It’s the dream of many a city dweller: an apartment in the thick of things with a vibrant rooftop garden. They do exist, dotted across New York, Paris, London, Tokyo and even Melbourne. But Sydney? “There are not many rooftop gardens in the city,” says Talia Smith of The Local Harvest Collective, a new business providing sacks of locally sourced, organic produce to inner city customers. “We’re slow. It just hasn’t happened yet. People are afraid. They think you have to be an expert at it, but I’m not and look what I’ve done so far!”
Climb the four flights of stairs at Smith’s Potts Point apartment building and you’ll burst out the door onto a sun-drenched rooftop, which boasts a spectacular view that stretches from the tip of the Woolloomooloo Wharf to where the Harbour Bridge meets Lavender Bay. On one side are the budding, bashful beginnings of Smith’s gardening venture. Everything is edible, from the leafy green herbs and vegetables to the pops of floral colour. Things like passionfruit daisies (fragrant as the fruit with cheery bright yellow petals) rub greenery with celery herb and thick leaves of cabbage. A tub of whippet-slim wheatgrass waves gently in the wind. The newest additions are a few pots of silverbeet, young and small-leafed, which will soon grow with stalks varying between a rich, red wine hue and a bottle green.
Smith first got a taste for the green-thumbed life when she relocated to Canada in her early youth. Living in a remote part of the country, she learnt to nurture plants and care for the environment not only as an act of self-sufficiency but also for personal pleasure. Back in Sydney, as an expecting mother and the director of The Local Harvest Collective, Smith wanted to start a garden that utilised her building’s unused rooftop space.
Smith discovered a small nursery, New Leaf in Elanora Heights, about a month ago and knew instantly that it was the one for her. She started with only $350, but started a dialogue with the owner, who helped her to maximise her budget. “I told them what I was interested in and they shared their knowledge,” Smith says. “They came and helped set things up. I sent them photos of the space and they said ‘this is the best pot for you, this is where the sunlight is best’. You can’t find that kind of knowledge on the internet or in a book.
“Find a nursery you connect with,” she offers. “That’s my biggest tip.”
Building regulations often dictate how and where you can set up your rooftop garden. In Smith’s Company Title complex, the rules are that all planters have to be raised off the ground so as to keep structural interference to a minimum and to protect the waterproof membrane of the building. To that end, Smith has stored her pots in old, unused wooden palettes propped up against the wall (“I bought mine online, but you could get them from eBay or even at the Flemington Markets”) or in units suspended along rails. Always check with your body corporate regulations before you begin planting as they change from building to building.
After the initial capital injection, $350 got Smith two palettes full of edible plants, as well as the structures they’re housed in. Ongoing maintenance is really more about time than money. Smith waters her plants in the morning and in the night, but she often comes up to her space throughout the day for some respite. “I guess a lot of people don’t have the time [to garden],” she says. “For me it’s a place to come and sit and relax.”
She advises tentative rooftop gardeners to move at their own pace. “It’s just trial and error,” she says. “You learn as you go and see what seems to be happy and what seems to be growing.” Plants like succulents and herbs, which require minimal amounts of nurture and care, thrive in rooftop environments. Her initial concerns about birds were unfounded (“In the really early morning the cockatoos scream through here but they seem more interested in waking everybody up than my garden”). Tall, inner city apartment blocks are also saved from the threat of animals like possums by virtue of both of their height and their location.
The biggest threat is exposure to the elements. Advice given frequently is to implement a form of shelter – wide umbrellas, netting or shade sails are the most common – to protect your plants. Smith’s garden, by contrast, remains uncovered and unaffected by the onslaught of Sydney’s incessant rain and wind. “I was worried about them after the big rains we had last week,” she says. “But they loved it. They just drank it all in.” Her rooftop has the natural shelter of being fenced in on both sides by taller buildings, which provide a measure of protection. But Smith’s plants are also secured in their palette-shelves, which also keep them firmly rooted in place despite the wild weather.
Smith would love to keep expanding her garden, literally and figuratively. She has been approached by Bondi restaurant The Hill Eatery to work as a supplier and collaborator once her plants start to yield. Smith would also love to include her rooftop garden in her work with The Local Harvest Collective. Her vegetables might be included in the company’s bountiful food sacks, or – even better – customers could walk away with a pot of herbs to take home. “They last longer that way,” Smith says. “They’re so much fresher. And it’s nice to have things to care for.”