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Growing Community on a Manhattan Rooftop

Denise Holness Jackson
Denise Holness Jackson in the sixth-floor rooftop garden she helped create.

While "a tree may grow in Brooklyn", there's a whole rooftop garden growing in Manhattan. Perched on the sixth floor of an apartment house in Greenwich Village is a rooftop garden inspired and created by Denise Holness Jackson. Seven years ago, Denise looked at the vacant rooftop and envisioned a garden that would be a refuge from the concrete of the city and a meeting place for neighbors. With help from the building superintendent, Jimmy Ward, her vision has become a reality.

All Containers, All the Time

Denise grew up in Westchester County and remembers gardening with her mother. She knew all about the joys of gardening and wanted to create a green oasis at her home in Manhattan. "I just started putting some plants up there and, before I knew it, a garden was born," says Denise. Jimmy and Denise needed help maintaining all the containers, so they asked tenants to donate funds to purchase materials, such as soil, pots, compost and mulch. Now there are more than 74 containers planted with everything from vegetables to trees. The roof is in full sun and gets lots of wind. Watering is probably the biggest chore, and self-watering containers help make it manageable. "These containers are fabulous," says Denise. "I have six different ones filled with mostly perennials, such as coral bells, ferns and obedient plants," she says. "The containers are easy to water and I don't have to think about them. It's no-worry gardening," says Denise. "The plants in the self-watering containers grow much better than the ones in regular containers," she says.

 

The list of plants Denise grows on her rooftop is very similar to the plants you'd find in a regular backyard garden. They include Japanese maples, lilacs, roses, daphne, yucca, lilies, rhododendrons, honeysuckles, spirea, weigela, dogwood, vegetables and herbs. "I bought the Josée and Primrose lilacs from Gardener's Supply, and they have grown well since we planted them," she says. "You could tell they were packaged with love," says Denise.

Growing on the Roof

Growing trees on a city rooftop can be a real challenge. "The largest pots we have are 26" in diameter," says Denise. There's an aspen tree in one and a Japanese maple in another. They need to be root pruned every year to keep their growth in bounds. Rooftops are notoriously windy. "I tie the trees to the metal railing so they don't blow over and break their branches in high winds," says Denise. "The Soft Ties that I bought from Gardener's Supply are strong, yet gentle on the trees," she says. Denise also loves the self-gripping plant ties with Velcro. "The ties work well on clematis, angel trumpet and passionflower vines, keeping them supported until they are able to grab hold of the railings," says Denise. Once the vines have taken hold, Denise removes the ties and reuses them in other places.

Another way Denise keeps the plants vertical is with cages. "I've used the tomato cages for both our tomatoes and our peas," says Denise. "The cages are small enough to fit right over the containers and make training and supporting the fruits easy," she says. Denise ties the cages to one another to support them in the wind. "The cages look artful, and are functional as well," she says.

Amazingly enough, another rooftop gardening problem is squirrels. The squirrels love to dig in the containers and bury acorns. "Most of the time we have to weed out the tree seedlings, but we have kept a few of them," says Denise. Denise has found a safe solution to repel these pesky critters. "Since I started using the squirrel and raccoon repellent , we haven't had a problem with squirrels digging or burying acorns in the pots," she says.

Up on the Roof

Denise and her neighbors have transformed this vacant roof into a green meeting place. They've incorporated benches, tables, chairs, barbeque grills and arbors. "It's become a refuge and gathering spot," says Denise. The rooftop garden has got people talking to one another. "Having the plants around helps folks feel comfortable and settle in," she says. The garden has become a selling point for others thinking of moving into the building. "One new resident said they moved here because they knew we had a rooftop garden," says Denise. From her view on the roof, she sees other gardens sprouting on the roofs of New York and feels great knowing her garden may have been an inspiration to others.

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