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 lookout 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 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 a two-thirds less! A carefully 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.



Rachel Mathews
Rachel Mathews

Professional international garden designer for over 30 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!

    22 replies to "BIG ideas for roof gardens [part 2]"

    • Stacey

      This makes me wish I lived in the city. With an acre and a half, I don’t need a rooftop garden. But it would be so cool.
      .-= Stacey´s last blog ..How do you feel about making money? =-.

      • iain kinrade

        @ Stacey: I live in a flat. I’ll swap you your 1.5acre for my balcony and patios any day of the week. 🙂

    • Rachel Mathews

      I’ve designed roof gardens for people with large gardens – all you need is a flat roof extension onto your house and then you can have one! Ok, that is the slightly expensive route to getting a roof garden ;o)

    • Sherice Jacob

      This makes me wish I had a flat roof so I could do this! I could totally see myself spending hours on the roof in my garden over the summer 🙂
      .-= Sherice Jacob´s last blog ..What Cake Decorating Can Teach You About Managing Social Media =-.

    • SusanJ

      Ditto, to what Sherice said! However, it does give me some ideas to make my deck a little more inviting.

      And I love the idea about creating outdoor art with less expensive canvases and some good varnish! Brilliant.
      .-= SusanJ´s last blog ..The Myth of “I don’t feel like it” (Part I) =-.

    • guy tucker

      How about learning how to write? Your sentence which starts “And if you require…” actually isn’t a sentence at all. Also learn the difference between “their” the possessive of they and “there” . Otherwise some nice ideas.

    • Rachel Mathews

      Thanks Guy, I’d missed the ‘their’ – I write my blog posts using voice recognition software and sometimes my dyslexic brain does miss some obvious clangers! Appreciate you taking the time to help me, despite appearances, I hate having mistakes.

    • Jenny Peterson

      Great post, Rachel! I’ve done a couple of rooftop spaces, but my role was as horticultural consultant, so I wasn’t a part of the structural analysis and design.

    • Rachel Mathews

      Thanks Jenny, definitely the best way – I tend to leave the structural stuff to the experts!

    • Dianne Andrews

      I would love some ideas about a small rooftop space with no access except through a bathroom window,
      no sides,no walls, in \Sausalito,significant wind , good 5hours of sun, about 10 by 10 feet.What plants,to use,how do you not have the soil run off,can you have plastic planters as borders filledwith plants,littlesoil,and plant in the middle? how much soil, 2 or 3 inches ok ?? anyone want to come visit and advise? Dianne

      • Rachel Mathews

        Hi Dianne,

        Sounds like it would be a good idea to try and create some shelter using planting or trellis attached to planters. You’ll need to use plants that can cope with the strong winds and dry conditions. You will also need planters that are big enough not to get blown over or dry out too quickly. You can use a water retaining gel that helps hold moisture in the compost.

        Plastic or timber planters filled with plants would work well. You will need much more depth than 2-3 inches though. You need at least a foot of soil if you want plants other than ground cover ones.

        We don’t do site visits unless you are Cambridgeshire/Essex in the UK but we do offer a postal design service – see this page for more details:

    • Small Garden Ideas

      […] ideas about her courtyard, but what about the roof garden? We will look at the ins and outs of tiny roof gardens next week in part […]

    • Sarah

      Hi Rachel,
      I would love to get some advisde on how to use lighting in a garden as a practical and decorative tool.
      E.g. where to position lights to create some kind of mystery or how to underline the structure of a certain plant by using light…

      Thank you for your efforts in helping us creating beautiful gardens!!!!!

      • Rachel Mathews

        Hi Sarah,

        Thanks for your suggestion, I will get a blog post done for you on lighting. I must admit it’s not my main area of expertise – I always try to get the advice of a lighting designer as they really can work magic with their planning schemes, plus the work out the cabling requirements as well.

        It is a real art to place lights correctly – I’ll see if I can perhaps get a lighting designer to do a guest post here, as they will do a better job of explaining that me, and will hopefully get to writing it sooner than I will be able to!

    • satish

      please let me know some terrace ideas………………….

      ive got a apartment on first floor with additional personal 20 x 28 ft terrace………

    • Dianne Andrews

      I love the article on roof top gardens, I would love to see all these flat top roofs on commercial buildings start adding them, as it would beautify the concrete cities, go for it San Francisco! and attract more great tenants. What about the waterproofing and how deep does the soil need to be?

    • Successful Garden Design

      Hi Dianne – thank you! I totally agree with you, we should start doing this type of garden to beautify our concrete cities!

      Great question, unfortunately not one I can answer definitively because it's something you need to judge differently for each location. Before this type of project can be undertaken you have to get a structural engineer out to assess how much weight the roof can take. Then from that you can work out materials and you'll be able to know how much you can put down to planting.

      If weight is an issue, there is a trend that's starting to be more popular in the UK and that's the sedum turf (sod) which will grow in very little soil. There are easy to install and roll out like a carpet – look great when in flower.

    • Ma Theresa Costelo Moncada

      I am so excited to read and see the designs your going to post.

    • Shaifur Rahaman

      Hey, I am Shaifur Rahaman trying to build a successful rooftop garden since last 2 years. Recently, I planted chilles and cucumber on rooftop. I need some tips on fertilization, would you like to share something?

      • Rachel Mathews

        Hi Shaifur,

        My expertise is more design based but when I have vegetables in my own garden I use organic fertilizers – well-rotted manure is the best!

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