Grow your own roof

, 05 June 2013

Creating a living roof
Author Helen Hodson

Last bank holiday weekend I achieved one of my ambitions. I single-handedly planted 250 sedum plugs; not as part of the revamp of our garden, but on the roof of my husband’s music studio.

I was first introduced to living roofs ten years ago when desperately trying to find a topic for my undergraduate dissertation. One evening they featured on a TV news piece and I was instantly hooked. I sprang into action and contacted the influential people in the living roof world. I soon found myself being shown the sedum roofs on Canary Wharf’s tallest sky scrapers by Dusty Gedge, soon followed by a tour of the long-established roofs in the Swiss city of Basel by Stephan Brenneisen. These trips were a real eye-opener and left me puzzled as to why living roofs weren’t part of every building design.

Their benefits are numerous, but the one I’m most interested in is the creation of a habitat in what is an otherwise lifeless and overlooked space. My husband’s studio measures just four metres by three metres, but what we’ve managed to create on its roof is a tiny nature reserve which will hopefully be buzzing with life very soon.

The make-up of the roof is simple… pond liner which acts as waterproofing, recycled aggregate from a local quarry as the growing medium and expanded clay as a drainage gully at the front. All this is kept in place by timber upstands which surround the perimeter. We opted to use a mix of sedum plugs and native wildflower seed – the sedums do well in the harsh environment on a roof top and the wildflowers will add a bit of diversity and colour, as well as supplement the nectar supply. To make the space attractive to as many species as possible, we varied the depth of the substrate to create humps and hollows, added a small log pile, an area of stones and kept a patch free of any planting.

The concept of living roofs is so simple yet so effective. Anybody can create one. It just takes a bit of planning (and a sturdy structure!). The internet is full of free DIY guides and advice from people who have completed their own projects.

Now the real fun begins. Each week I will be able to climb the ladder and see what’s growing (and what’s failing to grow) and observe which creatures have stumbled across our little brownfield site in the sky.

upstands and battens to hold the substrate in place / Helen Hodson
upstands and battens to hold the substrate in place / Helen Hodson

planting hundreds of sedum plugs! / Helen Hodson

the finished roof / Helen Hodson

Leave a comment


  • Jane Brinkley:

    Nice work Helen!

    05 Jun 2013 14:13:45

  • Herring Gulls are fond of these too. Plans for one marina development in E Sussex included elegant waterside apartments with flat “green roofs”, unaware that these could be colonised, possibly not a welcome feature in a seaside hideaway.
    Your site looks too enclosed, however, for this to be a problem / welcome new garden species.

    06 Jun 2013 07:33:38

  • Looks great Helen. If they havn’t already you should get the Wildlife Trust to promote green roofs more??
    Cliff makes a valid point – that all aspects of the design (and installation) of green roof should be considered. Some countries (including the UK) have green roofs that have been designed to positively encourage bird species such as black redstart, skylark, plover species etc.

    06 Jun 2013 14:31:02

  • mike & sally:

    Well done Helen looks fantastic and will be even more so as things get more established. We encourage projects like this, please keep us updated as your roof garden matures (photos please)

    09 Jun 2013 00:35:13

  • Helen Hodson:

    Thanks for all the comments. I plan to start a blog and share the progress of the roof as it develops. I will post a link once it’s up and running.

    10 Jun 2013 10:46:06

  • Dee Christensen:

    Having recently moved to Littlehampton, I am interested in the comments re gulls on green roofs. Have been thinking of establishing one but put off by thoughts of gulls. Any ideas how they can be discouraged? The roof I question is about 10 by 6 foot.

    14 Jun 2013 19:40:27

  • Helen Hodson:

    Hello Dee. Gulls will be attracted to any flat roof surface to nest, regardless of whether it is vegetated or not. If the roof in question already exists, and doesn’t currently have nesting gulls, there is no reason why adding vegetation will suddenly attract them. I can’t guarantee that gulls will not find their way to your roof, but the benefits to other wildlife provided by a living roof greatly outweigh the risk of attracting gulls. I’d encourage you to give it a go!

    20 Jun 2013 10:50:39