Magazine article The Futurist

Gardens in the Sky

Magazine article The Futurist

Gardens in the Sky

Article excerpt

With new designs for greenhouses and innovative planting techniques, city dwellers could increasingly see their fields of dreams on their own rooftops.

Nothing could have prepared me for my emergence into Shirley Robinson's garden. I had climbed the staircases of the large old heart-of-Hollywood apartment house, with its long history and longer halls, and faithfully followed her through a doorway onto the roof of the building's garage. It was as though I'd stepped into the starship Enterprise's Holodeck and found myself in the middle of somebody's jungle fantasy.

On the baked, forsaken surface, a massive burst of healthy plants trailed and intertwined across the roof. There were profusions of huge red cabbages, squash, corn, pole beans, cucumbers, raspberries and blackberries trailing up trellises, melons of all sorts, bananas, apricots, apples, guavas--30 fruit trees in all. Everything looked so healthy in this large organic garden made of individual planting containers.

Clearly, Shirley is no ordinary gardener: Plants pay attention to her.

Hidden away from the sight of passersby, her garden greens the souls of all whose windows look down on the oasis, from which her small family derives virtually everything they eat.

Bob Gordon's rooftop garden on the apartment house he manages in West Hollywood is more modest than Shirley's, but it is a special place where he can look out across the city, tend his garden, and try to figure out whether it is he or his carefully cared-for plants who receive more nurturing from their symbiotic mid-city experience. And when his reveries subside, he can walk downstairs with an armload of fresh, organically grown lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, and dill for the dinner salad.

Jeff Tucker's private home in Santa Monica has beautifully landscaped grounds, including an edible landscape. To expand his growing space, he has put some barrel planters up on the flat part of his roof and installed drip irrigation.

Shirley, Bob, and Jeff are pioneers of an edible-landscaping movement that has relevance for a great many city dwellers. These urban farmers have discovered that, over our heads, there is a vast, untapped growing space. The roof is a perfect spot for growing food: It's a private place that's quick to get to, and there is no other location in our immediate environment that receives as much extended sunlight.

Starting a Rooftop Garden

A rooftop garden is something you could start on a small scale and increase in size as your interest grows, but it must be approached with a bit of thought. Most roofs are not really made to have gardeners tromping around on them, and most are not structurally prepared to support the weight of a great amount of soil. But these problems can be solved.

If you (or the building's owner) are worried about the roof being walked on, you can build decking so the roof itself does not absorb the ongoing impact of the added foot traffic. Wooden pallets make an inexpensive decking substitute, ideal because they are modular and can be removed if necessary.

You can mitigate the soil's weight by distributing it over a wide area, perhaps using carefully spaced planters and setting the heaviest directly above structural columns. Rooftop gardens can be irrigated with mini drip hoses so there is no excess water buildup.

Lessons from New York City

Paul Mankiewicz of the Gaia Institute in New York City has spent seven years testing and perfecting a super lightweight growing medium called Solid State Hydroponics|TM~ in order to promote intensive rooftop agriculture. This substance uses recycled Styrofoam shredded into small particles to replace the sand and fill that make up at least 80% of standard soil. An average roof can handle 30 to 40 pounds per square inch. A cubic foot of soil weighs about 100 pounds, but the Gaia Institute material weighs only nine to 29 pounds per cubic foot. (Another option being considered by certain growers as a lightweight soil substitute is vermiculite, a silicate mineral that expands when heated and is used for insulation and water absorption. …

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