Urban Rooftop Garden

This downtown Lexington garden boasts seasonal flowers, permanent trees and shrubs, and edibles—which thrive on rooftops.
Story by Steve Bender and Rebecca Bull Reed

Setting: On the roof of the L.V. Harkness & Company store downtown
Designer: Jon Carloftis, Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens; joncarloftis.com
Size: 21 by 58 feet

Lack of a yard is no excuse for not having an edible garden. As proof, look at the rooftop of L.V. Harkness & Company, a fine furnishings and gifts store in downtown Lexington. Owner Meg Jewett-Leavitt wanted to turn the empty space into a beautiful garden suitable for entertaining or relaxing. She picked the right guy to design it—fellow Kentuckian Jon Carloftis.

Jon made a name for himself designing rooftop gardens in Manhattan. His signature plants are edibles because they are unexpected and do so well on rooftops, plus clients love them. Structures, focal points, seasonal flowers, and permanent trees and shrubs keep these gardens beautiful year-round.

The Big Idea
Create an outdoor room that looks formal in winter due to structures, evergreens, and outdoor furniture and casual in other seasons because of flowers, vines, veggies, and herbs. Edibles include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, chives, strawberries, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and parsley—as well as pear, nectarine, peach, apple, fig, and cherry trees. The garden's elevation (cold air sinks) and southern and western exposures (steady sun warms the masonry) extend the growing period by three weeks in both spring and fall.

The Materials
A flat roof is usually somebody's ceiling, so reducing weight was key. Jon did this by using lightweight fiberglass posts for the arbor and high-quality fiberglass planting boxes. To further lighten the planters, he filled the bottom quarter with packing peanuts and then added a top layer of Pro-Mix potting soil combined with dehydrated cow manure. Edibles grown in containers need more frequent feeding than those in the ground. Jon uses his own brands of organic fertilizers and soil conditioners called Soil & Root and Bloom & Fruit (available from local retailers as well as online at joncarloftis.com).

Time and Energy Savers
An automatic drip-irrigation system minimizes water usage and eliminates hand-watering. Shading the roof with plants cools it in summer, cutting down on air-conditioning costs. Container gardens have fewer pests and weeds anyway but especially when the plants are on a roof or balcony.

Get Started
Don't let a lack of space or your geography keep you from planting. "No matter whether you have a roof, deck, patio, or balcony, you can re-create this look and grow edibles in a beautiful space," says Jon. Most veggies, herbs, and small fruits love growing in containers. Start by planting one or two pots to build your confidence, and then proceed from there.