How To: Start a Rooftop Garden

Never forget that innovation is the key to success.

Whether you’re the owner of a restaurant or apartment building, or if you just want to be more environmentally conscientious, starting a rooftop garden provides tons of benefits for your business, your community, your building structure and the environment. Green roofs are increasingly becoming a popular concept for an overwhelmingly wide variety of reasons.

Now that you’ve decided that you’re going to be one of the pioneering forces in your city, you need to understand how to convert your apartment or restaurant roof into a rooftop garden. Understanding how the conversion from standard roof to rooftop garden works is the first step in making this idea become reality.

After you understand the process, your next step is to find a consulting/construction company that specializes in this type of project. Believe it or not, there are more than a few companies out there, so you’re likely to have the opportunity to shop around and find the right fit for you. Then, once you’ve designed your plan with the consultants, the upgrade can begin.

A rooftop garden is built with several layers right on top of a pre-existing roof. A garden/farm needs more soil than a basic green roof—but you’re still looking at a lot of extra weight. This means that the roof’s structural support beams and joints must be reinforced to support the extra weight. Once the structure has been reinforced, construction of the garden can begin.

Here’s what your layers will look like, from the top layer all the way down to your roof:

1. The Plants

You get to choose what kinds of produce and other flora you want to grow. From seasonal vegetables to exotic fruits and grains, you are the one in control. You’ll have the freshest ingredients available whenever you need them and you can guarantee that freshness to your clientele. Remember that the word “organic” is very important to a growing number of people and you won’t have to pay premiums to get the freshest fruits and veggies—your produce will be as organic as it gets! (But be sure you get certified if you use the word!)

2. An Integrated Irrigation System and Controls

This is basically a sprinkler system built into the garden framework itself. This helps to control water usage while ensuring that everything is consistently watered. These sprinkler systems can even be integrated with smart technology to respond to weather patterns and soil conditions.

3. An Engineered Growing Medium, Typically NOT Soil

This growing medium must be long-term and lightweight. Oftentimes made of sand, shale and other organic lightweight growing compounds, this is the layer that the plants grow in. This layer needs to be thicker than a traditional green roof growing layer because plants that grow fruits and vegetables need deeper soil with plenty of organic material to draw nutrition from.

4. Landscape or Filter Cloth to Contain Roots and Allow Water Penetration

This helps to contain the roots while also filtering the water, keeping foreign objects from getting into the drainage layer. This cloth also helps regulate water flowing through the system, which is important in preventing rot, molds, and fungus.

5. Specialized Drainage Layer

This layer keeps water flow moving through the system evenly. It prevents the soil from becoming and staying too damp, therefore discouraging molds and fungus from becoming a problem. Some can be built with water reservoirs that help collect and redistribute water back into the irrigation system. This also helps maintain the growing material at the proper moisture levels.

6. Waterproofing Roof Membrane and Root Repellant

This protects the roof from water damage, while also making certain that roots don’t penetrate and destroy the roof. Plants have a way of “taking root” just about anywhere they can find, so this layer is in place to make absolutely certain that there can be no damage to the roof caused by water or the plants.

7. The Roof Structure Itself with Traditional Insulation Above or Below

This is simply the original roof layer. Further insulation may be added to contribute to the internal building temperature regulation benefits of a rooftop garden.

Get Growing

Pretty simple, right? One of the biggest challenges to converting your roof into a garden is the additional reinforcement of the roof itself. Other than that, the garden part is relatively straightforward.

Depending on the size of your rooftop growing space, you may also want to consider landscaping opportunities. You can provide seating arrangements for a rooftop patio where guests of your restaurant can dine among your scenic gardens. If you’re building on top of an apartment complex, landscaping can include paths for tenants to walk and seating for them to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Aquaponics and/or other waterscapes can be utilized as well to aid in farming, in addition to adding to the aesthetic.

It really is up to you how far you want to go with this; some larger companies and government organizations have converted their rooftop into small parks for visitors to walk in, while smaller business owners may only want a functional garden to help support local restaurants. And of course, there are the restaurant owners themselves who want to grow and use the produce they directly control.

Creating local support and reinvesting in the community is a major focus for local businesses. Phrasing such as: “Farm to Table” and “Field to Fork” are popular concepts these days, especially as environmental awareness concerns grow. People are hyper-aware of how urban settings in particular currently operate in non-sustainable ways. Local business owners are looking to help solve these problems in their communities while also increasing business growth.

Investing in a rooftop garden for your restaurant or other business provides great opportunities to influence the community, the environment, and your bottom line. While the initial cost may be intimidating, the long-term investment is well worth it. This investment is one that will increase your clientele, your branding and will make you money.

Never forget that innovation is the key to success. A rooftop garden is something you can do—it’s not some far-fetched abstract concept that they only do in California or New York. It’s a realistic, sustainable effort and worth every penny here in the Midwest.


featured image courtesy of Flickr user Christopher Paretti – all licensed under CC by 2.0.

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