Rooftops challenge city gardeners

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 3:12 p.m.

Rooftop gardens are sprouting atop a growing number of public and private buildings in Pittsburgh, yielding a new bounty of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“People need to be aware that this is not the typical garden experience,” said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that supports agriculture.

Rooftop gardening presents special challenges.

“You have to be able to get supplies and water to the top (of the building) and understand weight and load-bearing issues,” Pezzino said.

While the nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh is primarily focused on gardening on the ground, Pezzino says the organization receives calls from people interested in putting them on their roofs.

Joel Perkovich, 33, of Sewickley, sustainable design and programs manager at Phipps Conservatory, estimates that any green roof or rooftop garden that has soil of between 3 to 5 inches uses less water than a garden on the ground.

“It all depends on how elaborate you want your roof to be,” Perkovich said.

“The first two years of your green roof or roof garden are the most critical,” he said. “Maintenance will decline after that.”

With a $10,000 grant from the Mary Jane Berger Memorial Foundation — which is interested in community gardens and herbs — the Squirrel Hill Library built two raised beds on the lot's roof, as well as community gardens in seven other city neighborhoods.

“It opens up a space that we wanted to be able to use,” said Megan Fogt of Hazelwood, manager of Children's Services at the library.

The lot is adjacent to the children's section of the library.

“If we have enough vegetables, the Squirrel Hill Pantry said that they would be happy to get food from us,” Fogt said. “We're excited that it is a possible way to interact with the community.”

The library plans to offer classes on harvesting vegetables and growing herbs.

Sonja Finn has a rooftop garden for fun and profit.

She owns Dinette, a restaurant on Penn Circle South that is known for its tomatoes, which are grown on the roof of the restaurant.

Finn and her father, an avid gardener, started the garden in 2009.

Finn has about 65 food-grade containers on her roof, mostly tomatoes, but she also grows her own herbs and her own arugula.

The food quality is where they want it, Finn said, even if it might not be cheaper.

Dinette's roof has a wick system to irrigate the containers, which prevents overwatering and allows plants to absorb water when the roots need them.

“There are certain items that wouldn't be on the menu if we didn't grow the tomatoes,” Finn said.

Finn is referring to the four to five weeks a year in which the restaurant serves a tomato salad, and the tomatoes go from the roof to the plate.

She said people look up to see the garden and wonder when the tomatoes will be ready to pick.

In Squirrel Hill, Maren Cooke's garden covers the entire surface of her roof and contains raised beds.

Cooke worked with an architect to design the roof and to determine how to space out the beds. The beams that support the roof are made from wood from the Laurel Highlands.

The garden is home to more than 100 varieties of plants, 30 of them tomatoes. She estimates she had 35 quarts of strawberries this year.

She has decided to do a few things differently as a result of the changing weather, such as space plants farther apart and rework the components of her soil.

“The drought has been a useful lesson in how I design what I do,” Cooke said.

Jacquie Harris is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at

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