Roof Gardens As Part Of Luxurious City Life

A roof garden can be one of the biggest luxuries of city life. It is a true extension of the indoor living space, offering spectacular views over rooftops with a feeling of light and space that you cannot normally get in the urban environment.

Recent developments in waterproofing technology and materials and increased roof insulation have made the roof garden a possibility for anyone with a flat roof, and the luxury of extra living space in a small city flat cannot be overemphasised.

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Before you begin stocking your lofty garden with plants, there are a number of practical difficulties you should be aware of. Most roofs have a limited load-bearing capacity and may not be able to support the extra weight of surfacing materials, soil, containers and so on. You may have to have the structure strengthened or you may have to keep pots and plants around the perimeter, close to the structural walls, where the roof is supported.

You must make sure the roof’s waterproofing is sound and will not be interfered with. So before you begin, get a structural engineer to check the site for you. In historic or conservation areas, there may be regulations limiting or prohibiting screens or plants being visible from street level, so check with the local authority.

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Room-like spaces

High up spaces, open to the sky, can seem threatening, so the best idea is to try and create a room-like space with some sort of enclosure. If there is no low parapet or wall, you will certainly need to put something up anyway, simply from the point of view of safety. The other thing you will find on a roof garden is that the wind is much stronger than at street level and has a dehydrating effect, so plants will need more watering.

You can surround the roof garden with trellis to act as a psychological barrier and also to help filter the wind to a certain extent. You can plant this quite lightly with ivy or clematis for privacy and leave parts of it unplanted so as not to block the wider view. Choose the most robust trellis you can find and fix it firmly to supports, otherwise the wind will blow it over in a very short time.

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Plants for the roof garden

If you roof space is open to the sky, it will probably be best to choose a few carefully placed sculptural plants that will thrive in difficult high-rise urban circumstances, or put containers around the perimeter, planted with wind-resistant shrubs and small trees. Cacti and succulents are sun lovers, and require the minimum of watering. If the temperature is too cold for them, use grasses, which do not need much maintenance and will look very attractive blowing in the wind.

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If the space is small and partly enclosed, you could create a bower of flowering shrubs and climbers with a few small conifers for height, variety and shade. Plants that tolerate seaside conditions are often good for rooftop gardens; varieties of Escallonia, Berberis and Lauristinus should all be able to cope with high-rise conditions.

You can add to the enclosed feeling by introducing a small pergola for shade and to support climbers. This will also reduce the effect of the possibly rather oppresive area of sky and provide privacy from nearby roof gardens. It should be attached to walls and sturdily fixed seats and planters to ensure stability.

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Flooring materials

Lightweight gravel is a good foil to small containers. Decking is comparatively lightweight and therefore suitable for a flat roof. Timber tiles are available, which are easy to lay and convenient to carry upstairs. If you have enough roof space, you can add a raised area of decking to use as a table or for sunbathing.

Roberto Burle Marx, the celebrated Brazilian garden designer, uses brightly colored mosaic designs as a prominent feature on the floors of his roof gardens and, provided you have a suitable surface, this is an idea that would look cheerful on small roof terraces, too.

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Roberto Burle Marx, mosaic flooring

Planters and containers for the roof garden

Most flat roof spaces have some unfortunate built-in features such as a water tank or air-conditioning unit that you cannot get rid of. Portable timber planters of varying heights can be used to hide such eyesores. Fill them with lightweight, moisture retentive compost and plant them up with small trees to make an effective screen. You can paint containers to match any trellis or wall. White is always effective, but there are many excellent colors to choose from and you might prefer a pastel color or something bolder like a deep blue.

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