Master Gardener volunteers reach 1,000 salad tables built
PURVIS, Miss. -- What started out in 2012 as a small volunteer project to make two accessible gardens for use by residents of a Hattiesburg nursing home grew and multiplied until the group recently completed its 1,000th one.
The Pine Belt Master Gardeners offer a service of making what are known as “salad tables” -- small, wooden-framed gardens raised about 3 feet off the ground. They make about 12-14 tables per month.
Paul Cavanaugh, a Master Gardener living in Purvis, leads the effort these days.
“The Lamar County Extension agent wanted us to build two tables for people who had issues where they couldn’t kneel down in the garden,” Cavanaugh said. “We went online and looked at different plans, and we got four trusties from the Lamar County Jail who were carpenters to help us.”
A vo-tech teacher at Lamar County Schools helped modify the plans to work best for their needs, and the group got to work.
“We got a variety of people to help us with labor or provide materials, and we started making tables to sell and donate,” Cavanaugh said. “We would take the money generated from sales to the public to buy supplies to make more salad tables. We use the profits from our sales to cover the cost of materials so we can donate tables to a variety of places and organizations.”
To date, Pine Belt Master Gardener salad tables have been donated as far away as Pennsylvania and Maryland, but most stay in-state. Schools, nursing homes and veterans’ hospitals have received these unique gardens.
“Over time, we’ve donated $28,000 to $30,000 in salad tables, and they’ve all been completely made by volunteers,” Cavanaugh said.
Salad tables hold either 6 or 8 inches of soil, and they are usually about 3 feet wide by 6 feet long. The tables make it possible for someone in a wheelchair to roll up to the table and work the garden, and the width can be easily reached across. Because the tables are elevated off the ground, gardeners do not have to kneel to work the plot.
Gardening possibilities are numerous with the salad tables.
“You can grow flowers, lettuce, onions, bell peppers, Asian greens, squash, and even potatoes and peanuts in a salad table,” Cavanaugh said. “In an 8-inch-deep salad table, you can grow tomatoes. Corn is about the only thing that doesn’t work in a salad table.”
MSU researchers have conducted field trials of plant varieties in salad tables in Poplarville at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station, comparing their performance to plants grown in more traditional ways. One positive finding is that there tends to be less insect pressure in salad tables, as the plants are grown over the heads of many pests.
Salad tables are built of cypress wood, which is naturally insect resistant. Wooden legs support a frame, and the bottom of the table is made of quarter-inch galvanized fence material. This mesh allows air flow to the soil, and a fiberglass screen material is laid on top to contain the soil.
“We recommend gardeners use a premium grade of potting soil,” Cavanaugh said. “It takes about three bags of this potting soil to fill the salad table.”
With proper fertilizer, the soil can be used for a few seasons, but often more must be added each time crops are changed.
There are about 35 Pine Belt Master Gardeners, and about 10 of them are involved in building salad tables. Master Gardeners are volunteers who receive extensive horticulture training from the Mississippi State University Extension Service; in return, they commit to a minimum of 20 hours of community service each year.
Jeff Wilson, an MSU Extension Service horticulturist, leads the Master Gardener program in Mississippi.
“This specific program is wonderful for all involved,” Wilson said. “It gives the Master Gardeners a sense of pride knowing they have provided a service that can greatly benefit the end user, and it can lead that person to eating healthier and getting more exercise, which has numerous benefits.”
Currently, Mississippi has approximately 1,200 Master Gardeners active across the state in 60 counties. These highly trained volunteers serve their communities through a variety of projects, including demonstration gardens, educational programs, technical gardening assistance and supporting local MSU Extension offices with horticulture educational needs.