5 Surprisingly Easy Tips for Roof Garden Design (and more)

So many people want to grow plants on their balconies or rooftops as urban farmers,

but are looking for more information on how to do this.

5 Surprisingly Easy Urban Farming Tips for Balconies and Rooftops (and more)

In order to provide more details, we interviewed Pike Bartlett, founder of Mainegarden.com, Maine Garden has been manufacturing small rooftop greenhouses and other products useful for urban farmers since 2008, when Pike reluctantly started the company (story below).

Pike's greenhouse expertise goes even farther back in history than Maine Garden. His father was a commercial greenhouse designer and developed greenhouse designs in the 1950's, so Pike knows what he's talking about! 


Sections Covered: 

1. Background

2. 3 Tips to start growing on your roof or balcony

3. A tip to think about what crop to start with

4. How to think about greenhouses as an urban farming beginner

5. Common Urban Farming Beginner Mistakes & Advice



For those who aren't familiar with maine garden, what is the company background and specialty?

 Maine Garden Products was formed after the development of the first product. The “Yankee Magazine” article (link) describes pretty accurately the invention of the “garden hod”.

After inventing the product, I still had no intention of selling them until a friend of mine saw it and coaxed me into starting a business to make and sell them. This all occurred in the early 2000’s, 15 or so years ago.

We added some cedar potting tables, raised beds, and cold frames and grew slowly until around 2008. I had always wanted to design and build a backyard greenhouse line. I grew up in a large wholesale greenhouse outside Boston and my father was the designer of those greenhouses.

He was an engineer for “Lord & Burnham”; a very old greenhouse manufacturer from NY, and he held the patent on the first “hoop” house made in the US, back in the late 50’s. My goal had been to design a “self-tending and self-contained” backyard greenhouse – one that didn’t require electricity to control or power ventilation, or to control or provide for irrigation, the two important functions in any greenhouse.

In 2008 an idea came to me about how to make this all work in small greenhouse powered by a very small solar panel and 12v battery. We developed and tested for about a year and in 2009 sold the first 8’x8’ cedar framed greenhouse, known as the “Freedom Greenhouse” line.

Since then, we have continued to develop sizes and other styles of greenhouses. The “hod” side of the business still continues to grow but greenhouses are getting more attention.


3 Tips to start growing on your roof or balcony

For urban farming beginners, what are the key tips to start your first growing project on your roof or balcony? what are the key differences between this and growing indoors?

Understand that although I grew up in a greenhouse and I am an agricultural engineer by education,  I am far from an accomplished grower or gardener.

That being said –All plants need three things to thrive: 

1. Sunlight (or equivalent artificial light), water with nutrients from the water or the soil, and appropriate air temperature. Plants don’t have “brains” but they are triggered to grow by the right combination of these in their environment.

Spinach and lettuce will grow at very low (but above freezing) temperatures, while tomatoes won’t grow until the temperature is much warmer.

This makes tomatoes difficult to grow because they also require 3 to 4 times as many days to mature and harvest than “greens”.

South facing is critical if you’re going to grow on a balcony or patio. Starting to grow as early as possible in the spring is important and with low sun angles a clear view to the south is mandatory.

Roof growing doesn’t usually have an issue with the sun being blocked but if you’re on a balcony of an apartment anything that doesn’t face between southeast to southwest (a 90 degree quadrant) is not going to yield much growth.

2. Overwatering, underwatering, too hot, too cold, are all things that can kill or damage plants. As plants grow they will need much more water and the 3” round pot that you started them in will have to be watered every hour if your plant is now 12” tall (a hypothetical example only).

3. Importance of proper containers and soil quality: If no one is around to water during the day, soil containers need to be large enough and the soil quality good enough to ensure the roots get moisture all day long.

More people kill plants from too much heat/not enough moisture than any other reason.


A tip to think about what crop to start with

What crop would you suggest for beginners that have no experience? Why? how would you set up the most basic operation for growing this crop?

 Short (in days) crops are best for beginners. The faster they see results the more likely they are to keep learning and trying. Any set up that includes the items listed above should work. (Spinach and lettuce = easier to grow, tomatoes = harder to grow).

There are plenty of high tech automated systems but I’d advise the more manual approach for beginners until they understand the growing process.


How to think about greenhouses as a beginner

Do all types of growing styles (hydroponic, conventional, etc) work equally well in green houses like the one Maine Garden produces? 

Greenhouses are primarily a “season extender”. Having a greenhouse is like growing outside, but several hundred miles south of your actual location.

Each layer of covering on a greenhouse adds a couple hundred miles of southerly growing warmth, or a couple weeks of additional growing.

Our greenhouses are all covered with triple layer polycarbonate for maximum benefit. Some crops, like hot peppers and some tomatoes, require well over 100 days of good growing conditions to mature.

Many northern US locations don’t have that, and each season is different, with some seasons being very cold and wet – tough for outdoor growing. All methods of growing work equally well in a good quality, well ventilated greenhouse.


Common Urban Farming Beginner Mistakes & Advice

What is the biggest mistake you see beginner crop growers make? 

Not a mistake perhaps, but lots of people think you need to have a “green thumb”. A “green thumb” is really nothing more than experience.  You won’t get one without trying, and trying and …………

What advice do you have for people trying to sell the crops they grow using your products? 

(I) don’t have much experience here, but most would agree that selling what you grow is easy if you have done a good job producing a crop


If people are interested in learning more about Maine Garden, what should they do / where should they go? Do you ship international?

Our website is www.mainegarden.com. Wendy and I are both available by phone or email for questions. We ship to Canada, but haven’t yet focused on any other exporting.

Thanks Pike and Wendy! 

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