Home & Garden

How to create your own rooftop garden

Photography by Monica McKenna Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Monica McKenna

Home & Garden

How to create your own rooftop garden

On the rooftop – that's where Monica McKenna wants to be. About 17 years ago the photographer set up shop in an old industrial area close to Toronto's waterfront. After renovating her three-storey building into a large studio on the main floor with living space above – and getting married – Monica realized she and her husband, Jérôme McKenna-Boré, could gain a little greenery and a lot of great outdoors by moving up and out onto their 2,000-square-foot rooftop.

Over the pea gravel on the roof, they built a slightly raised deck along the west end. High latticework walls and a pergola of beams attached to upright sections of old TV-aerial towers give the self-seeding morning-glory vines and winter-hardy Virginia creepers something to climb around and over the deck. Along with the nearby trees, they help protect the sitting area from too much sun and wind.

Grouped together on the deck and roof, deep, homemade wooden containers and lots of pots serve as Monica's flowerbeds. The colour-saturated foliage of coleus and trailing sweet potato vine easily stands up to the vibrant sunflowers, dahlias, begonias and magenta morning glories. And her generous plantings of culinary herbs are appreciated as much for their good looks as for their scent and flavour.

"Magic hour"
Monica and Jérôme love the leafy escape they've created. "It's precious to me," says Monica, "and I enjoy it thoroughly." From their green perch above a sea of asphalt, the couple can catch the sunrise, see sailboats on Lake Ontario in the afternoons, and hear how an evening soccer game's going in nearby Lamport Stadium. But when the late-day sun dips toward the horizon, it's "magic hour" for Monica. "There's a gorgeous golden light that fills the garden. The view of the city is unbelievable – with all that gold light reflecting off the buildings."

Page 1 of 2 -- On page 2, find out how to make your own rooftop garden, plus online resources and rooftop garden clubs.
Special tips for rooftop gardeners
• Begin by consulting your municipal building inspector and checking by-laws.

• For safety's sake, you'll need to surround your garden with sturdy walls, which you can top with lattice to soften the wind.

• Keep containers lightweight by using soilless potting mixes, then stir in some moisture-retaining gel grains. After planting, mulch with small pebbles, shells or bark to lessen evaporation.

• Exposed to the elements, rooftop gardens experience strong winds that dry soil and snap spindly stalks and branches, so experts often recommend compact, bushy perennials and small shrubs. You could start with boxwood, cedar, eunonymous, ferns, grasses, lavender, hardy mini-roses, succulents, yews and slow-growing dwarf conifers, in containers from 50 to 60 centimetres deep. Then add some flowering annuals, perennials and herbs, in smaller pots. And include some native flowering and fruiting plants for the birds and bees.

• Place your planters on feet or bases that prevent water from pooling underneath or – even better – on wheeled platforms.

• Group pots together (for visual impact), and secure them so they won't blow away.

• Feed your plants. Monica stirs manure into the soil each year, and steeps compost tea bags in her watering cans.

• Monica empties all the clay pots and brings them indoors for the winter (so they don't freeze and crack), then cuts back the plants that stay outside and wraps them with burlap for insulation (bubble wrap is also great for this).

Tip-top info online
With roots in Montreal and branches that extend around the world, The Rooftop Garden Project develops and shares techniques for soilless container gardening, sells ready-to-grow lettuce kits, cultivates a demonstration garden (Jardin du Roulant) at McGill University in Montreal, and participates in projects in Cuba, Mexico, Morocco and Senegal.

Not only can rooftop container gardens and integrated green roofs help provide food security for people and wildlife, they also boost biodiversity and energy conservation. What's more, they reduce summer smog and heat, and help stop watershed contamination from rainwater runoff. According to Canadian Geographic, Toronto alone has 5,000 hectares of roof space it could retrofit; in the city there are already about 60 green roofs, with several more in the works.

Gardeners, students and teachers! Join The Great Sunflower Project and get a free packet of seeds to grow for your local pollinators.

Kids! Check out Science Buddies to learn how rooftop gardens help cities keep their cool – and how to make a mini rooftop garden that proves it.

Cooks! Find instructions to grow a one-pot herb garden for a rooftop, patio or balcony.

This story was originally titled "Rooftop Gardening" in the May 2009 issue.

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