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Garden Design

Rooftop raver: repair and renovation of a rooftop garden

Peter Nixon

Peter Nixon

July 9, 2012

Now here’s some plant porn on an apartment rooftop that achieves a people migration from the tele-sofa to the outside, with new water-proofing, brick beds and best fit planting.

This rooftop garden fits the right plants to the high light and exposed growing conditions that you find in a rooftop garden, as well as achieving the best possible integration of the floor plan with proposed garden space.

Here are before and after photos to better get across what I’m presented with at the outset when my clients and I are standing on site, looking at what the best changes might be to make garden spaces and a garden style that’s a better match for their current needs.


BEFORE – the need to stay in

So, as you can see in the before shot looking to the northern horizon with my distant client Ian marching towards us, any garden changes had to be retro fitted over the first floor slab of the original 1981 construction. Beneath this is another apartment, and it became clear during demolition that the entire original fibreglass slab seal had lifted completely away from the slab because of infiltration by extensive tree roots over more than 30 years, and that it had to be replaced.

The rooftop garden before – dull and uninteresting

The new rooftop garden, alive with colour and texture

AFTER – the need to get out

Taken from inside, this photo shows how the inside floor plan now merges more successfully with new garden space. Plant filled, rebuilt low single bagged brick planters support an inviting plant palette that impels most visitors irresistibly outside …. so owners Ian & Noelene have told me. Now let’s look in detail at how I achieved that “people migration” off the tele sofa and outside, so you can use some of these ideas for your own rooftop garden.

Sculpture Ulrich Steiner



The central living room sight line viewed so strongly, that diversion to a point other than the northern perimeter rail straight ahead seemed unnecessary as the eye landed here regardless. While there is temptation to place a big “O” ornament in such an obvious spot, this would compete with a dominating view to the northern horizon and we also needed to have the right art piece that would blend more with its companion planting. This way, it would remain more a “discovery” rather than an overbearing influence across the garden.

The perfect choice were humorous block mounted stainless and coloured glass Fun Fish sculptures from Ulrich Steiner, set on curved stems, which capitalise on the breezy aspect as the prevailing wind turns them to catch the eye, creating a charming sun bling effect.



It would have been nice (and more convenient..) to think some of the existing planter brick work could have been re-used. Unfortunately the need to reseal the slab was imperative and consequently the old planters had to be a complete removed so that the new Parchem part-painted and heat-treated seal could go down …

The new planter construction had to be kept “light on the eye” so the shorter walls were kept single and the taller ones had double brick for only the first two thirds of their height and were finished in single bagged brick to finished heights. They were then sealed throughout with drainage cell floors and storm water pipes connected to the existing slab drainage wastes off the roof, following original falls.


Now I would be lying to you if I said following the “best-fit” plant list that follows was an easy path and had the same availability as production grown plants have … But I’ve NEVER let a little thing like that blight the path to planting that was a “best-fit” to the growing conditions, especially like the ones I was dealing with in this garden.

Consequently, I used nine of my Designer Growers Network growers for this rooftop for two reasons –

Plants with high ornamental appeal – I knew if the planting were visually compelling, no-one would want to stay sitting inside if they could get out for a closer look at it, regardless of their interest in gardens, so it had to be “kooky high sci-fi” or bust.

Plants that cope with harsh conditions – being an open sky aspect, the exposure is high – and there is no irrigation. This, combined with slab load bearing limitations eliminated the possibility of any significant increase in soil depth other than replicating what had existed before. All the plants would have to happy with less than a metre (3ft) depth of growing medium and half of these in less than 300mm (1ft) .. !!

Upright variegated Sansevieria (mother-in-law’s-tongue) contrasts with sprawling Selenocerius crysocardium (orchid cactus)


Sticking strictly to these requirements drove plant choices to include, for a good third of them, epiphytic plants, like sun hardy bromeliads: alcantarea, tillandsia, aechmea, neoregelia, bromelia, dykia, ornithogalum and vriesea. Suitable companion plants that also favoured this very fast draining growing mix were crucifix orchids (Epidendrum hybrids), and I selected those with a well-behaved compact habit for the northern end to form an epiphytic ‘tray’ beneath the view and around the Fun Fish sculptures.

A variety of Tillandsia species with Aechmaea


This patch of plants at the far north-western corner shows from bottom left clockwise – Tillandsia jalisco ‘Monte Carlo’, Aechmea pineliana red form, Tillandsia secunda (red stemmed inflorescence with silver pups), Tillandsia fasciculata Mexican hybrid (multi fanned red inflorescence), Neoregelia ampullacae tigrina, Epidendrum ‘Cosmo Dream Colour’ (crucifix orchid) MOMO No. 2 hybrid, Tillandsia capitata, Tillandsia bergerii and Epidendrum ‘Joseph Glow’ with Ornithogalum saxicola as its companion.

Flowers and new pup plants on Tillandsia secunda


Plants with interesting adaptations

Tillandsia secunda, rather than producing its pups around the mother plants base, sprouts them through the spent inflorescence ….. maybe this is because it evolved in locations of high wind that would jerk them clean off from the highest point from the plant, to establish a new clump at distance from the “mother” to reduce encroachment.

Low water use plants for a non-irrigated roof garden – bromeliads, aloes, euphorbia and salvia


Plants for rich textural contrasts

For maximum “curiosity pull” to satisfy the high ornamental part of the brief, shown here are non-epiphytic plants that either store their own water or can adapt to low water, apprpriate for this non-irrigated garden. From closest to camera – Tillandsia fasciculata Mexican hybrid, Ruellia brevifolia, Aloe ‘Always Red’, Salvia semiatrata, Bromelia sp., Euphorbia Poysean Hybrid, Aloe ‘Super Red’ with Euphorbia tirucalli making a screen behind.

Sculpture by Chris Bennetts of Ishi Buki


Placed in its own setting and viewed from the master bedroom window, this is the first impression of a new day that Noelene & Ian get every morning. Styled after an Art Nouveau leaf motif design, this carved stone Water Block by Chris Bennetts at Ishi Buki Stone Sculpture suits the more intimate scale, surrounded by variegated mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus Variegatus), Rhipsalis sp. backed by Aspidistra elatior ‘Variegata’ and Selenocerius crysocardium, the Fern Leaf Epiphyllum.


Peter NixonParadisus: phone 61 2 (0)418 161513

DGB Blog; Paradisus blog


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