Vertical Gardening for a Small Space

Conserve space and still grow your favorite herbs with a stacked garden.

| April/May 1997

  • This garden at a small herb nursery in England is made from barrels stacked on top of barrels. It is planted to overflowing with dozens of herbs and flowers.
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • This garden at a small herb nursery in England is made from barrels stacked on top of barrels. It is planted to overflowing with dozens of herbs and flowers.
    Illustration by Susan Strawn

Nearly every gardener eventually runs out of space. It’s a universal condition. Gardens are seldom large enough to accommodate every plant we want to grow. As a result, we tend to overcrowd our plantings to make them all fit. For the apartment dweller or urban gardener, the problem is even more pronounced. To have a garden on a small concrete patio or tiny balcony is not impossible; it just requires more imagination. One solution is to go up instead of out. If you think in terms of three dimensions rather than two, the sky’s the limit.

There are a number of ways to add this element of verticality to your gardening, as well as products on the marketplace to help you do it. The most remarkable example I’ve seen was in an herb garden I visited many years ago at a small British herb nursery near the border between England and Wales. I remember it clearly because it was so simple, and it illustrated the ingeniousness of vertical gardening beautifully. It was an entire herb garden of about sixty plants in a space no larger than the size of my desktop.

Stack ’em up

The owner of the nursery had stacked three whiskey barrels of different sizes and planted the exposed soil with herbs. The resulting raised beds demonstrated all the virtues of a good herb garden: beautiful foliage and textural contrasts; lush carpets of flowers; intriguing habits of growth; alluring fragrances; and plants with a variety of medicinal, culinary, and aromatic uses.

The plants in the lowest tier were at knee level, and those in the topmost barrel were at eye level. In addition to providing a splendid visual treat, this arrangement put every herb within reach—to touch, smell, and harvest with no need even to bend down. I suspect that the garden was watered from the top, allowing the water to drain down to each of the plantings below.

What I enjoyed most about this garden was the variety of plants that it held. Many common herbs were in this barrel stack, including some that you might think were too large for container growing: lovage, fennel, upright rosemary, and culinary sages. Selective removal of flower or seed stalks, the restricted root zone, and natural competition among the plants, however, restrained the growth of the larger herbs and kept it manageable. The owner avoided growing herbs such as mint, horseradish, and the spreading artemisias, whose aggressive root systems would have taken over the planting in no time.

Herbs cascaded over the edges of all three barrels, showing off the foliage and blooms of upright thymes, prostrate rosemaries, winter savories, and gray santolinas. Although the barrels were packed with perennials and biennials, annuals could easily have been included initially to fill any open spaces until the perennials grew in.

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