Planting Our Roof, Part III

Read Part I here.

Some of the best gardening advice I’ve ever received is to locate a garden close to the places you go most often. You will step into it more frequently and attend to the little needs. Having a roof-top garden just outside our second floor living area makes gardening a part of my everyday summer routine. When I sit on the bench in the mornings, I notice and nurture. During the day, I can’t stay away. Even now, my hands smell of cilantro as I type on my keyboard from the two-minute stop out the door to pinch off the tops before they flower.

Our roof deck garden grew over time after architectural planning and construction. When we moved into our new home in June 2005, harvesting seemed a long way off and the only hint of a garden I had beyond the black layers of the roof-scape system were miniature roses in a pot.

Landscape Planning The process of transforming the roof deck into a roof garden began with landscape planning. We wanted an annual vegetable garden in raised beds with grass surrounding them and a small patio. We decided not to plant perennials on the roof deck since we weren’t sure how the warmth from the heated garage below would impact perennial plants.

We sketched different ideas on a scaled drawing of the roof deck. Then, a friend suggested an H-shape for the raised beds, reflecting the first letter of our last name. That design idea worked well for us and we began planning around an H-shape.

Building Raised Beds Since my husband had served as the general contractor for our house construction, months after we moved in, many extra materials still sat on the site. These included three partial pallets of sand-colored concrete block sitting on the edge of the cul-de-sac that needed to be moved.

I’m a believer in using what you have first and figured these would be a good material to construct the raised beds, which we would build first.

The reality of moving a couple of hundred concrete blocks from the street in front of our house to the second floor above our garage exhausted us, but we did it.

We thought we could make a pulley system and lift them up one or two at a time. In theory we could probably have done it, but it turned out to be much quicker for the whole family to haul them up the inside stairs one, two or three at a time. Once all the blocks made it to the roof, we loose laid or dry stacked them two deep in the shape of an H.

Dumping the Dirt We hired a landscape company to find a source for the soil we wanted and to help devise a system to deliver it to the roof. We used a mixture of top soil and vermiculite, to reduce the weight of the soil. The landscapers rented a piece of equipment with a conveyor belt that raised to a slant from the ground to the roof. They shoveled the soil onto the conveyor and dumped it at the top where they used a wheel barrow to move the dirt around and fill in the raised beds.

The depth of the soil is 14-16 inches deep in the raised beds and varies from 3-8 inches where we planted grass. We filled a portion with sand and laid patio pavers on top of that.

Planting the Roof We finished landscaping the roof garden in September and planted grass seed that month. It came up nicely right away. The first two years the grass struggled during dry spells, even with water. But now that the root system is established, the grass is flourishing around the raised beds, and it makes a soft carpet for bare feet walking.

We planted annual vegetables the first spring and enjoyed a harvest of zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, peas, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce. We’ve experimented with other vegetables and annual flowers since. Corn takes too much space to grow very well, and we resist planting potatoes because we worry that there won’t be enough depth. However, gardening on our roof now feels as natural as our yard garden did.

It may have started out as an architectural novelty or a gardening experiment, but now it serves us well without serving all our produce to the animals. And my husband, Paul, can pitch the idea to his clients that come to his architecture firm and they trust him because he’s done it.

Beyond its functionality, the space feels like our own private enclosed garden raised a couple of levels above the concerns of everyday life.


  1. Ryan
    Aug 20, 2008

    Again … I’m _so_ jealous.

  2. Minna Dyer
    Aug 21, 2008

    I must say also, that I am so jealous. I’m lucky if I can get herbs to grow in my kitchen window sill.

  3. jle
    Aug 21, 2008

    I would love to look at this everyday, and go out to work in it to keep it looking so beautiful. As it is we have a tiny garden in pots on our patio and my kids absolutely love going to check to see what is growing and ripening, and going out to water the plants. To have something so beautiful in your own little world, it looks so peaceful. You did a wonderful job!

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