. At least for now…

It is incredibly difficult to find per-plant yield estimates, presumably because people’s success varies. I’m guessing I’ll get 2-3 good-sized salads per week by planting 6 of each variety. I’ll stagger the planting at one per variety per week, for staggered harvests. I’m secretly hoping to get much more than that. If I get too much, I can always cook down the spinach and freeze it.  I like to hide it in my dinners for extra goodness!

Here is my hand drawn plot with notes, because I’m a nerd.

Beyond the standard challenges of a container garden, making it mobile creates a few more…

Weight

With all of our calculations around our tire troubles, we know we are currently on the heavy end of the scale. We are already discussing how to shed some weight. Adding 75-100 lbs. of wet soil is not going to be a pleasant conversation, especially on our heavy South side. This would be a deal breaker.

Luckily, there are a variety of alternatives to growing in soil. As it turns out, leafy greens are particularly well suited to most of these options. Hydroponic would actually be worse, as you replace soil with heavier water. Then I discovered “soilless” gardening. This is similar to hydroponic in that you feed your plants with liquid nutrients, but similar to classic gardening in that your plants put down roots in a soil substitute.

Another stroke of luck, coco coir (the composting base we use in our new toilet) is a very popular substitute. Made from the ground husks of coconuts, coco coir can hold up to 4x it’s own weight in water, while still providing excellent aeration. One 10-lb block is the perfect size for the 18″ x 36″ plastic planter I’m envisioning. I’ll plant in 6″ of fresh coco coir, with 1-2″ styrofoam peanuts on the bottom for drainage. The final product should be under 40 lbs.

To be clear, our composting toilet and our mobile garden are separate projects. There is NO overlap!

Custom Planter

Space is always a consideration in #RVLife. So finding the perfect container for the job is proving difficult. At first glance, I haven’t found any 18″D x 36″W x 8″H thin plastic containers to meet my need. I may have to put together a few smaller bins or purchase a tall storage bucket and cut it down to size. If you come across something that might work for me, post a link in the comments!

Sunlight

The only untinted window in the RV is the windshield, which gets far too hot for these cool-loving plants. So I plan to put them in a lightly tinted window. This window slides open, but then one side would get all sun, while the other gets double tint from overlapped windows. I could move them outside during the day, but that creates other complications under the Inspections section. I guess we will see what happens…

Water Consumption

Water is always on our minds.

The more I learn about greens, the more water they require. First there is the actual watering of the plants. It’s not a showstopper. I will probably find a thin mulch to help reduce evaporation. As a bonus, that will keep the soil cooler and may help stave off bolt. My bigger concern is that triple wash requirement at harvest. Given that they will be planted indoors, in a soil alternative, with liquid nutrients dripping carefully into the soil, there is far less concern about contamination. I will probably only double wash. I’ve read that plants love to have the wash water recycled into their pots. I may also use it for pet water.

Heat

This may be the most challenging factor. Here in Tucson, I’m fluctuating anywhere from 55 overnight to 95 during the day. We should get out of the worst of the heat when we swing North shortly. I can water in the afternoon, just before the hottest part of the day, to hold the soil temps down. I may even throw a few ice cubes in the watering can! I’ll probably get a thermometer to stick in the soil just to get an idea of what I’m working with.

Inspections

One of California’s Agriculture Inspection stations.

This is probably the weirdest obstacle to mobile gardening. I’m hoping to plant this Spring, but by Fall, we will be entering California with it’s agricultural inspection sites. (Arizona is another state with agricultural inspections.) According to the California website, any household plants must have been kept entirely indoors and be healthy, with no signs of pests. There is a list of plants that are forbidden, but no veggies are included. They are mostly focused on citrus and firewood.

I emailed the governing body with a description of our setup, asking for any advice to ensure that we make it through inspection. They came back quickly with a reply that they had no concerns regarding my proposed scenario. As long a there are no signs of infection, it sounds like our little garden is good to go!

I’ll keep the email handy in case any of the inspectors get over-zealous.

Little Dog

The final challenge to any form of plant growth in my home is this little monster. Hopefully she won’t be interested in something as boring as lettuce. Perhaps I can distract her with a catnip plant…

Olivia: Destroyer of Plants

I should have mentioned that I have a total black thumb. So this whole endeavor might be a horrible mistake. At least it will be entertaining!

If you have any advice, let me know in the comments below.


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One thought on “Planning a Mobile Salad Garden

  1. This is very cool. Are there any large kitty litter pans that might fit your qualifications for the container? I can’t wait to hear more about how this is going. Since I throw away veggies, especially the expensive pre packaged salad mixes more often than use them, I’m very intrigued for my own home project. Of course you get your black thumb from me, so I’ll wait and see how you do before I invest my time and money.

    Like

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