A Brief History of Rooftop Gardens

Wherever it is, rooftop gardeners are a breed apart. With limited space, I saw meadows growing in the eaves and roses trailing in the sky. In the most exposed spaces, I saw mature trees thriving and encountered orchards and sheltered home gardens.

It’s never easy growing up in the sky, but you’ll be amazed at what can be achieved with a little planning and a thorough understanding of what you’re up against. It’s more challenging than gardening at ground level, but it’s more inspiring!

More than half of new homes built today are apartments. Roof gardens and terraces are becoming increasingly popular and vital to the green environment. If you think that’s too much effort and you need a financial motive, then research tells us that a large roof space, the smallest balcony or terrace can add 8% to the selling price. of a house and 25% to the turnover of a restaurant!

In this article, I would just like to show you where we started creating rooftop gardens, as many people think it’s quite a modern phenomenon.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were probably the most famous roof gardens of all time. One of the seven wonders of the world probably built during the reconstruction of Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II to console his wife Amytis who lacked the greenery of her homeland, Media. We only have mention of the gardens from writings written 200 years after their destruction probably by Xerxes I around 482 BC. It is described as having high stone terraces, faithfully reproduced mountain landscapes with plantations to create the mountainous environment of Media. Siculus (1st century AD Greek historian) describes them as being 100 feet long by 100 feet wide and built in tiers to resemble a theatre. The vaults carried the weight of the plants with the tallest at 70 feet. Gardening on a large scale but always with a mind for weight limits!

The next highlight in the roof gardens was the Roman roof gardens of Pompeii. We don’t know much about them, but the eruption of Mount Versuve in AD 79. J.-C. preserved almost perfectly a building with what we would define as roof terraces. The Villa of the Mysteries just outside the northwestern gate of Pompeii has a U-shaped terrace along its northwestern and southern perimeters where plants were planted directly in the ground. The terrace is supported by a colonnade on three sides. It became a tomb for those who escaped the ash fall. Through careful excavation, including pouring plaster into the root spaces, the plants used were identified.

There are other medieval gardens such as those of Mont-Saint-Michel in France, the Medeci garden of Careggi in Italy and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan razed by Cortes in 1521. One of the most remarkable roof gardens from the 17th and 18th centuries was the Kremlin Square in Moscow, razed in 1773 to make way for the Kremlin we know today. Gardens were a great luxury for Russian nobility and in the 17th century an extensive two-tiered hanging garden was installed with an incredible 10 acres on the upper level with two terraces descending almost to the edge of the Moscow River. Again built on vaults, surrounded by stone walls and equipped with a pool of 90 square meters fed by water drawn from the river. The lower garden was built in 1681 with another pond. Plants were in boxes emphasizing trees, shrubs and vines with paintings giving the illusion of visually enlarging the space.

Since the turn of the 20th century, one of the most successful movements and where the term roof garden was coined was in the theater roof gardens of the United States in places such as the American Theater in New York seen here .

The New York conductor Rudpolph Aronson built the first one inspired by the theaters of Paris and the high cost of the land! The Casino Theater he built was the first to specifically include a rooftop stage for summer shows. The most imaginative garden theater was Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall built in 1895 entirely enclosed in glass with a constant stream of water pumped to the outer edge of the roof to cool visitors and mask street noise . Even then, they still used the rocky look of the mountains and included mock lakes with live swans gliding along the surface. The introduction of air conditioning and changing tastes caused these theaters to close in the 1920s and be demolished one by one.

Today, two gardens built before World War II have inspired rooftop garden designers over the years and continue to do so. These are Derry & Toms Garden in Kensington and Rockefeller Garden in New York. Some would also say that the Union Square garden in San Francisco is influential and indeed it was recently redesigned to much acclaim.

The Derry & Toms Roof Garden opened in 1938 as part of the famous department store. It hosted events with nobility and royalty until the store closed in 1978. Now part of the House of Fraser group, it has been restored and breathed new life. The original garden had over 500 trees and shrubs. This has diminished as poor maintenance, age and drought have taken their toll and planting has been simplified, but it’s still a great example of what you can grow. There are three main areas of Spanish Gardens, the Tudor Gardens and the English Woods. The garden has been extensively modified to meet modern requirements for lifts etc. and the once prolific summer bedding has been replaced by lawns.

Some of the Rockefeller Center buildings were designed by the same architect as Derry & Toms – Ralph Hancock. He was also a member of the RHS. The gardens, however, are much simpler with central lawn beds, trimmed privet hedges, fountains and ponds just 2 inches deep. These were completed just before Derry & Toms Gardens. More elaborate Mediterranean gardens have been designed by the site’s head horticulturist. The most impressive thing is that 3,000 tons of topsoil were lifted into the elevators!

From the beginnings of gardens for individuals and public spaces, rooftop gardens now flourish everywhere and an apartment without its own outdoor space is rare. But we owe our smart London rooftop gardens to a long history of innovators leading the way in greening our cities.

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