Planting a rooftop garden is easier than you think. Creating your own green oasis doesn’t have to require much time or money.
By Dominika Maslikowski
A man carrying a potted palm tree pushes through the doors at the Attaba metro station and navigates through the crowd with the heavy load. A small balcony on Mustafa El Nahas Street is crammed with pink and yellow bougainvilleas and overflowing with dozens of leafy herbs in metal pots. In a congested city filled with concrete, where housing is often built thick and fast, many are determined to stake out even a little patch of green. A few others go further and plant a leafy oasis or small farm on their rooftops where space is abundant and often neglected.
Downtown hotels and restaurants have known for years that a shady rooftop lounge with a panoramic view can pull in the customers. There is also Schaduf, an enterprise that works in low-income communities to help people launch profitable rooftop farms. But not many look at their own rooftops and envision anything more than storage space. Starting a garden or organic farm up there often seems too unrealistic, time-consuming or costly. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say those in the industry who’ve helped Cairenes transform their rooftops into weekend getaways or sources of fresh, organic vegetables.
“A rooftop garden is very realistic and it doesn’t require big capital. You can always start small and extend as you go. There will always be trial and error. You might pick up plants that don’t do well, but then you can always propagate the ones that are doing well,” says Tarek ElAbd, a landscape consultant who’s worked on large gardens and rooftops. “I’d like people to realize the potential of having a rooftop garden and not think that it’s too difficult or they don’t have time. People need to take the first step. It’s like if you don’t exercise, the first step is the most difficult. Once you get into it, it gets much easier and you realize how good it is for you mentally and physically.”
If you’re on a budget, you can start with a few potted plants and then propagate them by cutting off a piece of stem and soaking it in water until it grows roots, for example. You don’t have to make a trip to the nursery or load up on gardening equipment. For Hany Elkhodary, founder of Green Zone Egypt, gardening is part of a bigger picture that includes living a clean life, recycling and reducing carbon emissions. He offers workshops on natural gardening that give tips on planting with recycled materials and quick DIY projects like upcycling cheese buckets to make compost bins. Elkhodary calls it urban farming: there are no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and the materials used are probably already in your kitchen.
“You can use what you have. This is a concept in permaculture that you don’t need to invest a lot of money,” Elkhodary says. “You can make pots from cups, for example, so you can start with a zero budget and extract the seeds from your lettuce, tomatoes or pepper. You just need to know how to do it. Every plant has a different technique to sprout it.”
It is now easier than ever to get this know-how, even if your previous gardening experiences ended in withered plants. You can start with small and easy-to-grow plants and observe how they develop or attend a workshop. If you don’t have time to take a course, you can read up online or join the growing number of forums and social media groups in Egypt dedicated to gardening, such as the Cairo Pot and Soil group on Facebook. Gardening has grown more popular and events like flower shows that were once attended mostly by pros are now pulling in the public, ElAbd says. It’s easier now to find like-minded people and share tips on how to grow in Egypt’s climate.
Time is a big obstacle for many people who want to grow a rooftop garden or small organic farm. Some don’t want a garden because they often travel and then everything they planted dies. Elkhodary has developed a system for irrigation that can be left alone for up to a month. You can either buy such a system or make your own with a timer connected to a water source that will drip into pots, and it doesn’t have to be costly, ElAbd says.
Reaping the Benefits
ElAbd started growing plants as a hobby and quickly discovered how gardening takes his mind off anything and eases his worries. Although it can benefit anyone, gardening can also give the elderly or the physically challenged a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment.
“From my own experience, gardening — whether it’s on the ground or on the roof or indoors — provides a very good chance for me to relax and spend time doing something useful,” he says. “It’s a blessing to have a roof where you can enjoy sitting out on summer nights and enjoy the cool breeze. In the winter it provides an area where you can sit in the sun and have your children around you playing.”
Cleaning out the rooftop and putting in a table, umbrella and a few potted plants can immediately create a relaxed space for hanging out on weekends or having meals with friends. It also improves the entire visual effect of a neighborhood, ElAbd says, as the roof is no longer a dumping area for broken furniture.
With an organic farm, you benefit by limiting your intake of pesticides and saving on the cost of organic food at supermarkets, ElAbd says. Many people now want to grow their food organically because of the many unhealthy effects of chemicals and pesticides to your health, Elkhodary says, and they also want to feed their children organic. Rows and rows of vegetables growing in raised beds also absorb the heat, cool off the roof and decrease the energy consumption of the entire building.
“Organic rooftop farming helps with many things. When you separate your waste for compost, you decrease landfill space so on the national level it decreases the emission of greenhouse gases,” Elkhodary says. “It makes healthy food and clean air, and decreases the expenses of disposal fees. It’s also a good hobby. It’s good to teach your kids to grow in a sustainable way, instead of wasting energy and consuming more. You have to change the minds of the next generation.”