Urban Greenie | Rooftop Gardens

Published on May 31st 2020
A view of a city
Gone are the days where unsightly cement rooftops are bland, flat and exuding heat.
Today, flush with plants and full of colour, these surfaces have evolved into living carpets of wild-life attracting plants, and can now provide, amongst other solutions, stormwater management, and a cooler environment in the vicinity of the building.
The wildlife that rooftop gardens attract are beneficial to the plants in the immediate and surrounding areas, increasing pollinator activity.
A large building

Some captivating history…

Modern Iraq is home to ancient Babylon, where the first rooftop gardens were planted- famously known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These fabled gardens were built by the empires king at the time, Nebuchadnezzar II. Comprising layered terraces, this structure resembled a mountain, and incorporated into these layers was many interplanting of dense trees and flowers. These were the first known examples of vertical gardens…
The production of food was not a priority in the Fertile Crescent in 290 BC. This half-moon shaped region spanned areas such as the middle east and Africa, and included Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Individuals with great wealth would invest in beautiful, sculptural gardens- with the focus being far more than simply the plants. Views and water features were of great importance to those with the wealth to acquire these luxuries.
Fast-forward through time, and the Madison Square Gardens, designed in the 1890’s, took New York by storm, and the trend has been on the metaphorical rise ever since, with a massive resurgence in the last two decades. These less superfluous designs were modelled with intent- to protect roof water damage, and to stabilise fluctuating temperatures. The ability of roof gardens to prevent flash flooding has become one of the more common benefits.
A large white building

Such a great idea for your own space:

Whether you live in a modern high-rise apartment or have a single level home in a suburb, the possibilities of rooftop gardens have no ceiling. The choices are endless – what matters is what the purpose of your rooftop garden will be.

Rooftop vegetable gardens:

Choose from constructed raised beds, or planting in containers. Hardy terracotta pots will go a long way to house your plants and endure temperature change, but they draw water from your plants quickly and will need to be topped up with water retention mediums frequently, especially if the rooftop is in full sun (as apposed to shade from a neighbouring building).
Plastic pots hold water longer, and ceramic pots are a happy in-between option. But bear in mind all plants, especially vegetables, need frequent watering, and this should be planned for.
A bench in a garden
The rule is that roots and fruits need full sun, and leaves want shade. So it follows that any fruit bearing tree and fruit baring vegetable (growing above or below the soil) wants full sun. Leafy greens such as lettuces, most tender herbs, spinach and swiss chard are ideal candidates for shade. But on a rooftop garden, there is most likely going to be full, endless sun. So opt for vegetables and herbs and fruit trees that will prosper in these conditions.
Tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as peppers, do well in full sun. Trellising peas and beans, tall corn and rambling squashes want full sun. Carrots, radishes, beets, kohlrabi, fennel, potatoes, and onions need a minimum of half a day of sunlight to grow well.

A dining area nearer to the sky…

Deck the roofs with bluebells and holly! A trend that is becoming popular is that of converting a rooftop space to a fully kitted out dining area, complete with a braai facility, deck chairs or other seating arrangements, complete with carpets and walls of plants.
If this is your idea of heaven, be sure to have your plant list comprise of waterwise plants, sun-loving trees, succulents and hardy grasses, as these will serve you best in the harsh sunshine that these plants are likely to endure.
Aptenia cordifolia
Dietes grandiflora ‘Iris’
Tulbaghia violacea or ‘Wild Garlic’
Agapanthus praecox
Plectranthus neochilus
Carpobrotus edulis ‘Vygie’
Aloe marlotii ‘Mountain Aloe’, and Aloe Ferox
Dymondia margaretae – a hardy flowering grassy groundcover
Asparagus densiflorus ‘Foxtail Fern’
Sansevieria hyacinthoides, S. aethiopica, and S. pearsonii
Drimiopsis maculata ‘Leopard Lily’
Chlorophytum comosum or ‘Hen and Chicken’


Many roofs are covered with grass and groundcovers which match the surrounding ground-level plants. This, in an effort to have the roof blend in with the structures natural surroundings. This is evidenced in many current gardening TV shows and popular culture films (think of the Lord of the Rings saga with the Hobbit houses in the Shire, covered in grass).

A haven for pollinators:

Follow suit from Industry pioneers and create rooftop gardens entirely centred around attracting beneficial insects.
A close up of a garden

A Xeriscape heaven:

Not every garden needs to be lush with green vegetation – a xeriscape garden is a drought-resistant option utilising hardy succulents, cacti and rock. It essentially reduces the need for irrigation, which is a phenomenal prospect considering our changing climate and the need to adapt to drier planting options.
Hotter regions in the world are suitable for xeriscape and dry gardens.
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