When spring is in the air your underutilized real estate atop a garage suddenly looks like a great place for a rooftop garden. Rooftop terraces can be so much — a stage set for a chic soirée, a private sanctuary, a little nest in which children play, a place to nurture herbs, vegetables, or even bees. They even have the benefit of being protected from deer, rabbits and rodents so it’s a safe place for your organic horticulture. I asked firm partner Doug Hoerr for three quick tips on what to consider before designing a rooftop landscape like this one:

1) Find out what your roof can handle

There are some critical things to think about before you get your heart set on a design. The very first step should be getting a structural engineer to assess what the load capacity is on the area you want to develop so you have a realistic idea of what can go up there. Also, find out about the zoning codes in your area – there are limits to how high a structure (like a trellis or pergola) can be on top of a roof and there are differences in allowable height between putting something on a garage vs. putting it on top of a residence.

Design tip: one way to increase the allowable height of a structure on your garage is to connect a garage to the main house using a breezeway so that it’s considered part of the main residence.

2) Take a good look around!

Once you’re ready to design, get up there and look around. What’s in your view that you do or don’t want to see? What will you want to block out or highlight and frame? Will this be a place for plants and vegetables or a spillover space for family living? How often do you want to entertain in the space? Where and when is it sunny?

3) Plan for Plants and People

If you will have permanent plantings up there, you’ll need to think about the soil volume they will need, winter protection to survive from year to year, how you will water them (roof plantings need much more water than ground plantings because of the increased exposure to heat and wind), and whether they will need shade. Remember to think about safety – if children will be in the space, you don’t want to give them anything around the perimeter (like furniture or a planter) that they can use to climb up on and fall from.

More resources

Doug offers up some more good tips on rooftop garden design in this September 2012 article in Organic Gardening Magazine, and in case you’re more inspired by pictures than words, our website offers beautiful images of a wide range of rooftop gardens. Happy planning!