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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My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 1

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One of my favorite parts about being an urban-dwelling hipster is being able to have a roof garden. Seeing as how hipsters are generally a self-aggrandizing group, I manage to work it into many of my conversations. Examples below:

Example 1:
Other person: I sure do love this spring weather.
Me: I just hope we don’t get a late frost again this year. My organic heirloom radishes have already begin to sprout on my rooftop garden.
Other person: Oh that’s cool! Rooftop gardens are really popular now.
Me: Well, I had a rooftop garden before it was mainstream. You’re just jumping on the bandwagon.

Example 2:
Other person: I’m thinking of getting a burger, what are you doing for lunch?
Me: I packed a salad with organically grown lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers. I grow my own salads at home in my roof garden since the produce they sell at the farmers’ market is never fresh enough for my refined vegetarian palate. Meat is murder, murderer.

These are extreme examples, surely. Especially considering that I don’t think I have ever turned down an offer to grab a well-made burger, and I am rarely that obviously vindictive about other people’s life choices. The point remains the same: I have a roof garden.

The truth is that everyone can grow stuff. As a matter of fact, stuff has been growing all by itself for a long time. Roof gardening only has a few adjustments to compensate for the fact that you’re on a roof instead of on the ground. The biggest adjustment I had to make is moisture control. Our garden is on a black rubber roof, and I have had to employ various strategies in order to keep my vegetables well-watered. I had read about self-watering containers in The Urban Homestead a while back, and tried them out for the first time last year. This year we went into high production and tripled the amount of self-watering containers we use.

Building a SWC is a fairly simple process, and consists of two nesting 5-gallon buckets, a wicking chamber, and a piece of PVC. I only caution you to make sure that you use food-grade plastics so as not to leach any harmful chemicals into the vegetables you are growing. I found old pickle or sauerkraut buckets from a local restaurant that didn’t charge me to take them off their hands. The smaller wicking chamber we made out of 32 oz yogurt and sour cream containers.

The way they work is really ingenious, and unfortunately I can’t even take credit. Between the two nesting buckets there forms an open reservoir. The smaller container, drilled with many holes, goes into that reservoir. When everything is put together, a PVC pipe goes from the top of the bucket lid down into the reservoir, allowing you to easily fill the reservoir with water. After filling the inner bucket with dirt, the smaller container acts as a wicking chamber, drawing the moisture up from the reservoir and delivering it to the growing vegetables. This closed system keeps evaporation to a minimum and an even moisture level in the soil throughout the hottest days of summer.

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This year we have six tomato plants, four pepper plants, and an eggplant all growing from SWCs. Since our roof gets so hot, we also put them on top of pallets to avoid heating the water unnecessarily. The best part about it all is that I didn’t spend a dime to build them!

Seed-Starting Terrarium, Part 2

Spring is certainly taking its time out here in Lancaster, PA. The temperatures at night still dip below freezing, and even the robins are shy to come out from hiding. But I’m not going to let a silly thing like the weather hold me back from starting my fun in the sun.

Last month I whipped up a little seed-starting terrarium to get a head-start on spring. The best place for growing things indoors is typically any south-facing window, but all of ours have a tree right in front of them. The next best thing for us was a window in our dining room, which unfortunately wasn’t good enough. Only one tomato seed managed to germinate in the few weeks that it sat by the window, and the way this little seedling stretched his neck up to the glass I could only surmise that it wasn’t getting enough sunlight.

I could have put a little lamp overhead, but by this time the weather was cooperating enough for me to place the terrarium outside in the real sun. Before I did so, I wanted to build out the glass into a dome. I found a couple of old windows and ripped two two-pane sections off with the table saw for the sides. This worked great except that they weren’t quite long enough. In order to complete the dome I had to carefully remove a few pains and use a glass cutter to resize them. Then I built a simple frame for each new pane. A little bit of fun with the nail gun and all done.

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Now that my terrarium is getting lots of sun, my seedling is growing strong. In the day I keep the top pane open slightly to allow for ventilation, but even so I’ve got a warm and cozy little environment for my seedlings to do their germination thing.

Waiting for things to germinate

I added a few more seeds now that I have a little more room. I’ve been craving fresh basil for a while now, so I planted the basil seeds that I had saved. I also planted some more patio tomatoes and bell peppers that will go up on the roof in their self-watering containers when the weather allows it.

Spring may be a little shy this year, but not totally forgotten. Even last year’s thyme is starting to perk up, and the lungwort has already flowered. It won’t be long now until the roof garden is in full force. To think that soon I’ll be battling the heat of summer instead of the chill of winter only encourages my industrious side. Come on, little seedlings, time to grow up before summer is here!