15 Tips for Herb Gardening in Small Spaces
You don’t need a massive garden or greenhouse to grow an impressive herb garden. With the right varieties, proper care, and innovative space-saving techniques, you can produce an abundance of fragrant herbs without much space at all!
I once grew over 60 species of herbs and vegetables on a tiny 5-foot-by-10-foot apartment patio. When you factor in the windowsill herbs, grow light shelving, railing planters, and hanging baskets, there were nearly 100 different edible plants in (and around) my one- bedroom apartment.
You can grow an abundance of herbs in 10 square feet or less if you plan and maintain your garden wisely. When you’re limited on space, massive rosemary shrubs, lavender bushes, and rhubarb plants are out of the picture.
But most culinary herbs easily adapt to container growing or can be pruned to stay small in limited-space ground beds. Here are 15 tips for growing the maximum amount of herbs in a small area!
Pick Functional Containers
Most small-space herb gardening happens in pots indoors. If you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space, consider a Birdies Raised Bed for an aesthetic addition to your patio.
Either way, opt for functional containers over the dainty herb boxes you see on Pinterest without drainage holes. Herbs only survive in those decorative boxes for short periods. For a long-lasting herb garden, you must grow in quality containers with drainage holes and sufficient depth to allow herbal roots to thrive.
Drainage holes are essential for happy potted herbs (and, for that matter, any plant). Water in a container has nowhere to go except down and out. While some decorative pots may be pretty, they will produce an ugly mess of root-rotten herbs if they don’t have drainage holes!
Depth matters because the above-ground harvest of any plant is limited by its root growth. A 6” deep container is the minimum size for thriving herbs. However, herbs like parsley, basil, and cilantro prefer even deeper. Perennials like lavender and rosemary need a minimum 5-gallon pot at least 12” deep, but larger is always better.
If you have small in-ground beds, you can make the most of them by sketching your layout in advance. Generously amend your soil to ensure robust growth, and choose highly productive herbs from the list below.
Plant Compact Herbs
Plant breeders have already done some of the hard work for small-space gardeners! They developed dwarf and compact varieties specifically suited for limited areas. Dwarf herbs are widely available in seed catalogs and nurseries. Remember that pruning and additional maintenance may be required to keep them compact.
Some of my favorite compact herbs include delicious chives, versatile thyme, and sweet stevia.
If you’re limited in space, avoid large or flowering herbs like dill, borage, rosemary, sage, lavender, or chamomile. Alternatively, find dwarf cultivars of these herbs.
Ensure Sufficient Sunlight
Sunlight is the most limiting factor in indoor or container herb gardens because most herbs require 6-8 hours of full sun. This can be difficult to accomplish if you don’t have a south-facing window or patio. East and west-facing windows sometimes suffice if nothing is blocking the sun.
A bunch of herbs fighting for limited sunshine is not a pretty sight. Insufficient light can cause leggy growth, wimpy stems, pale foliage, yellowing leaves, and a loss of the herbal aromatics we crave!
A grow light is the best solution for indoor gardeners. If you are herb gardening in a small outdoor space that receives partial shade, you may have to choose semi-shade-tolerant species like mint, thyme, oregano, dill, lovage, cilantro, or chives.
Move Things Around
Remember this motto: Inside in the winter and outside in the summer. If you need to maximize your space, opt for a portable small-space herb garden.
Many herbs die back when exposed to frost, but if you grow them in containers, you can bring them inside for the winter! This saves some space (and electricity, if using grow lights) during the summer season for growing more annuals! Moreover, herbs grow quickly and abundantly under the outdoor sun.
Grow bags with handles are awesome for seasonal transport because they aren’t breakable or heavy like clay and terracotta pots. A rolling platform is great for larger pots you don’t want to lift. When the risk of frost has passed, you can clear off your windowsill by moving sun-loving herbs outside onto your patio or porch. Then, plant a quick indoor crop of veggies or flowers.
Cilantro can operate on an opposite schedule: Grow it outdoors in the cool season and bring it indoors during the heat of summer when it tends to bolt.
Harvest, Prune, and Pinch
Regular harvesting is critical to a thriving herb patch. It may seem counterintuitive, but most herbs benefit from consistent cutting. Proper harvesting methods fuel more growth so your herbs continuously produce the fragrant leaves you want rather than going to seed or turning woody.
Pruning also keeps herbs compact and healthy. Fortunately, you can combine your harvesting and pruning in one. For example, when you harvest basil, don’t cut from the base of the stems. Instead, pinch all the upper leaf clusters and use the basil tips.
This promotes bushier, leafier growth because it removes the upper meristems (growth tips) of the plant, signaling for it to grow more leaves rather than lengthening its stems up. Remember to pinch or cut just above a node (the little bump where leaves intersect with the stem). As a bonus, you don’t have as many stems in your pesto! Use this same method for mint, lemon balm, and other leafy or bushy herbs.
Similarly, you can prune and harvest chives at the same time to encourage new growth. Grab a handful of chive leaves and use sharp scissors to cut 1-3” above the base of the plant. As long as the lower growing tips are intact, it will regrow within a couple of weeks. Use this method for thyme, oregano, and tarragon.
For woody herbs like rosemary, sage, and lavender, a once or twice-annual pruning keeps them small and shapely. Use sharp pruners to remove up to two-thirds of the plant, shaping it in any way you desire. Don’t cut into the woody core! Prune only the soft, green growth. Take those prunings and use them to root new cuttings or dry for herb and spice blends.
Herbs like cilantro and parsley do best when you harvest the lower stalks from the base. This is a similar process to harvesting kale or chard. Gently remove a stem by snapping or cutting it from the base. Avoid pulling upward or you could uproot the plant. While this isn’t like your standard pruning, it still promotes fresh, new growth in the center of the plant.
Use a Grow Light Shelf
If you don’t have a south-facing window, or your window sill and outdoor space are already full, consider an indoor grow shelf! Though commonly used for seed starting, you can also make an impressive vertical herb garden with a metal rack shelf and a couple of indoor grow lights.
Recall that light is the major limiting factor for herbs. A grow light fixes two problems simultaneously: Your indoor herbs get plenty of light, and you can keep your window sills open for houseplants or decor.
Simple metal rack shelves from a hardware store are perfect for a DIY indoor herb setup. Hang a grow light on every shelf layer and arrange your plants underneath. There are also growing shelves specially made for vertical gardening with artificial lights. These can be more aesthetically pleasing but functionally accomplish the same goals.
Divide or Prune the Roots
Annual or semi-annual division and pruning is essential if you are growing herbs in containers. Eventually, every herb will outgrow its pot. When you don’t have any more space for larger containers, you have two options:
- Lift the plant from its pot and divide it in clumps, then discard or replant the division.
- Lift the plant and prune the root zone to keep it compact and healthy.
Division is a common means of propagating herbs, but the exact method depends on the species. For example, thyme and chives grow from clumps that can easily be chopped in half or pulled apart every year. On the other hand, rosemary is a woody herb that cannot be dug and divided like you would with an herbaceous perennial.
For woodier plants, root pruning is the way to go. Pruning the roots helps keep the plant happy in a small container without becoming root bound. We can take some notes from the Bonsai community. They regularly prune the roots of trees to keep them compact while promoting mature growth up top.
Root pruning is also a great opportunity to check your herbs for signs of root rot. It requires a gentle hand, so take care not to harm your plant:
- Take the herb outside or on a patio where it’s OK for soil to fall.
- Grasp the herb from its base with one hand and hold the pot in the other.
- Gently shimmy the roots out of the container.
- Ruffle the roots with your hands to release any loose soil.
- Check for any signs of root rot, like a foul smell, blackened zones, or mushy root tissue.
- Use clean, sanitized pruners to prune away infected or damaged roots.
- Use your fingertips to loosen any rootbound areas gently.
- Cut away up to one-third of the outer roots, leaving a strong rootball center.
- Replant in the same pot, optionally refreshing the soil.
- Water thoroughly for a week or so after pruning, but don’t overwater.
- The plant may droop or show signs of transplant shock but should bounce back quickly.
Choose Quality Soil
In a limited space, soil quality is more important than ever. Unless you grow in a profoundly loamy outdoor garden bed, your herb roots won’t have many extra places to seek nutrients, minerals, water, and oxygen. High-quality soil is particularly important in small containers.
Some herbs, like basil, scallions, and cilantro, demand ultra-rich loamy soil with lots of compost. Others, like mint, lemon balm, and parsley, aren’t as picky but still enjoy a nice fluffy potting mix.
On the other hand, Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, sage, marjoram, oregano, and tarragon tend to prefer extra well-drained soil with less fertility. They don’t need very much moisture retention and prefer to be a little on the dry side. Some horticultural sand or limestone pea gravel can help mimic their native soil.
