When space is limited, having the ability to grow your own food requires some ingenuity. You can find all types of different plans and ideas for gardening when land is in short supply, such as stacked beds and vertical planters. Some people completely do away with their manicured lawns and replace them with garden beds, or perhaps implement edible landscaping for a less extreme effect.
While these ideas are all great, especially for the urban homesteader, there is one place that is often overlooked despite it offering a sizeable space for plants — the roof! Homeowners can literally use the roof above their heads as additional space for garden beds. Apartment owners may find this trickier but don’t worry, more and more commercial and residential buildings are using their roofs  to grow ornamentals and edibles.
What Green Roofs Are
Green roofs are a fairly simple type of “agritecture” that has actually been around for quite some time, despite it being a seemingly new idea to some people.
In essence, a green roof is a living roof that may completely or just partially cover a building. While some people use raised beds, semi-permanent containers or a combo of both, others choose to add soil directly to the top of the roof, quite like planting right into the ground. For the latter method there is often more planning and technology involved, as there will need to be drainage and some type of material to protect the roof itself from water damage.
Why They Are Beneficial
Green roofs offer so many benefits that it’s a bit surprising they aren’t more popular in the United States. Here are some of the main reasons why a living roof is a great idea, aside from having more gardening space:
- Increases the longevity of a roof by two to three times.
- Provides excellent insulation, so you will save money on air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter.
- Helps control flooding and water damage during heavy rains.
- Offers wildlife more habitat and natural food sources.
- Attracts and helps support beneficial insects like bees.
- Reduces the carbon footprint of homes.
- Decreases noise in communities.
- Improves overall air quality.
In a city it would take a significant number of living roofs to make a noticeable impact on overall temperatures and air quality, but plenty of these benefits apply to individual home owners.
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A potential disadvantage of these types of roofs is the cost of installing them. There are some very high tech systems on the market that probably aren’t financially obtainable for the average home owner. However, you don’t need one of these manufactured systems to build a green roof. Since ancient times, people have been building living roofs simply by building a strong structure and adding sod on top of it.
Building a green roof may be an investment, but even a simple but productive set-up will yield enough savings in terms of groceries and household electrical bills for it to pay for itself over time.
Types of Green Roofs
There are three classifications that you’ll commonly hear when reading about green roofs:
- Extensive: These roofs are very low maintenance and often used for aesthetics and to conserve energy in the home. Extensive roofs don’t use any special irrigation and aren’t very deep in terms of soil build-up. These roofs are the most expensive to set up, ideal for a wide range of pre-built homes, but aren’t suitable for food production. Generally, you will use different mosses, grasses and herbs.
- Semi-Intensive: These roofs require moderate maintenance and possibly some type of irrigation during the hot and/or dry seasons. Semi-intensive are ideal for someone interested in growing some types of food but are especially ideal for energy conservation and providing wildlife/insect habitat. Typically, this roof will be mostly grasses, herbs and mosses like extensive roofs but can also handle certain shrubs (think small berry bushes) and vegetables as the soil build-up is deeper.
- Intensive: Intensive green roofs are pretty much strictly for commercial use. They require constant irrigation and maintenance. Intensive roofs vary in use but are almost always built as an above-ground park. Some of these roofs are huge and strong enough to even have small ponds built into them. Naturally, this type is not suitable for homeowners.
If you aren’t interested in growing food and only want a cool-looking roof that provides climate control for your home, go with an extensive green roof. If you are interested in growing some smaller edibles and vegetables, perhaps some dwarf berry bushes, a semi-intensive would be the most versatile and appropriate for the average homesteader. You can always customize a semi-intensive roof to be able to function as a vegetable garden if you use raised beds.
Creating a Green Roof
The amount of planning and designing you’ll need for your green roof depends on the type needed and what you wish to achieve with it. While some people put up a sod roof in a weekend, unless you are familiar with architecture or construction and know that your roof can support the weigh, you need to consult a professional. The last thing you would want is a failed green roof along with a structurally damaged house.
Do plenty of homework into how deep you’ll need your soil build-up, as well as what plants you would like to grow. You’ll need to take into consideration that plants growing up on a roof will be dealing with hotter temperatures and more sun that plants on the ground. For this reason, some people choose to grow only drought-hardy plants that require full sun.
You may be able to find a professional in your area with experience building green roofs. If not, at least have an inspector check out your house to ensure it can hold the weight of the soil and the plants. You can find plenty of support and ideas online on websites and through forums like Permies.com.
Do you have any experience with green roofs? Share your tips in the section below: