Inside Stories

How I once turned an illegal Brooklyn roof deck into my garden oasis

This was the "scaled-down" version of my unsanctioned sanctuary. 

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When my then-boyfriend, now husband, and I decided to move in together, each of us were living in pretty sweet apartments (with roommates). His was oversized and in the extraordinarily charming Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. I also had a pretty big place—in Prospect Heights—and my apartment had an enormous backyard.

I had moved into that apartment shortly after a bad breakup, and the combination of grief, a latent interest in plants, spare time, and the large expanse of land transformed me into someone who not only wanted to garden, but needed to. 

The day I moved out I stood on the small metal back deck, looked out at the green expanse, and wept. I was distraught at leaving this oasis that had made me feel like myself again. My boyfriend assured me—as we had discussed before I agreed to move in—that we could figure out some way for me to create a new garden on the large roof just outside the living room window of his apartment. (The building had once housed a painting business, and the first floor had a cavernous storage space that extended beyond our apartment. The roof over that space became irresistible to me and my hunger for gardening.)

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Just a few pots

Did we have permission? I suppose technically, no. (What did the lease say? I don’t know if I ever saw a lease.) But our building was small (just two apartments), and our landlord, an old-school Brooklyn native and WWII vet in his 80s, liked my husband. He had been a good tenant for years. Our landlord knew my husband had barbecues out there from time to time, so we theorized a few flower pots probably were not a concern to him. (But no, we didn't.)

My memory is that we—and by that I mean I, as my boyfriend didn’t really have any interest in gardening—started out relatively small, but the photos tell a different story.

An early configuration. 

It appears my collection was always kind of extensive, and, in fact, as the years went on and my gardener’s lust for more plants and al fresco living increased, grew more so, until a modicum of common sense—and, I think my partner’s legitimate anxiety—moved me to scale back a bit. 

Looks safe.

Not to code

I am not schooled in roofing materials, but I believe this one was tar paper—that gray, sandpaper-like material that in our case, was fused together with black goop, presumably tar.

A metal shelf of sorts measuring about two-feet deep ran along the brick wall on one side of the deck, and I utilized it heavily, thinking that was “safer” because it was not technically the roof. I arranged many pots along it, as well as a small birdbath, rustic structures picked up at flea markets (or on the street) for climbing vines and tealight candleholders.  

For water, we snaked a hose from the kitchen sink (located midway through the apartment) behind the couch and out a living room window; I also had a cooler that I filled with water when I wasn't directly watering the plants with the hose. 

Planters collected—without regard for weight.

The roof was so big that I had different “zones” at varying points: A little seating area in the corner, a larger table in the middle, and tomatoes in another quadrant. In another space I had a two-tiered herb center that utilized a weird piece of furniture I found on the street.

Flowers, plants, and grasses were an exuberant mix.

Variety is the spice

Looking back at old photos, the number, and varieties of plants I grew is both impressive, and a bit shocking. Shrub and climbing roses, clematis vines, ornamental grasses, evergreens, tropical bulbs, flowers from seed, and herbs. Eventually, I started going to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ annual member plant sale (where my people, fellow plant lunatics, could be found) and dropping some cash on choice annuals and perennials.

More plants meant more containers, big and small, picked up from flea markets and discount stores, filled, of course, with more soil. And then, naturally, watered. How many pounds was the roof holding up? I shudder to think about it. But back then, I sought out furnishings: A glass table, plastic chairs, a vintage bamboo chair and ottoman with floral pillows, side tables for drinks, tealights, and plant displays with absolutely no regard for the weight load.

Apparently (I had forgotten this until breaking into my photo archives) I also had some "all-weather" rugs out there, which of course became waterlogged and disgusting, and even ran electricity out there for lanterns and lights. (I did, eventually, go all solar, because, you should know, I'm not crazy.) 

Of course, furniture was needed to enjoy the space.

Ignorance is bliss

Not only did I hang out there in the evening and on weekends, there were also parties. Big parties, small parties. Holiday barbecues, boozy game nights, a Halloween party for which I bought a smoke machine, dinner parties featuring pesto or bruschetta made with the basil grown on site, and our roommates’ graduation party.

