Roof Gardening, First Things First | Civil Eats

Roof Gardening, First Things First


Growing up in suburban Oklahoma in the 1980s, I was three generations away from my farming ancestors but ate more prepackaged food than greens. Having spent the last decade improving my diet, I can now say I am ready to try my hand at growing some of my own food – on my rooftop in Manhattan.

Beginning this spring, I am planning to install (with the help of great neighbors and garden-savvy friends) a roof garden with raised beds for growing crops. I will record my experience on Civil Eats, in a series titled “Roof Garden Rookies,” because I am literally starting out green. I hope that this series breaks down the process into easy to swallow bites, and that readers feel empowered to try to grow some of their own food too.

Aside from the word from my garden-savvy friends, books have helped me start to get my head around this exciting but scary task:

  • Eliot Coleman – The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener
  • R. J. Ruppenthal – Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting and Sprouting
  • Tanya L. K. Denckla – The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food
  • Linda Yang – The City Gardener’s Handbook: From Balcony to Backyard

The first step before we get started was to have an engineer establish how much weight our rooftop can handle.  We are lucky to have recently rebuilt our rooftop, including new joists.  However, to stay on the safe side, our raised beds must be filled with special lighter-weight soil and must be easily drained to maintain 60 pounds per square inch or less (this includes wintertime with a layer of snow on top).

My next step was to begin to plan what I’d like to grow.  To begin, its good to take note of your hardiness zone.  According to the National Gardening Association, New York City is in zone 6B, but because we are container and raised bed gardening on a rooftop, I have been advised to go to the next zone, 6A, with an average minimum temperature of between -5 and -10 degrees F.  It also doesn’t hurt to take a look at The Farmer’s Almanac, which gives advice on when to get your seedlings planted, so you can then plan either the growing of the seedlings in seed starting trays or when and where to acquire them.  I’m going to try to start most of my seedlings myself, which means I need to get started!  The Almanac is suggesting that I get seedlings in the ground for many of the the crops I want to grow by late March – early April.  As for what I’d like to grow, I first came up with a list of things I like to eat.  From that list, I’m going to try my hand at tomatoes, a few different lettuces, herbs, chard, carrots, beets, squash, celery root, cauliflower, bush beans, kale and maybe blueberries.  I will be placing my seed order this week, and then soon, starting my seeds inside my apartment.

Upcoming, the series will discuss tools and seed starting, building raised beds, preparing the soil, designing a roof garden structure, maintenance, and will break down the mistakes and (hopefully) successes, so that next year’s version is even better.  Keep an eye out, and I’m looking forward to your suggestions, comments and questions.

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Photo: A blank slate – our roof at present.

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. Beth
    This is so exciting!! One day, my husband and I plan to have a rooftop garden (probably on top of a garage...or the entire house!). I will be following your blog closely to see how it goes, and of course, for tips!

    Thanks for sharing!!
  2. Yay, Paula! I can't wait to see how your garden develops. I wish I were closer to lend a hand!

    Good luck :)
  3. Good on ya for starting a roof top garden. I'd like to recomend a great book that I'm reading right now by R.J. Ruppenthal called Fresh Food From Small Spaces - The Square Inch Gardener's Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting.

    There are some really good tips and growing strategies in this book that I'm going to put to use on my small farm, I have 6.67 acres in Oregon.

    I'm looking foreward to reading about your adventures!

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