GARDENING GODDESS: High-rise horticulture

Joe Keyser's rooftop gardenJoe Keyser's rooftop garden


Your green thumb is itching to get growing, but you don’t have a yard to dig into? Don’t think a garden is out of reach! Instead, think creatively and explore the sunny outdoor spaces around your abode. Do you have access to a balcony, patio, or rooftop?

With containers, favorite furnishings, and the right plants, you can turn your rooftop terrace or balcony into a lovely green oasis. Pictured here is just a small corner of Joe Keyser’s rooftop overlooking Arlington, VA, and Washington, DC. They’ve lived and maintained their garden since 1981.

Joe is so enamored of rooftop gardening, he tends to go overboard. “At times it gets quite large; absurdly so,” he laments. “But that often depends on the attitude of the various management companies. Some loved what we did — even had photos in their rental office, at one time. Another manager even had The Washington Post send a reporter to cover our place for them. Sometimes the garden shrinks in size — usually when we think we’re going to move and start downsizing. Sometimes a management company wants to put the brakes on and has us scale back.”

Management relations is key in maintaining a garden in a building that you do not own. Many rental apartment complexes allow and encourage balcony gardens. Why not approach your landlord about starting a communal compost pile for the building, holding a balcony garden contest, or allowing a sunny part of the grounds to be converted to community garden plots?

If you are a renter and are stuck with an ugly view or parking lot, a garden can be a perfect way to screen out anything unattractive. Put a trellis in a pot and weave a vine around it, bring out a tall tropical plant, and hang planters to block out the undesirable scenery. Be sure to secure anything top-heavy to your railing or a wall as the wind up high can easily topple your greenery.

These screening tricks also have the bonus effect of creating a coy haven for you and your visitors to feel enclosed in your own little green world.

Planting high

Your choice of what to plant up high are as varied as what one can plant in the ground. The only caveats are that being exposed to the elements, your elevated plantings will dry out quicker and will need more supplemental waterings.

To save you from making frequent trips to your indoor faucets with a heavy watering can, invest in a coil hose with a sink attachment. Other ways to keep your plants hydrated include adding soil moisture gel pellets as you plant them or installing a drip irrigation system strung between your containers.

You may want to design your high-rise horticulture around a theme of desert plants or grasses. Picking drought-tolerant plants accustomed to wind and sun exposure can be an attractive and low-maintenance collection.

But don’t think you are limited to cacti and succulents. For a primer on growing elevated edibles, see Cindy Brown’s article in the March/April 2008 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine.

Many rooftop gardeners notice their plantings attract a variety of wildlife, as well. Joe Keyser has a substantial habitat garden. “Four stories up, we attract an amazing array of song birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies,” shared Joe.

Use large boxes of native perennials, if your goal is to attract wildlife.

A houseplant vacation

Tight on funds? No need to buy all new outdoor plants every year. Instead, give your houseplants a vacation by taking them outside in our hot, humid DC summers. Many plants benefit from the time outside. A few, such as orchids, require the outdoor temperature fluctuations of warm days and cool nights in order to jump-start their flowering cycle.

Joe explains that each year he and his wife “drag out old friends, like a ficus (and it’s descendants), cyperus, palms, and other tropicals that have been with us for decades. And we have tabletops with bonsai, and find sheltering nooks for my orchids. And, not to be a snob, we actually pot up lots of colorful annuals, from petunias (mostly for aroma) to geraniums, and sweet alyssum and lobelia, which we plant under the tropicals. The tropicals come indoors in winter adding some natural humidification to our apartment (and other overwintering sites) and a bit of air purification.”

Add the finishing touches of furniture and decorative elements, and you have a high-rise oasis all your own.

About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.

3 Comments on "GARDENING GODDESS: High-rise horticulture"

  1. carolyn mullet | February 2, 2012 at 8:48 pm |

    Great story, Kathy.

  2. dorothy gray | May 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm |

    i have a 540 sq ft balcony and am looking for the best and./or upcoming landscape designer to help me plan it. I am leaning to Asian but am not wedded to that. can you suggest who i might call? websites to view their work?
    thank you.

  3. Hi Dorothy – As a journalist, I have to stay neutral and I do not give recommendations for service providers. I always recommend getting personal referrals from friends, family, and neighbors on work they have been pleased with. Your neighborhood list is a terrific place to start. You can also find landscape designers on the Landscape Designers Group web site here:

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