I suppose any of them could have ended in a horrific scene with the roof collapsing under the weight of it all. But back then, I was blissfully ignorant, in addition to being drunk on chlorophyll and, clearly, in a significant amount of denial. Would I do it again? It’s hard to say. I was in my 30s then, it was the under-the-radar, freewheeling Brooklyn of the aughts, and it made my life So. Much. Better. I’d like to say I’d do it again on a smaller scale, but I also know moderation is not really my thing, as is probably pretty clear by now.

The tent didn't add weight but it was no match for the wind.

Getting smart

Like the “garden,” our efforts to protect the roof evolved.

A key goal was to avoid puncturing the roof membrane; we were dumb, but not that dumb. So we invested in a vast amount of interlocking rubber tiles—the kind you see in kids’ play spaces, but gray, and industrial. Initially, we put numerous large pieces of plywood, obtained at Home Depot on top. (Yes, they were big, and heavy, and had to be carried up the stairs to our second floor apartment and out the gated window of the living room, as did everything: trees, furniture, and bags of soil.)

We did various things to weatherproof these panels: We painted them with waterproof outdoor paint, we shellacked them. And in the late fall, we would break it all down, stacking the wood, corralling the foam tiles, clustering my plants in an effort to protect them from the impending harsh Brooklyn winter. (In other words, I took all that weight, that was somewhat distributed across the expanse of the deck, and concentrated it in roughly one corner at the far end, which for some reason seemed “stronger.”

We tried to rehab the large plywood panels for a few seasons, furiously scrubbing and washing them, but ultimately, they became gross and dirty, attracted slugs, and mold. Somehow, we broke them down and got them to the curb. (I recall a saw was involved, but they were also pretty rotted, so we kind of “folded” them, too.)

A major breakthrough occurred when I discovered IKEA’s interlocking wood deck tiles, which made for a handsome, and relatively inexpensive surface that could be broken down and stored more efficiently and compactly.

Eventually, we did the responsible thing: solar lights.

Over the top

It was very sunny out there. Good for plants, not enjoyable for people (or at least me). I experimented with several types of shelters, including a full-blown, metal-frame gazebo complete with corner shelves, weather-resistant fabric roof, and optional mosquito netting walls.

My husband (appropriately) drew the line, and insisted it go. A series of lightweight shelters—tent-like structures, or canopies such as the ones you see at street fairs, took its place. Of course, despite tying them down and using bags of pea gravel as weights, they invariably blew over when a strong summer storm rolled through. (At one point, unrelated to my garden, a particularly intense storm felled a significant portion of our neighbor’s very large, very old tree across the entire width of the roof, smashing a patio table, some chairs and planters, but miraculously, doing little other damage.)

In 2011, I got pregnant. My pregnancy and then my newborn interrupted my green thumb activities. But eventually, I got back out there, albeit with a scaled-down version of the deck. (I also had the sense to not allow my daughter out there, although if I’m honest, it’s more because I feared she’d run off the edge, not that the roof would crater.)

The party's over. 

All good things...

One flight down, things had evolved over the years. (It had been more than a dozen.) A fancy antique store had moved next door and was renting out the storage space under the deck. Our landlord had handed the business of managing his mini-real estate empire (he owned numerous buildings), to his children, and by the time a leak dripped onto some of the store’s inventory, his daughter was in charge.

It happened very quickly. Considering how badly things could have gone, I got off really easily. (This is an argument in favor of having a friendly relationship with your landlord, building manager, and neighbors.) They showed me the leak. Everything would have to go in a matter of days. I went upstairs and sobbed.

Then, in an effort to save any bit of my plant "children" from a landfill, I called anyone I knew with an outdoor space and offered them my plants. A few friends came by and adopted choice pots. The rest, containers, plants, and all, were bagged and thrown over the side of the roof by a few guys my landlord hired. (Another godsend. I could never have gotten rid of everything on my own.)

We’d been looking for a place to move for a while, and this made it crystal clear: It was really time to go. We were hoping to buy, and obviously, one of my criteria was some kind of outdoor space.

That spring, we moved, further out into Brooklyn, to a place with not one, but two outdoor spaces, neither of which anyone can kick me out of. I even got back one of the containers a friend rescued. She got booted out of her rental with a deck—to make way for the landlady’s daughter—and I rushed to her place to retrieve the plant.

It’s a lovely Cezanne clematis that’s just putting out spring shoots now.