Anyone Ever Successfully Plant a Tree on a Roofdeck?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Erin

“Dear PoPville,

Has anyone been able to successfully grow a tree on a roof deck in DC? That is, without a complicated irrigation system? It’s very sunny, windy, and dry there in the summer. It has to be a small tree because my planter is only 3′ x 3′ x 3′. (And yes, my deck is reinforced, the area where the planter is now was designed to carry the load of a hot tub, which has been removed.)

I was thinking of planting a small Japanese maple but they’re pretty expensive and I hear they need afternoon shade, and of course, the deck gets sun all day.

And yes – I thought of planting a cactus – but I think my animals would kick my ass.”

Ed. Note: I’ll tweet this to Casey Trees who may have some ideas too!

15 Comment

  • justinbc

    Something frail like a maple will likely not appreciate the wind unless your area is well walled off. Keep in mind that in a planter that size whatever you wind up planting could possibly grow up to 12-15 feet. I’ve never grown anything on a roof, but maybe look at cities that have lots of green influenced condo buildings and see what they’re using on the top.

  • what about some native grasses and plants? unless you’re dead-set on a tree, i’d research the native idea and would recommend you have a system to remind yourself to water the thing.

  • Plant a lemon tree.

  • It’s pretty common to plant bushes in planters. I’d consider looking into a hearty tree-like bush, like heavenly bamboo.

    Otherwise, look into drought tolerant plants. Because it gets so hot on a roof, drought tolerant plants tend to work better. Maybe a small palm would be nice.

  • How about a fig? They like sunny, windy, and dry. The winter might be tough on it, if you can’t bring it inside, but I think it might be okay if you bed it down for the winter in burlap and some leaves for insulation.

  • Maybe a dwarf crepe myrtle? Speak to folks at a nursery to see what they recommend.

  • Former nursery worker here —

    People would come in all the time and ask for suggestions for planters for their rooftop decks. I really wouldn’t recommend planting a maple or any time of fragile tree. Usually I suggest some kind of evergreen so that it looks good all year around/ no leaf cleanup. Boxwoods can be good and also arborvitaes but they can get on the bigger side. You can keep anything the size you want to as long as you remember to prune and trim.

    Also, if it is on the roof you are going to have to water whatever is in it everyday in the summer, so that is something to take into account. Off summer it should be fine on it’s own with regular rainfall.

  • You should plant a Redwood or a Sequoia. Jokes aside, I was in Berlin a few months ago. So many rooftop trees / gardens. Maybe google what they are doing over there and get some ideas.

  • I inherited a Japanese maple from an upstairs neighbor. It was generally ignored and was misshapen but it survived at least 5 years. I gave it to another neighbor when I moved out.

    The tree was in a large planter, so make sure whatever surface you put it on can handle the weight of all that dirt saturated. You’ll need to keep it watered 12 months out of the year.

  • Seconding the native grasses and the crape myrtle. Also, what about a large shrubby plant like Joe Pye Weed? It will get pretty tall, but be able to withstand the drought. You might also look to the High Line in NYC for inspiration.

  • I had a fern leaf Japanese maple in a (very) large pot on my roof deck for years. It was very happy most of the year. By the end of August, it looked pretty beat — the edges of the leaves got really dry. But the leaves turned a beautiful red in the fall, and in spring it came out with lovely, healthy growth. I brought it with me when I moved to a house with a shady garden. Hard to say where it was happier — I think it misses the sun. They’re pretty sturdy guys (as long as they are watered frequently enough)!

  • thanks a million everyone. lots of great ideas here..

  • I’ve had a rooftop deck for a number of years. Plant life on a rooftop is grueling so at some point things will either get too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter and you’ll have to replace your plants more frequently than the any planted in a yard. With that said, I have *really* enjoyed planting Oleander. Technically this is really more of a bush but you can prune it like a topiary (or buy one that has already been pruned) to make it look like a tree. Oleanders keep their leaves through winter and with some simple fertilizer they’ll bloom like mad all summer long, especially in the hottest months. They’re VERY drought resistant. They’re not supposed to survive our winters here in DC but I’ve had some for 5-6 years without bringing them in over the winter. In a worst-case scenario you may have to replace it now and then but if you do, they’re pretty affordable so it’s not the end of the world. Good luck with whatever you choose!

  • One note of caution, do some research on the material the planter is made of for your roofdeck tree/shrub. I bought these nice terra cotta glazed planters for some large plants for our roofdeck and the clay REALLY holds the summer heat throughout the night, which is not good and killed a lot of plants. Look for something that will not hold heat, like metal or similar, so that it can dissipate the heat quickly after a warm day and cool down. I learned that the hard way.

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