Roof Garden Tour (June 2009)

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

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I’m long overdue to present a mini roof garden tour this year, let alone a garden tour of any kind. As always I’m behind, which inevitably leads to thoughts that things aren’t just right yet. Or the light is wrong. Then of course there is the classic, “But wait until August when the tomatoes are like trees.”

But then August comes and I rarely post a photo, or take photos of the whole thing for that matter. And then winter comes and I am asked for photos or am putting together speaking presentations and I find there are no photos to show. So instead I spike the water bottles with LSD and ask the audience to use their imaginations.


And then spring comes and I proclaim that, This will be the year of hyper documentation! And then June rolls around and it turns out that I missed the pea plants when they were a vibrant green and covered in delicate pink flowers, and the lettuce boxes when they were in their prime. They will never be just like that ever again and there are no photos to prove it. Gardens are in a perpetual state of change and you can’t make it turn back in time. And you can never make it be exactly what you want, exactly when you want it.

So with that preamble I give you the roof garden as it is right now, not just right and not exactly what I want when I want it.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

Containers on the west side of the roof. Pictured are 4 tomatoes, potatoes, lemon basil, assorted lettuce greens, ‘Tom Thumb’ peas (they’re on the way out, hence the yellowing), bok choy, broccoli (we just harvested the first head), and mizuna.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

The mizuna that ate Manhattan. I had planned to pull this out and replace it with peanuts but it’s so big and happy, I just haven’t had the heart to do it yet. As you can see, I mulch most of my containers with straw. Works like a charm to keep the soil moist for a longer length of time. I also discovered that the starlings (birds that nest in the wall of our building) are less likely to snip pieces of living plants and instead go for the straw during early season nest building.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

One of my favourite tomatoes of the varieties I am growing for the first time this year, ‘Mountain Princess Dwarf’ ‘Yellow Pygmy’ [edit: I got it wrong! Oops.] It’s so pretty and delicate. I almost hate using those words with “princess” in the name (am I perpetuating a stereotype?). It already has a few tomatoes and a ton of little flowers. I’m thinking this might be the variety that parents can use to get their princess-crazy children interested in gardening.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

This photo (facing east) makes me cringe for all sorts of reasons but I wanted to show you a couple of elements. The first is the tent we put up this year, very different from the gazebo we typically hang to protect ourselves and some plants from the intense heat.

The roof is completely uninhabitable without some sort of shade cover, and a small umbrella does not cut it. We could not find a gazebo this year, so opted for a wedge gazebo from Ikea. It cost $30 CDN. Unfortunately, it was a bit large for the width of our wall so we had to improvise. I didn’t like it at first and miss having somewhere to hang baskets, but its free-form nature is growing on me.

The other element is the colourful striped rug. I got that for $4 from the as-is section of Ikea. There were no tags or info with it but it looks to be made from something like plastic rope. I like the feeling of it underneath my bare feet. I’m not sure how I feel about it aesthetically, but am giving it time.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

I already showed you part of the wall. This is the other part. Here you can see a tuberous begonia (needs a bigger pot), my alpine trough, violas in a rusted paint bucket, and lettuce.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

This is how I grow my indeterminate tomatoes on the roof. I pot them up in large garbage pails (one tomato per pot only!) with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. I then surround them with lettuce plants early in the season. As the summer heat picks up I pull out the lettuce and replace them with basil. All of these heads are on their last legs and will be eaten soon. Again you can see the straw mulch in effect.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

A nice colour combination: ‘Australian Yellow Leaf’ lettuce and purple violas (unknown variety but they have a thin line of silver around the margins.)

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved
This is my other favourite tomato plant right now, ‘Dwarf Medium Ruffled Pink Oblate.’ Look at those thick, ruffly leaves! Tomatoes are on the way.

There’s lots more in the details but I’d rather reveal those slowly over time.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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25 thoughts on “Roof Garden Tour (June 2009)

  1. Now I’m getting where all the flashbacks have been coming from ;) — this is amazing. As are you. G, you continue to be such an inspiration. And CONGRATS on G3 — woot!!!!

  2. OMGosh – I could wear my Mt Princess Dwarfs as earrings they’re so small! Good to see what your photos of them look like … holy tamole … I think mine must be dead but water-logged so they feel alive! Earrings … hmmm

  3. It’s looking beautiful, Gayla! I love how different those two tomato plants’ foliage is. That canopy is really cool, too. I like it better than the gazebo.

