COLUMBIA — Put a liner inside a plastic milk crate, pack in some dirt and plant a few seeds.
Multiply that task by a dozen crates or so, and put them in a sunny location so the seeds can sprout.
The result is a milk crate garden — mobile, versatile and easy to build.
Culinary chef instructor Brook Harlan has built a milk crate garden at the Columbia Area Career Center to grow a variety of herbs for cooking, to make growing and gathering herbs easier and to educate students about the process.
In addition to herbs, the method can be adapted to growing tomatoes, peas, squash, carrots and cucumber, certain fruits, such as strawberries, and flowers. For urban gardeners, especially, it is a cheap, convenient way to grow produce in a small space.
"It's something different and really cool to do," Harlan said. "And it's easy."
Each stackable crate is 1 cubic-square foot and is UV-protected, Harlan said, which helps prevent cracks and disintegration.
The center currently has 300 crates, and 150 of them have been planted with chives, sage, purple sage, jalapenos, lavender, marjoram, thyme, parsley, oregano, rosemary, mint, basil and a few vegetables.
"We're really only growing (herbs) right now, and tomatoes and peppers," said Jacob Knerr, one of Harlan's students. "But we plan to grow more."
Half of the crates are zip-tied together on one level, and they can be lined up or arranged in a square, depending on location. The remaining half are stacked directly on top of the first layer and can be reorganized to take advantage of space or weather restrictions.
During spring and summer, the milk crate gardens can go anywhere outdoors, including right outside the kitchen door. In the winter, the gardens are typically moved into the greenhouse.
Previously, students at the Career Center grew herbs in a greenhouse with a process called aquaponics that uses fish to fertilize plants in a soil-less garden.
"Certain herbs don't do well in the aquaponics garden, like rosemary," Harlan said.
Milk crate gardens can be successfully grown anywhere in the U.S. despite differing weather patterns because of their flexible nature. Missouri's variable weather doesn't make much of a difference, Harlan said.
He tried milk crate gardening after discovering it at a New York restaurant called Riverpark. He took several pictures and talked to the farmer, Zachary Pickens, to learn more about it.
Riverpark's two farms are home to more than 100 types of plants and at least 7,000 milk crates, according to the Riverpark Farm website. In 2014, the restaurant is growing a variety of greens, herbs, berries, nightshades, vegetables, edible weeds, microgreens and flowers.
When Harlan returned to Columbia, he immediately sought permission from the Career Center director to start milk crate gardens and began a test run in the fall of 2012.
He reasoned that having his students see where the herbs they use for cooking are grown has a much larger impact.
"It's given me more of an insight into the farm-to-table aspect of the culinary industry," Knerr said.
This season, Harlan plans to grow more herbs and even some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers and snow peas. But his main concern is his students.
"It piques their interest," he said. "If (the students) own a restaurant 10 to 15 years from now, they could use this."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.