BIG ideas for roof gardens [part 2]

In last week’s blog post we looked at how to tackle a tiny courtyard garden for reader Rachel Scott. This week we are going to look at the second part of Rachel’s question – what to do with a small roof terrace. Plus look out for the special announcement at the bottom of the page…

Most of the design tips below will also be applicable for small town gardens and walled courtyard gardens, not just roof terraces.

Photography courtesy of Simon Leonard

Well, the first thing you need to think about with any roof terrace is the structural integrity. If you require permission to turn the space into a garden in the first place. We’ll assume all is fine on that front, in this instance.

How much weight can it hold?

The answer to that question dictates where you start. If there are no weight issues, you can use almost any building materials (it is sensible not to use excessively heavy materials) and build retaining walls with built in seats and planters. If there are weight concerns, then only place planters and other heavier objects in areas that are load bearing (usually the outer edges). Use lightweight materials. But before you do anything call out a structural engineer to advise you on what you can and can’t do.

How to use the space

As much I have have grown to hate the expression ‘outside room’, this is how you should think of a roof garden. Thinking of it as a room will help you utilise the space properly. In a tiny space like this one (3m x 2m), Rachel’s next job, once she has worked out what she can do weight wise, is to work out what space she needs to function in.

Like planning any other type of landscaped garden, you need to decide the use of the area. Are you going to have a seating area? How are you going to access it? Where is the best location to be in, or to avoid the sun? Once you’ve worked out what you want to do, you are halfway there. If you have a chair and table, set them up and see how much space you have left. If it’s not much, would it be better to build a planter with a seat built in to save on space?

You need to find the right balance between function and looks. Areas need a certain amount of empty space so that they don’t feel cluttered. This is critical to your success. ‘Less is more’, as they say (I vow one day to come up with an alternative phrase).

Use the walls

In any garden, the boundary can be used to your advantage. But in a tiny roof space, you must make the walls your best friend. If you have an interesting exterior wall, one that indents, is it possible to render and paint sections? Perhaps certain parts lend themselves to some outdoor art? Is it possible to attach a canopy on the wall to pull across on inclement weather days?

Get arty

Going back to the ‘outdoor room’ theme, dress the walls like you would for an interior but with about half to a third less stuff. If you are a clutter monkey, make that an two-thirds less! A carefuly positioned ornament or some candles on an exterior shelf blends the inside and outside spaces. Exterior art can be used effectively too. A fairly inexpensive way to create some outdoor art if you aren’t an artist is to get some Ikea canvases and paint them with exterior or yacht varnish, front and back, two to three coats. They won’t last forever but will add that finishing touch to your roof garden.

As well as thinking about how to use every bit of space from the floor to the walls. Also think about the views beyond. Frame the best parts of the view, disguise and hide the parts that don’t look good. If all the views are wonderful, you may still need a windbreak to make the sitting areas more comfortable. Screens like the one shown in the photo above work well or dense planting can sometimes be enough if the area is not overexposed.

Getting the right plants

Of course no garden would be truly complete without the plants. Think very carefully about what you put in; will it survive windier and colder conditions (if on an exposed terrace), for example? Pick plants that look good all year round and can cope with some neglect. By neglect I don’t mean to cast aspersions on your gardening skills or commitment. It’s just a fact that a plant grown in a pot suffers much quicker than one planted in the ground with more soil to support it.

Hopefully that has given Rachel some ideas for her Sydney roof terrace and you as well for your garden.

How to Create Your Dream Garden…

SMALLGDNformulaIf you’d like to know more about how to design a small space garden check out the Small Garden Design Formula. The course covers how to design different shape and size gardens. Once you know the simple tricks that are covered in the course, you’ll be able to transform any small space into a wonderful garden.

Have you watched our FREE video series on how to make any small space garden look larger yet?

If not, you can do so here:


About Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 20 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden - without needing to spend a fortune!