Preparing Your Rooftop Garden Space Before Starting Construction

Hold your hammer and take advice from some of Chicago’s most intelligent minds in the garden space on what to ask before construction begins.

Rooftop spaces are becoming increasingly popular – especially in a city like Chicago. As high rises and new construction goes up, Chicagoans are constantly losing outdoor living space. Finding city real estate with a private lawn or garden is nearly impossible, unless you are willing to shell out the big bucks. Thus, people all around Chicago, and in other big cities like New York and San Francisco, are looking at rooftop spaces for that outdoor living dream.

To the surprise of many homeowners, there is a lot of planning that goes into perfecting the rooftop space. There are specific building permits needed and zoning compliances that must be dealt with. Once all of that is said and done, there is still more planning that goes into an outdoor living haven, especially when it comes to the garden.

ESTATENVY sat down with Joanne Green from On the Ledge and Ramona Paravola of Farmer’s Market Garden Center, both Chicago-based landscaping and urban gardening companies, for tips on how homeowners can prepare and plan ahead for their rooftop garden spaces before starting new construction or a renovation.

Write down a list of goals and stick to them

Rooftop spaces can be designed for several different scenarios – entertaining, events, quiet reading and so on. Before an architect, contractor or urban gardener can make the space the perfect fit for the owner, the goals must be set.

“What is your overall, long-term plan for your rooftop? Think about how much space you want to dedicate to planting, and how much area you want to leave for entertaining, relaxing, etcetera,” said Paravola. “Determining how much area you intend to set aside for plants and how much soil will be used is extremely important, as you will need to make sure the rooftop is structurally prepared for the extra weight, especially when the soil gets wet.”

Figure out the different qualities your rooftop provides

In the city of Chicago with sprawling sky scrapers and weather that can drop twenty degrees in a matter of hours, it’s important to figure out the different qualities your rooftop provides. Are there areas that will always be shaded? What about areas that are only shaded in the morning? Are there spots that will receive direct sunlight?

“There are plants that will strive well in the sun and some that will do well in the shade,” explained Greene. “Sometimes the sun will start descending on the far side of the house and you lose sunlight until the following morning. Certain flowers flourish in direct sunlight, like citrus trees, whereas Rieger Begonias are your perfect shade plant. If you plan your space ahead of time, you can know which plant will flourish where.”

Paravola noticed another way homeowners can plan their rooftop spaces ahead of time to cater to the different needs for each flower paired with the qualities of the rooftop.

“Although plants love sun, full sun all day can wreak havoc on even the most tolerant of plants,” said Paravola. “You may want to include a built-in pergola, lattice wall, or other structure to help provide some additional shade during the day.”

Plan the amount of maintenance you are comfortable with

Lugging a watering can up the stairs and across a rooftop is not necessarily an ideal daily routine. Or, maybe it is. Homeowners need to decide the amount of maintenance they are comfortable with before construction or renovations can actually begin.

“This is completely up to the client. I have seen homeowners opt for an intricate European design that requires watering every day,” said Greene. “Some of my clients have chosen little to no maintenance plants, so the visits to the rooftop are more like weekly.”

Paravola also reiterated the importance of planning the comfortable amount of maintenance.

“If you have an already busy schedule, you may want to opt for low-maintenance grasses and succulents with weed preventative fabric under layers of mulch,” said Paravola. “Perhaps set up an automatic watering system and hire a landscaper to help maintain anything more delicate.”

Anticipate any future changes or updates

Let’s face it – we have all looked back on our five-year younger selves and thought, what was I thinking? Well, don’t fret. Rooftop garden spaces can be changed a lot easier than some of the other regretful design choices we may have made in the past.

“If you are a new homeowner, you may not know exactly how you will utilize this great outdoor space,” said Paravola. “Ask your designer to think in the future and anticipate what you may want according to his or her experience, then plan for versatility.”

A lot goes into planning the renovation or new construction of a home. Most homeowners think this detailed planning is limited to inside the home, but it also extends outside. When planning a rooftop space, there are a lot of different scenarios and aspects to take into consideration. Luckily, both Greene and Paravola have laid out some questions and tips that homeowners can make sure to cover before the first hammer hits the nail, ensuring the rooftop space is the perfect outdoor haven they had in mind.