How to Start a Vertical Herb Garden
Jules Walters • First published: Oct 21, 2023
Making a vertical herb garden is a great way to grow plants for the kitchen.
Vertical herb gardens at home save both space and money. They can make good use of existing structures, like walls and fences – or you can make new ones, using wooden pallets and packing crates.
What are the basics of vertical herb gardening?
Whatever kind of herbs you want to grow at home, here are a few things to think about first:
- What space, indoors or outdoors, can you give to it?
- How much are you able or willing to spend on the project?
- Where will the light come from? Sunlight or artificial?
- How much sunlight does your sunniest outdoor spot receive?
- How will you water your plants? Manually or with an automatic system?
For example, if your heart’s desire is to grow your own watermelons, or root crops like carrots and potatoes that need more space and depth of soil, then a vertical garden is probably not the answer. If you have the yard space, consider creating a raised bed for these more demanding food crops.
Alternatively, if you’re in an urban environment with no outdoor space, see if there’s a community garden near you where you can sign up for a plot.
If you are handy with basic tools, and want to spend as little as possible, then a vertical garden can make a great DIY project. If you’re not that practical, then there are lots of readymade, indoor and outdoor solutions online and in the home stores to suit every space and budget.
Decide which herbs you would like to grow. Some popular options include basil, thyme, rosemary, mint, parsley, sage and cilantro. Dedicated herb lovers typically include lavender too, if only for its attractive flowers and heady scent wafting on the breeze.
All of these herbs will grow to fill the available space, given optimal growing conditions for each herb. In my experience, basil in full sun benefits most from extra space in terms of rapid growth potential. For more on these specifics, see below.
Decide on the type of structure you’d like for your vertical garden. Do you want something highly finished or a more rustic, antique look? Either way, decide whether you’re up for building it yourself or you’d prefer to buy readymade.
The structure could be anything from a wall-mounted trellis or metal grid; pots or pouches hanging from a wall, fence or balcony rails; to a freestanding ladder planter, or a vertical garden kit from your home improvement store.
Use a high-quality potting mix, or create your own by combining equal parts of compost, peat moss, and perlite or vermiculite.
Remember that herbs usually prefer well-draining soil.
Fill your vertical planters or pockets with the prepared potting mix. Ideally, start from seed germinated indoors in early spring, then plant out the herb seedlings once they’re established and the last frost has gone.
Alternatively, plant on established plants into your outdoor containers. And take care to follow the recommended spacing for each herb.
Watering and fertilizing
Ensure your herb garden receives regular watering, as vertical gardens often dry out more quickly. Test the soil regularly with a fingertip, and water deeply whenever the top inch or so feels dry. See the next section for more on this.
Also, consider adding a slow-release organic fertilizer or liquid fertilizer to provide essential nutrients to your plants.
Care and maintenance
Monitor your herbs at least weekly for signs of pests or diseases. Prune back any outliers to encourage bushier plants. Harvest the herbs frequently to promote new growth and maintain their flavor.
And, unless you’re into harvesting seeds, snip off the herb’s flowering tips as soon as they appear. This way, you’ll stop the plant going over and you can often extend its season well into the fall.
Best growing conditions for an outdoor vertical herb garden
Getting the location right is key to your vertical herb garden, and most – though not all – popular garden herbs prefer a position in full sun. That’s 6 to 8 hours of direct sun each day during the growing season.
These are some of the most important conditions you will need to grow herbs successfully in a vertical garden:
Herbs generally prefer nutrient-rich soil. You can use organic compost or an all-purpose potting mix to provide essential nutrients for healthy growth. Additionally, you can use organic liquid fertilizers specific to herbs to supplement their nutrient requirements. Follow the instructions on the fertilizer packaging for application rates.
Opt for a well-draining growing medium to prevent water logging and promote root health. A mix of equal parts potting soil, perlite, and vermiculite or coconut fibre – coco coir – would work well.
Ensure the growing medium is loose and friable (crumbles easily) to allow adequate air circulation.
Most herbs, though not all, thrive in full sun. That generally means they require at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.
If you are growing your herbs indoors, place them near a sunny window or provide them with artificial grow lights to ensure they get sufficient light. If you’re growing them outdoors, choose a vertical garden location that receives ample sunlight throughout the day.
