Thursday, February 23, 2012

Growing Tips for Rooftop Vegetable Gardening

Welcome to Bucolic Bushwick. Here you'll find advice on rooftop vegetable gardening, as well several plans for DIY self watering planters. Please share this page with others and help spread the vegetable gardening movement.

To celebrate my 5th gardening (and blogging) anniversary I've compiled a list of tips I wish someone told me before I started growing food on a rooftop.

Never ever let your containers dry out.
Water stressed plants are more vulnerable to disease and pests and produce lower yields than their healthy counterparts. Do not underestimate how quickly a container can dry out on a roof. If you think a container will dry out before you're available water it again use soda bottle drip irrigation to make it through the day.

Move plants around.
Every gardening space has several micro climates. If a plant is not doing well in one location move it around till you find a sweet spot. As the weather gets warmer move the plants so that they're shaded during the hottest part of the day. During the height of summer, when you can fry an egg on your roof, raise the pots off the roof surface to reduce the heat that passes from the roof to the pots.

Use mulch
Wind and sun, but especially the wind, will quickly suck the moisture out of soil. Covering the soil with mulch will help it to retain moisture, as well as block weeds from growing in the container. I prefer to use white plastic as mulch because it also helps to keep plants cool in the summer.

Support your plants with a stake, cage or trellis
Branches heavy with fruit can easily snap in high winds, tie them down before a wind gust gets them. Also, don't give the wind the opportunity to snap your young transplants, add the support at the same time you place your plant in the container. The only plants that don't require support are root vegetables and leafy greens.

Plant varieties that produce small or medium sized fruits
The larger the fruit size, the greater the water demand, demand your container might not be able to meet as the fruits grow larger. "Dwarf" or "container friendly" varieties are a safe choice. Check out my favorite seeds for rooftop vegetable gardening for some recommendations.

Don't rush your plants outside
Average last frost date is just a guideline, not an absolute green light to plant every seedling you have outside. Listen to what the weather is telling you and pay attention to soil tempurature, if it's too cold for the plants they'll just sit there and sulk until it warms up. You can even permanently stunt the growth of certain vegetable varieties if you put them out too early. Play it safe and wait a week or two.

Learn from others
Follow garden blogs that grow in similar conditions to your own garden. It's very likely that they will experience problems and situations that you will encounter, as well as offer relevant growing tips and solutions.

Embrace failure
You'll make a lot of mistakes when you first start out. This is completely normal, don't let the fear of failure prevent you from experimenting.

Start small
Beginning gardeners tend to spend too much money on supplies and unnecessary gadgets to compensate for inexperience. This doesn't work. Plus, if you find out gardening isn't for you, you've just wasted bunch of money.  Ease into gardening, you'll save yourself a lot heartache.

Just start!

That's all I can think of right now, what would you add to this list?


  1. Great list. Lots of great advice in a short list.
    Small addition under "Move plants around"- Move plants around during the growing season. Black tar roofs can absorb so much heat, which is great in May but terrible in late July. I found some success this past year by moving some plants (mostly bell peppers) from full sun to partial shade for late July/early August. Also finding ways to get the container up off the scorching roof during those times helped.


    1. Hi James, those are excellent points. I'm going to edit that tip, thanks for sharing.

  2. These are all great tips! I need to learn how to make SIP containers!!

  3. Tiffany @ No Ordinary HomesteadFebruary 28, 2012 6:37 AM

    So relieved to find your site! Thanks for sharing the great tips. The pointers would surely help me growing my veggies in rooftop containers. I actually host a weekly gardening link up every Friday on my blog. I'd love for you to drop by and join in.

  4. Thank you for this list! So helpful.

  5. Personally, I would never use mulch, on my plants. It just invites too many disease chances, flies, molds, etc.

    I do like the white plastic idea. Could reflect more light into the undersides of the leaves, too, to help with photosynthesis. In my mind, I pictured using black this year (first year going to seriously use plastic).

    How do you fasten your plastic into the apparatus? Stakes in the soil? Clips? Rope? Voodoo? :)

    1. Hi Ben, I use landscape fabric pins (they look like long staples) to keep the mulch down.

      I used black plastic one year, but they retained too much heat during the height of summer. The effect is nice in May, but by July I was regretting my decision. That might not be a concern for you though, it all depends on where you garden.

    2. I garden in Baltimore. So, heat will, most likely, be a huge concern for me, this summer :)

  6. Hi Elaine,

    As you know I also grow vegetables on a black top roof and have for the past 7 years.

    I don't move my sub-irrigated planters or my sub-irrigated raised bed around during the growing season as it is too cumbersome a job and the beds and planters are just too heavy.

    In 2009 I adapted my beds by installing a framing system which allowed me to extend my growing season by adding plastic in the early spring, shade cloth in the summer to cool my plants and wire mesh in the fall to protect my harvest from critters. I have found shade cloth very handy in growing lettuce all summer and protecting even the most heat loving plants against the sun. The shade cloth can be cut apart and shaped around your individual trellis to protect your plants against the sun and the wind.

    I also use a black (white reflects) plastic mulch (made from corn, a product from Norway) which biodegrades over the summer. It is thinner than plastic and I have used this product for years. In my raised beds I use landscape fabric pins to keep this mulch pinned down. In my SIP pails I use to grow tomatoes I now companion plant the tomatoes together with onions and basel. It helps keep the soil inside the planter even on windy days.

    www.Lee sells both products on-line. Here is the link:

    Biodegradable Weed Barrier,2300,33272&p=47493

    Shade Cloth,51555&p=10530

    Last year I harvested 337 tomatoes from 10 heirloom plants. I never counted the tomatoes from the 5 cherry tomato plants. SIPs work and I highly recommend them if you are growing on a balcony or roof.

    You can make the SIPs yourself or purchase ready mades either way it really is the only way to grow food on a windy and sunny roof.

    Thanks for your sage advise and your blog, Elaine. It has been helpful in my own gardening process.

    1. Hi Johanne, thanks for the suggestions. I'm considering wire mesh myself. It all depends on the critter activity on the roof this year.

  7. Earlier I had an interest of growing vegetables and I tried ones but it didn’t get work out, all the plants died. After reading your tips I thought of trying it again and maybe it will give good results this time.

  8. Love you rblog!
    and oh gosh, I WISH heat was an issue... I'm having a go at urban gardening way up here in Kiel, in the northern tip of Germany! But I HAVE found some plants (even tomatoes) that are suited for rougher climates and less sunshine and can take the rain... wild tomatoes for example. We'll see how that goes!
    So jealous of your huge peppers, sigh... they just need warmth! I'm trying out some dwarf varieties this year. my blog's in german, but there's pictures! ;)

  9. Thank you for sharing these tips..Im starting my roof garden soon..just reading and learning first :)

    1. I hope these tips are helpful. Good luck on your garden!


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!