Rooftop Gardens

By Anica Wong

January 24, 2013 4 min read

The chef at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles wanted to be able to pick specific vegetables himself and plate them right away to serve to the private social club's members. To figure out how to create a garden on the grounds, the Jonathan Club called Farmscape, a local urban farming operation.

The result of the chef's wants and Farmscape's vision was a rooftop garden planted with fruit trees, peas, spinach, arugula, baby carrots and herbs, among other things. While the Jonathan Club had the means and space for a large garden, rooftop gardens are not only for businesses or the wealthy.

"There is definitely an awakening in rooftop gardens," says co-founder of Farmscape, Rachel Bailin. "People are realizing that growing your own food is a unique experience."

Before you start ordering seeds and hauling topsoil up all of the stairs, Bailin notes that there are four things to take into consideration when planning a rooftop garden.

First, figure out if the roof can support the weight of a garden. Soil can be extremely heavy and depending on how big your planters are, Bailin says the dirt can weigh up to two tons. The Jonathan Club decided to put their rooftop garden on the top of the parking garage, to ensure the structure was sturdy enough for their plans. If you're unsure whether your roof makes the cut, check with a structural engineer to see that planting a garden won't cause damage to the roof or the structure.

The second challenge is drainage. Plants need water and that water needs to be able to go somewhere to avoid pooling and causing water damage to the roof. Most rooftops will have some sort of adequate draining system that funnels water down to the ground. By designing and planning your garden accordingly, you can make sure that any runoff water will be disposed of properly.

Once you've figured out the water situation, you can start projecting what types of plants you will grow. Keep in mind that you won't be able to cultivate everything in a rooftop garden that you would in a normal ground-level garden.

"Because you can't get as much soil depth because you have to put (plants) in a container, you want things that will do well without big roots," Bailin says. Leafy greens like lettuce, which have shorter roots, are much better than beets or carrots, which have long, deep roots. Rooftop gardens are also great places to grow tomatoes (since the space gets a lot of direct sunlight) and herbs, which take up less room and don't require much root space.

The fourth consideration might seem a bit strange, but it is one of the most important parts of getting your garden to thrive, according to Bailin.

"You have to make sure you are bringing nature back," she says. Though some may decide that a garden on top of an urban roof is enough nature, Bailin says it's not. You have to bring the ecosystem to the top of the roof; it is not enough just to plant the green stuff and hope that they grow. Bailin says that beneficial insects and pollinators such as bees have to be reintroduced into the space. These critters are not going to naturally find the rooftop garden, so planting flowers and potentially getting a beehive for the area are both ways to "bring nature back."

Once you've gone through these steps to ensure that your gardening attempts will be fruitful, you can enjoy the planting process and the other benefits of your new space.

"The best part of the garden is the view. On a clear day you can see 360 degrees," says Lora Hall, Cube Cafe's garden manager. Cube, also located in Los Angeles, built a rooftop garden about three years ago. "When it snows in the mountains during the winter they are absolutely beautiful. It is so special to be in the midst of a lot of warehouses in sunny, urban downtown Los Angeles and to look up and see snow-capped mountains."

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