A Short History Of Roof Gardens

Wherever it might be roof top gardeners are a breed apart. With space at a premium I’ve seen meadows growing in eaves and roses trailing into the sky. In the most exposed spaces I’ve seen mature trees thriving and come across orchards and allotments in sheltered city gardens.

Its never easy growing up in the sky but you’ll be amazed what can be achieved with a little planning and a close understanding of what you have got to deal with. It’s harder than gardening on a ground level but boy is it more inspirational!

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

In this article I’d like to just show you where we started creating roof gardens because many people believe 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 constructed during the rebuilding of Babylon by Nebuchadrezzar II to console his wife Amytis who missed the greenery of her homeland, Media. We only have mention of the gardens from writings made 200 years after their destruction probably by Xerxes I around 482BC. It is described as having lofty stone terraces, closely reproduced mountain scenery with planting to create the mountain surroundings of Media. Siculus (Greek historian 1st Century AD) describes them as being 100 feet long by 100 feet wide and built in tiers to resemble a theater. Vaults carried the weight of the plants with the highest at 70 feet. Gardening on a grand scale but still with a mind for weight limits!

The next significant point in roof gardens were the Roman roof gardens of Pompei. We don’t know much about them but the eruption of Mount Versuvius in AD 79 preserved almost perfectly a building with what we would define as roof garden terraces. The Villa of the Mysteries just outside the northwest gate of Pompei has a U shaped terrace along its north western and southern perimeters where plants were planted directly into soil. The terrace is supported by a colonnade on all three sides. This became a tomb for those escaping the falling ash. By careful excavation including pouring plaster into the root spaces the plants that were used have been identified.

There are other gardens of the middles ages such as those at Mont-Saint-Michel in France, The Medeci garden at Careggi in Italy and the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan razed by Cortes in 1521. One of the most notable roof gardens of the 17th and 18th Centuries was the Kremlin Place in Moscow, razed in 1773 to make way for the Kremlin we know today. Gardens were a great luxury for the Russian nobility and in the 17th century an extensive two level hanging garden was installed with an amazing 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 featuring a 90 square meter pond supplied by water lifted from the river. The lower garden was built in 1681 with another pond. Plants were in boxes with an emphasis on trees, shrubs and vines with paintings giving an illusion of visually expanding the space.

From the turn of the 20th Century one of the most successful movements and where the term roof garden was coined were for the theater roof gardens of the US in places such as the American Theater in New York City.

The New York conductor Rudpolph Aronson built the first having been inspired by the theaters of Paris and the high cost of land! The Casino Theater he built was the first to specifically include a stage on the roof for Summer performances. The most imaginative garden theater was Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall built in 1895 completely enclosed in glass with a constant stream of water pumped to the outer edge of the roof to cool visitors and mask the sound of the street. Even then they were still using the rocky mountainside look and included simulated lakes with live swans gliding along the surface. The introduction of air conditioning and changing tastes meant these theaters closed down in the 1920s and one by one were demolished.

Now two gardens built before World War II have inspired roof garden designers over the years and continue to do so. These are the Derry & Toms garden in Kensington and The Rockefeller Garden in New York. Some would also say the Union Square garden in San Francisco is influential and indeed this has recently been re-designed to much praise.

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 went out of business in 1978. Now part of the House of Fraser group it was restored and has a new lease of life. The original garden had more than 500 trees and shrubs. This has declined as poor maintenance, age and drought have taken their toll and the planting has been simplified but is still a great example of what you can grow. There are three principal areas of Spanish gardens, Tudor gardens and English Woodland. The garden has been greatly changed for modern requirements of elevators etc. and the once prolific summer bedding replaced with lawns.

Some of the Rockefeller Center buildings were designed by the same architect as Derry & Toms – Ralph Hancock. He was also a fellow of the RHS. The gardens are much simpler though with central parterres of lawn, trimmed hedges of privet, fountains and ponds just 2 inches deep. These were completed just before the Derry & Toms gardens. More elaborate Mediterranean gardens were designed by the chief horticulturalist for the site. What is most impressive is that 3000 tons of topsoil was brought up in the elevators!

From the early days of gardens designed for individuals and as public spaces roof gardens are now springing up everywhere and an apartment without its own outdoor space is rare. But we owe our smart London roof gardens to a long history of innovators leading the way to greening our cities.

Author Andrew Fisher Tomlin creates gardens: http://www.andrewfishertomlin.com/roof_gardens.html

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