Most indoor and potted herbs can benefit from adding perlite to increase drainage. Drainage is another huge limiting factor in any container garden. Plants growing in pots are vulnerable to root rot if water gets stuck in the lower soil profiles. Perlite and organic matter ensure water moves through the root profile and out of the bottom drainage holes.
Use Minimal Fertilizer
You may be tempted to dump on the fertilizer to maximize growth in a small space. Don’t do it! The majority of herbs are grown for their aromatic essential oils. Too much fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, can cause a loss of fragrance and flavor.
Choose balanced, slow-release, organic fertilizers and apply sparingly. If compost is integrated into your potting blends, fertilizer may be unnecessary.
Use the Margins
The borders and margins of any space are often the most wasted. In permaculture, there is a key ecological principle about using the edges to maximize biodiversity and create a functional transition from one area to another.
The only way I could incorporate such a diversity of plants into my apartment patio garden was by using every square inch of the space, including the railing surrounding it. Look at walls, fences, railings, and other borders as opportunities for innovation.
In a small space herb garden, there are many unique ways you can make use of the edges:
- Install railing planters on fence rails or balcony railings. Some are specially made for fence posts.
- Hang vertical fabric grow bags on walls or fences.
- Arrange raised beds as a barrier along a patio or deck.
- Trellis climbing herbs (like vining rosemary, climbing roses, or jasmine) to save ground space.
Practice Succession Planting
Not all herbs produce forever. While you can maintain a continuous supply of basil or mint, sometimes it’s nice to refresh (particularly if your herbs look wimpy or ragged after several months of harvest).
Succession planting is the practice of staggering multiple crop plantings throughout the year. It is commonly used in vegetable gardening to ensure a continuous crop supply. For example, you can seed carrots every 2-3 weeks so you always have roots to harvest.
In the herb world, consider succession planting cilantro in the spring, summer, and fall to maintain productive plants. The summer plants may have trouble in the heat, but you’ll have a fall planting ready to go by the time they bolt. You maintain high production in a limited space by re-sowing your herbs a couple of times per year.
This is only necessary for your favorite annual herbs. Perennials should only need a refresh every few years.
Add Hanging Baskets
Hanging baskets aren’t only for flowers! Many people forget to look at the ceiling or awning as a potential place for plants. When you’re trying to get the most out of your space, it helps to visualize herbs growing literally everywhere!
With the proper hardware, you can hang a basket almost anywhere. First, check that there are wood studs or another solid place to secure hanging hooks. Alternatively, you can purchase or build a ground-mounted railing to hang baskets from.
The best herbs for hanging baskets are low-growing or creeping varieties. Some drape elegantly from the basket, while others can flop over the sides. Great options include trailing rosemary, nasturtium, oregano, and alpine strawberries.
Plant Close (But Not Too Close)
Close quarters call for closer plant spacing! However, you must be very careful not to crowd your herbs. Otherwise, their yields will be compromised.
Before cramming herbs together, ensure you have the highest quality soil possible and ample sunlight. More herbs in a small space means there will be limited resources. You must also maintain consistent moisture and prune your plants to prevent them from impeding each other’s growth.
Most species, like basil, mint, thyme, parsley, or cilantro, need a minimum of 6-8” of space per plant. If you are interplanting, it may require some experimentation to see which herbs are willing to stay lush in tight quarters.
When in doubt, go a little wider because it’s better to have a productive plant that takes up a few extra inches rather than multiple wimpy plants that barely grow because they’re cramped.
For example, creeping thyme makes an excellent “ground cover” beneath potted rosemary or lavender. It can even cascade from a hanging basket! Additionally, you can grow oregano, sage, and thyme in the same pot because they have very similar needs.
Consider the height and width of each herb you want to companion plant. You can sneak in scallions just about anywhere. Basil and cilantro grow about the same height and depth, so they can be grouped in a pot alongside each other as long as they have 8-10” of space between them.
Rent Community Garden Space
Community gardens are a glorious opportunity for limited-space herb lovers to expand their repertoire and find fellow plant lovers. You can usually rent a community garden bed for fairly cheap or offer to tend a neighbor’s herb garden for free (in exchange for unlimited harvests).
If you don’t have the funds to invest in a bunch of containers and indoor growing equipment, this is the most budget-friendly option to get your hands dirty without much risk.
Anyone can grow herbs if they’re willing to think outside the box. If you have a south-facing window, fill it with potted herbs and hanging baskets. Grow lights are the way to go if you don’t have a bright window. Maximize your vertical space and use those railings if you have a patio. Don’t forget to prune and harvest regularly, and enjoy your herbs!