ISSUE 21  |  Summer Preview

Brooklyn Oasis: A City Roof Garden, Before and After

May 26, 2015 10:00 AM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

A never-ending real estate dilemma is whether it is better to rent or to buy. For one lucky Brooklyn tenant, renting is clearly the way to go.  Her apartment is on the top floor of an elegant, newly renovated Fort Greene brownstone. Just beyond her front door, her “backyard” is a lush roof garden, designed by Marni Majorelle of Alive Structures, a specialist in bringing natural beauty and native plants to the urban landscape.

Although the roof garden is a natural place for relaxation, the brownstone’s owners (who live below the rental apartment) installed it mainly for its value as insulation. They are not fans of air conditioning and say the garden on the roof helps cool the building in summer.  And, being a couple consisting of a cook and a gardener, they enjoy other benefits as well. The roof basks in bright sunlight so they are able to raise an abundant supply of herbs, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, habanero peppers, and other vegetables in a custom raised bed.  The owners share the crops with their tenant and produce such generous quantities of mint, basil, coriander, oregano, and dill that they frequently urge her to do more cooking to take advantage of the bounty.

Photography by Marni Majorelle except where noted.

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Above: Photograph courtesy of Ari Burling.

The clients requested a wild, natural look, which precluded the use of pre-fabricated tiles of low-growing sedums commonly found on green roofs. Instead Majorelle used grasses and native plants liberally to give the project the feel of an unruly, indigenous space.

Before

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Above: During installation, lightweight growing medium was laid down to reach a uniform height even though the roof itself is sloped. This allowed for a deeper bed of soil at the far end of the roof where larger plants such as the towering Joe Pye Weed could thrive.

After

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Above: Inside a tall periphery border, shorter species including creeping phlox, succulents, low-growing grasses such as Seslaria autumnalis and thyme varieties ‘Minimus Russetings’ and ‘Purple Carpet’ provide a rich tapestry of textures.  They are mixed with some medium-height growers such as Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima) lavender, dianthus, and Amsonia hubrichtii.

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Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista.

Lolling on the chaises or sipping coffee at the mosaic table while listening to bird song is guaranteed to be a quiet, calming experience.  In summer when the surrounding trees have leafed out, the nearby buildings almost completely disappear.

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Above: The green roof is small, just under 500 square feet. However, it feels much larger, easily accommodating the raised bed as well as a path, and both dining and seating areas. Majorelle designed the roof with a periphery border of tall plants to provide privacy and give the space “a feeling of enclosure.” The roof is on a densely populated city block, but Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum “˜ Little Red’), New York Ironweed, Liatris scariosa, Ascepias incarnata, and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) grow high enough to soften the intrusions of city life, both visual and audible.

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Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista.

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ provides spring color along with early blooming phlox, dianthus, alliums, and amsonia.

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Above: Although Majorelle checks in from time to time, the owners of the house manage the routine maintenance themselves. In early spring they cut down the grasses. Over-enthusiastic spreaders, such as the creeping phlox, frequently have to be trimmed back to prevent them from crowding out other plants. In keeping with the owners’ concern for sustainability, rainwater collected in a row of high-tech containers is used for irrigation.

For more on green roofs, see: