My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 2

A lot of hipsters like to think of themselves as poor kids trying to scrape by. The reality is that most hipsters are twenty- and thirty-somethings that work enough to blow their money on craft beer, vinyl music, and custom moped parts. Because of this, you often see a hipster’s living conditions as either a run down row-home that was bought with friends as a communal living space, or an appropriately sized city apartment. My wife and I fall under the latter category, having lived in the same nice apartment for the past few years.

One of the favorite features of our apartment building is the flat rooftop. In fact, as soon as we moved in my resourceful mind went right to work devising ways to utilize that space as a garden. My industrious side had visions of building a deck over the black rubber roof, where we could create a green garden getaway in the middle of our little city. Incidentally, due to just another technicality in rental contract law, the roof is not actually part of our lease agreement. So instead of heading to Home Depot, I started by asking the permission of our landlords. It just so happens that the owners of our property are really great people, and they granted my request with only one caveat: every winter all garden-related materials should be removed from the rooftop.

There went my big vision, but my creativity was jump-started into action. I talked a lot about the self-watering containers that we use (originally described in The Urban Homestead), but the majority of what we grow is in pallets. A lot of people use pallets in the ground to garden in nice even rows, or stand them upright to put out on a patio. I use them because I can move them. Yes, they are heavy when they are full of dirt, but two people can carry a pallet down the stairs with a little effort. Over the winter, I can remove them from the roof and stack them on top of each other under our pergola.

Pallet gardening is a great way to organize your space. In choosing a pallet, I look for one that is in decent condition, and one that looks “fresh.” A lot of pallets are treated with chemicals so that they last longer, and the wood in these pallets has a distinct discoloration (similar to pressure-treated wood), so it’s easy enough to avoid. With a roll of fabric week-block and a staple gun, I go to town on the bottoms and sides of the pallets. Weed-block is perfect because it allows the water to drain so the plants do not get over-watered, but it also helps keep moisture in so the pallets don’t dry out as quickly.

The biggest downside to growing vegetables out of pallets is that you don’t have the “depth” that you typically would have in larger individual gardening containers. The upsides for using pallets vastly outweigh this: the larger square footage means that the soil doesn’t get as overheated from the black rubber roof, and the moisture retention is significantly better than even a large planter. This is only our second season using pallets, but we’ve seen good yields both years. All of my suspicions were confirmed about the ability to garden in shallow soil when I heard Mel Bartholomew on the radio talking about his book Square Foot Gardening, in which he says that all you really need is 6″ of perfect soil to grow a nice garden. Our “perfect soil” is a mix of potting soil and compost, and it’s only about 4″ deep, but we do pretty well nonetheless.

We garden out of two “types” of pallet gardens: standing pallets and flat pallets. The standing pallets are constructed by taking two pallets and fastening them at the top before weed-blocking them on the back. Flat pallets are simply single weed-blocked pallets laid flat on the rooftop. The standing pallets are of course lovely space-savers, and are perfect for climbing cucumbers, herbs, and lettuces. We’ve also had success in the flat pallets with squashes, radishes, and chards.

There’s something about a constant breeze that plants seem to love. I haven’t been able to scientifically quantify it, but up on the roof, our plants are happy. When I’m up on the roof, watering or weeding or harvesting, I’m happy. Not to get too meta or anything, but there’s a peace to helping and watching things grow. And when you live in a city, big or small, it’s good to have a place where you find peace in the midst of the busyness.

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Lettuce in a standing pallet. I angled the the boards on this pallet because I specifically knew I wanted to fill it with lettuce.

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Radishes ready to harvest in a flat pallet garden.

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A climbing cucumber uses the boards on this standing pallet to make her ascent.

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Ten kinds of our favorite herbs grow on the front side of this standing pallet.

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