  4. It’s gorgeous. I envy you your massive tomato plants. Mine still look like babies. I just love the whole space. And I’m really fond of your shade structure… it makes me think of sailboats and summer…

  5. This was fun! I love the gazebo and I love the carpet! The carpet is a groovy contrast to the natural palate of plants. I also still love the baby buggy.

  6. How wonderful to see such a use of space – wondering how large your deck is? My deck (south facing, no shade covering & subject to lots of wind) is 12 feet by 26 feet & has so much potential for container gardening that it is a little over whelming. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful photos!
    I’ve actually been taking weekly photos of my gardens in order to better understand how plants grow & what spread of colour I get in my flower choices. I am currently embarking on a ‘Great Wet Coast Corn Patch Experiment’ by trying to grow corn on Vancouver Island’s west coast….it is heartening to see the changes in my weekly photos as changes are quite noticeable.
    Can’t wait to see your roof-top garden in mid-July!!

  7. Looks fantastic! Oh, and thanks for the tomato pot tips – going to be hooking my friend up with some balcony garden goodness in a week or two.

  8. Gayla, Thanks so much for the tour/update! I think these kinds of things are maybe, the most instructive because we can see exactly how you put everything together, the mulch, and the companion plantings. It’s seeing the big picture and understanding how to apply that to our gardens that helps.

  9. Thanks for this post! It’s so funny, I’ve been growing tomatoes for seemingly ever, and it’s never occurred to me – ever – to grow a dwarf tomato. But since I am a renter after all, they’d be so much better for pots. I guess I’ll have to look at my size-queen problem. Also I like what you’re saying about the straw being a stand-in to keep the birds from pinching off tender shoots for their nests. I couldn’t keep a bean tendril in the ground for more then a day before they’d snip it. Great advice.

  10. I enjoyed reading your post! It gave me courage as a blogger on roof gardens to post more of the photos that I’ve been holding back because it is interesting for people to see the process and your own comments on things you would like to change or do differently.

    I also liked the aluminum / blue pot combination and the shade sail is terrific! Thanks for posting and check out my website and blog, The Gotham Gardener, at

  11. Looks awesome! Love the Ruffled Pink Oblate. I also have a thing for tomato plants with unusual shaped leaves. ;-) You should try out the heirloom Pruden’s Purple if you haven’t yet. They’re delicious, have huge blossoms, and the leaves look almost like basil.

  12. What an awesome garden! As for the “sail” and the rug, love em both. The color works really well with the garden, speaking as an artist. Wish I had your luck with veggies, but we’ve done really well with poppies this year. One question. What is the object in the corner of the deck in the photo with the rug? It has wavy lines going up. Are they stakes for growing a plant on or a sculpture?

  13. Love your rooftop garden! Cath is right, the shade structure does look like a sail. Makes it feel like a vacation spot.

    I have been growing vegetables in the ground for the last few years but have just started growing some vegetables in pots this year (ran out of garden space).

    G- how do find the garbage cans are for moisture retention? I’m sure they are better than terracotta, are they similar to plastic?

    Thanks for sharing! I’m not brave enough to put photos of my entire garden on my blog yet…too much weeding still to do…ah well, next year perhaps..

  14. Liane: I use both plastic and metal garbage pails. The metal do hold better than terracotta but they do attract a lot of heat. You can always line with plastic if you are concerned about the metal or you want to retain moisture a little bit more but the heat is important to remember because some plants do not like it when their roots get too hot.

  15. Thanks Gayla!

    Follow up question, do you find peppers and tomatoes actually like the heat that builds up in the metal?

  16. Liane: Yes, with some exceptions. The tomatoes I have grown in the big metal bin (it’s at least 22″ deep) did really well. Peppers (especially hot peppers) can take it more than tomatoes. Tomatoes will drop blossoms if the heat is too intense. The big garbage cans are big so that helps.

    You should be careful that they don’t dry out too quickly.

  17. Beautiful garden. I love the use of pots and bins to create a garden in a normally deemed ‘inappropriate’ space. Also LOVE your photography! What kind of camera do you use?

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