Rooftop and Balcony Gardening: A Primer

Expert tips for creating the perfect urban oasis.

Living in a big city certainly has its perks: access to great architecture, restaurants, art and culture and more, but what can be lacking is green space. Urban dwellers looking to escape the concrete jungle can look no further than their balcony or rooftop deck to add a pretty pop of color to their home or a fresh addition to their next meal.

Building out a rooftop or balcony garden requires a bit of strategy, though, especially in a climate that gets a lot of sun and wind and little rain during the warmer months. Chicago is one of those climates, and experts in the Windy City agree that plant choice is fundamental to the success of an urban garden.

When looking for an expert on the topic of roof gardening, one Chicago rooftop restaurant stands out: Homestead on the Roof in Chicago, a literal farm-to-table restaurant that serves New American fare sourced from an on-site, nearly 3,000 square foot roof garden.

Sitting atop many “best of” lists like Chicago’s Best Best Al Fresco, Time Out Chicago’s Best Restaurants for Outdoor Dining and Chicagoist’s Best Rooftop Bars, Homestead on the Roof is located above Roots Pizza in the booming Ukrainian Village neighborhood, recently named Redfin’s Top Neighborhood of 2016.

Patrick Wingert, general manager of Homestead on the Roof, strongly encourages budding gardeners to think about both form and function as a first step.

“At Homestead on the Roof, we put a lot of thought into what we plant, based on what’s going to look nice and what's going to be functional. We don’t want to plant a bunch of parsley and then put that on everything we serve. We look for plants that will last for the season and are versatile,” said Wingert.

One interesting addition to Homestead on the Roof’s garden is nasturtium, an edible flower that Executive Chef Scott Shulman uses to make some of the menu’s seasonal dishes pop. Tomatoes, sunchokes and mint are also popular.

Rookie gardeners often don’t do enough research on what plants will do best in the climate in which they live, or the work required to maintain them.

“The biggest mistake a person can make is choosing the wrong plants,” said Joan Murray, sales manager at Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago. “They choose plants that are not compatible with the exposure, like putting a shade plant in a sunny area. Rooftops are quite sunny, so it’s also important to have water readily available, too. Most people don’t have water close, and try to convince themselves that they’ll bring water up every day, which just isn’t realistic.”

When asked what the best plants, vegetables and flowers are best for first-time urban gardeners, Wingert suggests chives and wild grass.

“We planted chives four years ago and the plants come back strong every year. They’re the only perennials that we plant -- the rest are annuals,” said Wingert.

Murray recommends zucchini and cherry tomatoes as good starter vegetables.

“When cherry tomatoes grow correctly, they taste like little pieces of candy,” she said, adding that basil is usually a good starter herb but the weather over the last few years has not provided optimal growing conditions.

One of Murray’s favorite plants is the elegant feather, which can hold up to wind, rain and sun.

“We sell thousands of them every year,” said Murray. “One customer recently ordered more than 100 of them. They start in a four-inch container and grow to be six to eight feet tall. We also love succulents. They look quite lovely and do really well in full sun.”

Weather is an obvious consideration that urban gardeners need to consider. Wingert notes that Homestead doesn’t have any protection from weather, so they’re strategic about the type of plants they select and limit their choices to ones that can withstand the constantly-changing Chicago weather. Murray says that many of the shop’s customers utilize umbrellas, pergolas and awnings to protect plants that can’t be left in full sun.

Building a beautiful, low-maintenance urban rooftop garden requires a good amount of research, planning and strategy, but is well within reach, even for those aren’t lucky enough to have a naturally green thumb.