Sunlight needs of popular garden herbs:
- Basil: Needs full sun, and warm soil
- Chives: Prefers full sun, but will tolerate some shade
- Cilantro/Coriander: Does well in partial shade
- Mint: Prefers full sun or partial shade
- Oregano: Likes full sun
- Parsley: Prefers partial shade, but can tolerate full sun
- Rosemary: Needs full sun and warm temperatures
- Sage: Requires full sun for optimal growth
- Thyme: Thrives in full sun
Ensure the soil remains consistently moist, but not soggy. Avoid overwatering, as it can cause root rot.
Regularly check the soil moisture level by pressing your finger into the soil about one inch, or up to your first finger joint. If it feels dry at that depth, it’s time to water.
If regular watering by hand isn’t practical, you’ll need to install an automatic watering system. There are several relatively inexpensive options on the market. You will need a convenient faucet to connect it to, or have one installed; so bear this in mind when you choose the location for your vertical herb garden.
Alternatively, you can buy the planter with the watering system already built in, like the one in the picture here. All you’ll need do is assemble it!
Temperature and Climate
The herbs above generally prefer moderate to warm temperatures, with rosemary needing the warmest conditions to thrive. Aim for a temperature range of 60-75°F (15-24°C) for successful growth. And while outdoor temperatures aren’t fully in your power to control, there are ways to limit the downside. If your planting system or its component plants are portable:
- Keep them inside in the early season until after the last expected frost
- Bring them back inside again during the summer and fall if cooler weather is forecast
If you are nurturing your young or vulnerable plants indoors, I highly recommend obtaining LED grow lights for them, to compensate for the lack of direct sunlight. These are inexpensive and easy to set up.
Pests and Diseases
Monitor your herbs regularly for pest infestations such as aphids, spider mites, or powdery mildew. Address any issues promptly using organic pest control methods, or insecticidal soap if needed.
Harvest herbs regularly to encourage new growth and maintain healthy plants. Clip the leaves or sprigs from the top of the plant, ensuring you don’t remove more than one-third of the foliage at once.
By providing these optimal growing conditions, you should be able to successfully cultivate these popular herbs in your vertical garden.
Enjoy your abundant herb harvests!
Frequently asked questions
What do I need to build my own vertical herb garden?
Well, that depends on what you want to build! You could repurpose a couple of discarded wooden pallets, or an old ladder for your vertical structure. Or you can save on construction altogether if there are garden steps you can occupy.
If you have a suitable outside wall or fence that gets plenty of sunlight, you may only need a set of planting pots or baskets and brackets to hold the planters to the vertical structure.
If the planters don’t already have drainage holes, you will need to make at least one in the bottom of each planter (no more than 1/2 an inch in diameter). Then it’s all down to the planting materials.
These are common to most planting needs:
- Organic container compost
- Garden soil
- Plant food (for vegetables & herbs)
- Pea gravel or small rocks*
- Perlite and/or vermiculite additives
- Peat moss
- Garden trowel and fork
- Landscaping fabric
- Small watering can
As a rough guide, you will need at least one 2-cubic-foot bag each of compost and of garden soil for planting a pallet-sized vertical herb garden. One small roll of landscaping fabric will be more than enough for lining the planters.
For more herb garden ideas and tips, take a look at my article How to Care for Your Herb Garden.
*A layer of gravel or small rocks laid in each planter before adding the soil mix will help with drainage and avoid the planted herbs becoming waterlogged through over-watering, or after heavy rain. And if you don’t plan to water your plants manually, you’ll also need to invest in an automated watering system.
What are the most common items repurposed for DIY vertical herb gardens?
I mentioned old pallets and packing crates earlier. These are great for giving you a basic structure with a minimum of reconstruction or financial outlay. Other popular items repurposed for vertical herb gardens include:
- Book shelves
- Chicken wire
- Cooking pots and pans
- Galvanized gutters
- Metal poles & chains
- School desks
- Shoe pouches
- Shower caddies
- Store displays
- Wire frames
Why add perlite and vermiculite to herb garden soil?
Perlite and vermiculite are soil additives commonly used in gardening and horticulture. The purpose is to improve the soil structure and enhance its moisture-retaining capacity.
While perlite and vermiculite are both sterile formulations from naturally-occurring minerals, they both enhance the soil’s overall characteristics. Mixed in separately or together, they can help create a well-draining and moisture-retaining environment. That in turn promotes healthy and more rapid root development.