5 Ways to Create a Cool Rooftop Garden

A rooftop garden is a real urban oasis. See more pictures of famous gardens.
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You've seen them. Trees and shrubs peeking over a roofline. Sure, rooftop gardens are all the rage in metropolises like New York and San Francisco, big cities where residential and commercial space is at a premium and concrete is far more abundant than greenways. But they also can make sense in other less populated locations. By replacing shingles or tar with greenery, rooftop gardens expand a building's livable space and provide a sanctuary for occupants. These special retreats range from quaint to grandiose -- from a quiet hideaway complete with chaise lounge and potted flowers to a social hub featuring a sprawling lawn and wet bar.

As long as there's room for a few pots or a raised flower bed, there's enough turf for you to create one of your own rooftop gardens. Check out these five ways to transform your unused space into an oasis.



Hire a Landscape Architect

An architect can tell you how much weight your building's roof can handle.
An architect can tell you how much weight your building's roof can handle.

Before you get started, think about the kind of garden you want. Is it a serene place where you can find solitary respite, or a spot to entertain? The space itself will help dictate what you can pull off. If your vision includes a swimming pool, putting green or something else that's complex, it's best to hire a landscape architect. Professionals aren't just savvy about selecting plants that meet your tastes and budget -- they also know other important stuff, like local building codes, projected costs and how much weight your roof can stand. Landscape architects will start by scouting the site to assess the roof's age and its overall condition. If you have a homeowners' association board (HOA), your landscape architect will develop and present a design to the board for approval. Remember: This pro is working on your dime, so make sure your vision gets realized in the final plans!


Use Easy Design Tricks to Fake Fullness

Paint it green.
Paint it green.
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Working with a small space? There are easy things you can do to fake it and make your rooftop garden look and feel larger than it is. Paint walls, decks and trellises green to make the space feel fuller and more lush. Hang mirrors at plant-level to give the illusion that foliage spans much farther than it does. Place hanging baskets overflowing with vegetation in high-traffic areas like walkways or where there's seating -- places you frequent the most. Use trellises to anchor climbing vines or flowers. These "living walls" are an easy way to green your rooftop, and they also establish privacy and make a blank wall more attractive.


Introduce No-hassle Succulents

Succulents are more colorful and diverse than you think.
Succulents are more colorful and diverse than you think.
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If you're water-conscious (or just don't want to give much time and attention to your rooftop sanctuary), you might want to incorporate succulents. They've got swollen, water-storing leaves, so they're an ideal choice if you want a no-hassle garden. Even if you've got a black thumb, you can find a succulent that works for you -- there are thousands of species that grow all over the Earth, from deserts to jungles. These supremely hardy plants will add interest to your garden with their gorgeous colors: silvery blues, inky purples, shocking greens and soft yellows. Succulents fare well in containers or raised beds, and we like grouping different colors and shapes for a more eye-catching arrangement.


Incorporate Edibles for Fresh, Homegrown Meals

Make yours an edible garden!
Make yours an edible garden!
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Rooftop gardens can be much more than just a convenient place to kick back outdoors. Sure, they're picturesque, but yours can be functional, too. Pick edible plants for a palate-pleasing theme. Depending on the climate where you live, you might be able to grow vegetables year-round. Rotate veggies in and out of your garden by the season. Fruits and herbs typically need lots of sun, so leave room in your garden come summertime. And don't forget flowers! Edible flowers add a pop of color to an otherwise green space. Plus, they're pretty and practical in the kitchen. Toss them in a salad or use them to garnish dishes. You've got lots of options. Some of our favorites are chamomile, nasturtium, chrysanthemum and lavender.


Clear Your Head with Aromatics

Aromatics elevate your rooftop garden to sanctuary status.
Aromatics elevate your rooftop garden to sanctuary status.
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Being around trees, flowers and other greenery can elevate your mood and even make you more productive. They're all so beautiful, right? Imagine how much better your rooftop garden could feel if it overflowed with exceptionally fragrant plants. Ramp up your green space's overall effect by adding ambrosial plants. An olfactory delight, sweet-smelling greens are sure to enhance the vibe and atmosphere of your outdoor space. Plus, they make perfect cuttings for indoor arrangements. Choose plants that look good together and have similar needs -- those planted immediately next to each other should prefer the same type of conditions. Mint and basil, for example, both enjoy sun exposure and moist, well-drained soil.

You can also enhance the visual appeal of your aromatic garden by including blue blossom wild lilac or Oregon grape, which attract birds and butterflies.



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  • CityFarmer.org. "Rooftops and Urban Architecture." June 12, 2007. (June 10, 2010). http://www.cityfarmer.org/subrooftops.html
  • Dictionary.com. "Succulent." 2010. (June 10, 2010). http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/succulent
  • Iannucci, Lisa. "Beautifying with Rooftop and Community Gardens." The Cooperator. 2010. (June 10, 2010). http://www.cooperator.com/articles/1444/1/Beautifying-with-Rooftop-and-Community-Gardens/Page1.html
  • Lauderdale, Cyndi and Erv Evans. "Edible Flowers." North Carolina State University Horticulture Information Leaflets. (June 19, 2010). http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8513.html
  • Oregon State University. "Wildflowers That Attract Birds and Butterflies." (June 19, 2010). http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lincoln/sites/default/files/Lincoln_County_Native_Plant_List.pdf
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