The middle of winter is the best time for an indoor garden project. This photo inspired an excellent DIY indoor vertical garden idea. It’s totally awesome, has an irrigation system, and well, how hard would it be to copy that?! Visions of repurposed pallet wood and barn wood danced through my head…
Let’s hack it 😉
First, we need a liner for the planters. You can’t have an indoor vertical garden that leaks water all over the floor through the board joints and possible empty nail holes. Yes, it is possible to fashion a liner with plastic, however, that can create problems over the long haul. All those wrinkles and folds filled with water give the undesirable things a place to grow.
A hard plastic liner sized to fit the container is far better. Find those, and then make the box dimensions fit perfectly around them. Unfortunately, the only thing I could find during a couple hours of hunting was window box liners, which are fine if you want the wall planters all the same dimensions. Where’s the fun in that? Playing the varied shapes against each other is a big part of why this design has great character. I mean, just look at the bigger picture here (click it to enlarge). We don’t want a cookie cutter thing going on if we hope to get the same effect.
Now, it is possible to caulk the joining seams and nail holes from behind, but the wood still needs sealing so it a) doesn’t rot or get water stains, and b) doesn’t get so waterlogged that moisture starts beading up on the outside of your container. It could sprout mushrooms! A paint-on sealer is probably not going to create a food-friendly growing environment, though marine varnish would probably work.
But look what I found while scouring the internet for planter box liners!
Definitely not recycling wood, but they come equipped with liners. And in three different lengths. At the prices they go for it’s unlikely the wood has any finish. So, these could be sanded and stained to change the color. Why would I want to do that? The irrigation tubing. If it’s going to be exposed like it is in the photo, then it’s important to get the wood as close to blending as possible for aesthetics. It would be wise to seal the outside too, even if it’s a matte finish. Then all you need to do is add hangers to the back of your planter boxes. Easy peasy.
It’s certainly possible to use that originally intended repurposed wood to build a false wall. That can be painted your favorite off-white for hiding irrigation lines behind. And cords. And the timer. In fact, you could get really creative. Whitewash the planters, paint the reclaimed wood back wall any color at all. Because now you’re not limited to making the water lines blend in so they don’t look awful. It’s your DIY, so tweak it to suit your fancy.
The drip irrigation was made from outdoor irrigation tubing and fittings. It’s 1/2 inch brown drip irrigation line. However, beware, there are 2 different kinds. Rain Bird and Dig both make brown tubing for drip irrigation, but only Dig offers it without holes already in place every 12 or 18 inches. You definitely want the solid tubing indoors. It’s easy to make tiny drip holes where you need them with an awl. Get the tubing HERE, and your connectors and elbows HERE, HERE, and HERE from Home Depot.
You also need a reservoir. If you’re going to have an indoor vertical garden this cool, the last thing you want on the floor under it is a plastic tote tub. Use your imagination. Haunt thrift stores and garage sales in search of a nifty container that holds water and you can drill holes in the top for your irrigation and aeration lines. Or… hide that cheap tote reservoir in a battered trunk, cedar chest, or other junk finds it will fit inside of. Paint makes a whole lotta ugly look great. Just modify the lid or upper back with holes that your lines and cords fit through. You could also use pallet wood to build a lift-off camouflage cover, or build a box with a lid.
Don’t add the plant shown on the lid, or use a recirculation line.
Onto the reservoir and irrigation system. We’ll follow most of the setup mapped out in the Eliooo IkeaHack. Naturally, your reservoir needs oxygen. So you’ll need a 2-line aquarium pump and a couple of small air stones. Space the stones on the reservoir floor to evenly distribute oxygen in the contents. But you also need a pump to send the water and nutrients up the wall.
For irrigation delivery, you need a small submersible fountain pump. Now, when I say small, I don’t mean the tiniest one you can find. You’ve got to have enough power to give the water head lift to about 6 feet off the floor, maybe 8 if you have 10 foot ceilings.
Don’t worry about it having more head lift than needed. It’s not having enough lift that’s a problem. You can adjust it down, but can’t increase it past your pump’s maximum. This inexpensive Pacific Hydrostar model HERE from Harbor Freight gives you head lift to over 11 feet. Perfect! Just don’t let the reservoir water level get too low, or the motor will burn up. Always check the level on a regular basis to keep your plants and equipment happy 😉
There are two things missing in that lovely indoor vertical garden design in that photo on top of this page. Drainage, and grow lights. Now, you might be able to get away without drainage, though I highly recommend you don’t. However, for better growing results, you really need enough light to provide your plants with sufficient energy to do their job – and do it well.
Not being able to allow excess water to exit at all can cause root rot and/or disease, and mold on the potting mix. It can also cause plant decline or death due to the lack of oxygen to the roots. But adding drainage to growing in potting soil means it should drain to waste rather than recirculating back into the reservoir like you would with hydroponic media. You don’t need debris in the irrigation flow to plug up drip holes. Which means – you need a slop pot to hold drainage too.
So, you don’t want a slop pot? You’ll have to water carefully in non-draining containers. Small plants need and use less water than they will after developing larger root systems. And some herbs prefer drier conditions than others too. Even the potting mix you chose will have some effect on how often you need to run the irrigation, and how long. Test it out before planting anything. Try a 5 minute run to start and adjust it to suit your potting mix.
Once you know how much is enough to moisten the container soil without making a bog in the bottom, plant your wall. But to learn how much your herbs need daily, check the moisture with your finger – all the way to the bottom of the soil. Adding gravel might sound smart, but it will be too much weight for hanging on the wall without shelf brackets and heavy duty anchor bolts. And remember, as the young plants grow – they’ll need watering more often. You can also add your fertilizer to the reservoir. Follow hydroponic guidelines for that.
Finally, you have light to consider. The reason there are no grow lights in that photo is that this is probably installed on patio or balcony wall. Indoors, you’d need to hang the planters in a window to enough natural light. So, you need at least some LEDs worked into your indoor vertical garden plan. LED tape grow lights would be easiest if you devise a way to add them and maintain the aesthetics. I found this DIY that would allow for getting custom lengths on light bars, and custom finishes! The light tape he used is HERE.
I think I’d go with a daylight spectrum LED bulb and do some creative painting and antiquing on clamp lamps to pull off keeping it looking cool. A setup like the ‘frequently bought together’ combo HERE is a good starting point. Make them look more like pendant lights. How many you need depends on how many boxes and rows you have. Maybe even hang them from a single bar above it all at staggered heights with bunchy cord sleeves. Once again, get creative. Perhaps a mix of the two light types would work even better for stellar herb production, perhaps allow for growing some lettuces too. The key is to allow your garden to work efficiently.
Yes, it’s a lot simpler to do this kind of herb garden outdoors. But you’ll also have problems with heat and your reservoir. Besides, then it wouldn’t be an indoor vertical garden looking so nifty and green through the dreary part of the year. Add some annuals for a pop of bright color. Imagine enjoying begonias in February!
Planter Box Sources
Save-On Crafts: Choice of natural wood or whitewashed. Make sure it has a liner. Easy to forget that here.
Long-Lasting Zinc Liners!! (Best option if adding drainage.)
If anyone should find a source for rigid plastic planter box liners in various lengths – please share in comments. Maybe I just don’t know the proper phrase to pull them up.
If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.