Taking it to the Roof: Simple Ways to Start Your Own Rooftop Garden

By Troy Covello | Thursday, May 6, 2010

The interior of the Brown Trout. Photo by Tammy Green.

Lincoln Square residents have plenty of opportunities for finding fresh produce, and more seem to be popping up, like the expansion of the Lincoln Square Farmers? Market and a community garden in the works. But die-hards can kick it up a notch by starting their own rooftop garden. The Center Square Journal talked to Sean Sanders, the owner and chef of ?sustainable fine dining? restaurant Brown Trout, about his restaurant?s rooftop garden and what helpful tips he has for newbies.

?To me, the epitome of sustainability is producing it yourself, is it not?? says Sanders.

By growing your own organic produce, you can save money by not buying from a local farmers? market?or even eating at Brown Trout.

Start Small

Small plants should be given time to be nurtured before heading outdoors. Sanders says he begins growing all of his plants in the basement of Brown Trout, which is located at 4111 N. Lincoln Ave.

?I like to do it from seed because I get to watch it come to life,? says Sanders.

Under massive growing lights rest beans, peas, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes, which are all ready to make the voyage up to the roof and be planted. Sanders says he starts growing his plants about four to five weeks before they?re taken to the roof. By that time, the plants are able to withstand the higher winds that are accustomed to rooftop gardening, says Sanders.

If you don?t have a basement in your building (or if it looks like a location from Silence of the Lambs), you can convent any room or closet into a growing room by installing growing lights.

Preparing the Roof

The roof must be reinforced to accommodate the weight of the soil and plants in a rooftop garden. Sanders says the previous owner of Brown Trout had already reinforced the roof for a dining area, which ended up working well to support his eight raised beds that weigh 14,400 lbs. combined.? Sanders also has a trellis hooked up along two sides of the roof, and it?s connected up a canopy, which gives plants some respite from the sun.?Cool soil and warm plants are very important for a rooftop, says Sanders.


Some restaurants outsource the planting and maintenance of their gardens, but it?s possible to do it yourself. Sanders and his team of chefs turned gardeners take an entire day off to plant on the roof of Brown Trout.

?The cooks come in and help me, and they?re all excited to come up on the roof and pick the herbs and flowers and tend the plants,? says Sanders.

Rooftop gardener Charlotte McCain says it?s not complicated to do the planting yourself.? She says it?s important to make sure there is a drain hole at the bottom of each planter.? She recommends using charcoal briquettes instead of gravel because the briquettes weigh less. McCain also says gardeners should fill the planter in two-thirds of the way to the top, put topsoil over the charcoal, and then dig holes deep enough so that the root ball of each plant is firmly covered.

Sanders says he uses compost instead of topsoil. He says food waste from the Brown Trout is sent to Mint Creek Farms, where it is brought back to the restaurant as compost to be used in the planters.

Get Cooking

Once you have a growing and sustainable garden, you might find that harvesting and cooking with it is easy. Sanders lets his customers know where the ingredients from each meal comes from with the ?from the roof? section on his special?s chalk board. In your own kitchen, the advertising may just be in the taste.

?It adds an element to food that can?t be duplicated, cutting an herb right away and using it is so different than using something that has been packaged for four days,? he says.

Sanders says he anticipates year round growing of herbs in the basement, which could make home-grown herbs not just a seasonal addition to his menu.

Getting Started with Herbs

The easiest way to start your own herb garden is by starting off with a few herbs.? They can be planted in simple containers–such as old coffee cans–and placed in a windowsill or just outside the kitchen door.? Here are the five most useful herbs to grow and use in your kitchen, according to Chef Sean Sanders.

1.? Marjoram

2.? Arugula

3.? Parsley

4.? Chives

5.? English Thyme

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