Look Up

Rooftop Gardens

by Ben Gramkowski

Rooftop Gardens

Elizabeth Whelan

For two Islanders, moving to an apartment on Main Street in Vineyard Haven felt a little like moving to the city. We wanted a place to grow some food for ourselves, but our new living space had no yard or land whatsoever except a parking lot and a place to keep the trash. We considered looking for a garden space elsewhere to rent, but we knew that in the height of a busy Vineyard summer the inconvenience would be too great.

What our new apartment did have was an unfinished deck off the living room—10 feet by 18 feet of bare black rubber roofing with no railings. It was not ideal, but it was something. And so, in early April of 2011, our living room became a nursery. It was already late in the season for planting seeds, but we were determined.

Our original intention—after scrapping a few overeager schemes of building whole raised beds out there—was to grow a modest culinary herb garden. However, we were doomed from our first trip to SBS. Seeds are simply seductive— those little packets are so cheap and so full of possibility. We walked out that day with all the herbs we wanted plus more—tomatoes, bush beans, snap peas, summer squash, strawberries, even salad greens. A garden without vegetables just didn’t feel right.

Our little seeds sprouted, poking their tiny green faces from the soil, and we were triumphant. But inadequate lighting and poorly chosen soil—some thick compost that looked rich and fertile but was too heavy for starting seeds—soon left us with pale, leggy seedlings that were failing to thrive. The year was ticking on towards summer, but our plants could not seem to grow any further than their first sets of true leaves, and they were looking yellower by the day. Many of the little plants succumbed to damping off—rotting away at the soil line until they could no longer stand. Too many hours in the sun on a hard spring day left many plants so withered that no amount of nurturing could bring them back. We had some serious doubts about the color of our thumbs.

We bought better soil, and spent several frenzied days transplanting every promising seedling, even though they were much too small. We soon ran out of four-inch pots, and after that any small plastic container we could find was fair game. My favorite was the cilantro seedling that I transplanted into a salsa container.

These ragtag emergency transplants survived and even began to thrive, somehow. Our inexperience had almost gotten the best of us, but we learned. We set up more lamps for the seedlings, watered them deeper but less frequently to prevent damping off. We realized that acclimating our plants to the harsh conditions of the deck was going to require a lot more patience than we had originally thought. We introduced them to the outside world gradually—at first no more than a half hour a day in the early morning shade.

With our trays of tiny seedlings all crammed into the sunniest corner of the deck, that expanse of black rubber looked like more space than we could ever use. But as the time for planting in drew near and we began to purchase containers and soil, the full scope of our garden began to take shape. By the end of May we probably had over 50 individual plants, and the entire length of our deck was covered with planters. From the ground, passersby could see our handmade wood-and-twine trellis, our tomato cages, and the lanky squash vines and beans that drooped over the roof’s edge. We had truly transformed this space.

It’s impossible to comprehend just how much soil is required to grow vegetables until you start with none. One must be generous to container-grown plants—those few gallons are all the stretching room they have, and as we discovered halfway through the summer, space runs out quickly.

We probably hauled over 500 pounds of dirt onto that roof by the end of the season in 40-pound increments, each time thinking it would be the last only to find that we had more containers to fill, and we were somehow just shy. Anxious neighbors warned us about all that weight, but we were confident that the roof could hold. The worse part is, looking back on all those bags of soil that we went through like nothing, that almost every container was too small, so that many of our plants did not make it through the end of the season. But that’s just another lesson for next year—to temper our over-ambition with practicality. We want to grow as much as we can up there, but we’ve realized that we can’t skimp on containers to save space and money. Every plant needs more than you think.

Difficulties, Suggestions, and Plans

The rooftop is a harsh environment for plants. Many of our early seedlings could not handle the incredible direct sun or strong winds that swept across the black rubber landscape. Rooftops are delicate, and any damage can lead to serious problems and unhappy landlords. The elements are more intense, the stakes are higher, and watering is rarely as simple as spraying a hose about. We had to be very careful to keep those plants alive and producing. We were mostly successful.

Since the ability to use the space for a garden was granted rather informally (that is, several people familiar with the property telling us that previous tenants had had a “couple of pots out there”) and we wanted neither to lose our apartment nor the security deposit, we were very careful to protect the rubber roofing. We used wood pallets to prop up the planters, to allow water to run more freely into the gutter rather than pooling under the pots. So we didn’t rip the roofing, and we made sure nothing was so heavy that we would be able to move it only by dragging. We ended up with five wood pallets covered in landscape fabric for aesthetic appeal, each teeming with pots, but we still had our makeshift trellis and an assortment of planters that we could not find room for on the pallets. We propped them up on bricks so not to damage the roof any more.

When the threat of Hurricane Irene came at the end of August, our landlord asked us to remove all of our plants from the roof. Suddenly, many of the things we never got around to doing did not seem so bad. The larger pots we never bought would have been too big to move; a more elaborate and larger trellis would not have easily lain flat for the coming winds. Even the pallets came down (and went back up) without a struggle. We had only two containers we could not move.

These are the things we must consider for the future. Yes, we would like to use larger pots to yield larger crops, but we have to be able to move those pots, in which case we may have already gone as large as we can in some cases. We would like have a larger, more structurally sound (and prettier) trellis, but we have to make sure as we build it, that it can be collapsed or easily moved for whatever hurricane next season attempts to throw at us.

Container-growing comes with a host of issues, and we encountered each of them in time, as well as the unique problems of the rooftop. The difficulties of container growing boil down to drainage, soil nutrition, and size constraint. In our amateur ignorance of root depth requirements and in an effort to conserve roof space, soil, and money, we tended to buy small pots, exacerbating these issues. Together these led to root bound, stunted, sick, and less flavorful vegetable plants. In order to adapt our garden we will have to do things quite differently for next season.

For instance, to deal with the fact that potted plants become root-bound quicker, we will start a succession planting schedule. However, bagged soil cannot be recycled, for the first plant will have used up its meager nutrition. We will buy or build a small compost tumbler or worm bin, so that we don’t buy bag after bag of soil. We will be able to buy instead the relatively cheaper soil additives such as perlite and sphagnum moss to add to our flavorful compost in order to maintain that delicately precise level of drainage desired by potted plants.

The rooftop garden is a function of size. The roof cannot change. The possible size for planters has an upper range that you will regret exceeding when the
hurricane finally hits. Expansion is impossible, plans must be changed to fit. Vertical space is more abundant, but more perilous. And as important as choosing the right pots, is choosing the right plants. We tried to grow paste tomatoes, and the plants had a lot of difficulty. Next year we will try cherry tomatoes, to see if a plant that’s spending less energy on each of its individual fruit will produce more and need less. Pole beans worked out a lot better, for us, than bush beans. Root vegetables, while we both love them dearly, are too much of a special investment to justify. Some herbs are basically impossible to keep alive, some we use at alarming rates, others flourish far beyond what we can use. So we will scrap the cilantro, add more dill and basil, put summer squash in everything, and not really worry about the sage too much.

Our plans for the future are not just about function, though. This is our garden and we want to make it beautiful. We want to make it look impressive to the people below who can look up and smile at our efforts. We want to make it look nice (and stable) to the owners of the businesses below. We want it to look safe to our landlord, who won’t ask us to take it all down. We want herbs and vegetables. We want a yard but we have a roof. It’s a compromise.