Herbs for the Rooftop

Gardening with Linda Yang

| February/March 1999

  • Rooftop containers soften urban spaces and nurture such herbs as monk’s-hood and lavender
  • Above a nineteenth-floor balcony, a bee prepares for landing on its namesake, bee balm
  • Roses are the fragrant focus of this lush garden, which also includes basil, bay, and thyme.
  • This urban terrace is home to artemisia and sweet alyssum as well as hydrangea and mountain ash.
  • Like their smaller garden companions, these sky-high birch trees need winter watering
  • Spikes of Egyptian onion and a ­profusion of marigolds bask in the city sun.
  • Trees in containers thrive on the rooftop, as this blooming crabapple proves.
  • Yucca and coneflower cozy up with clematis on this city terrace
  • boxwood and viola
    Photographs courtesy of Linda Yang

Hyssop among the high-rises, basil above bricked streets, and home-grown lemon verbena for tea—the rooftop herb garden defies the notion of the bleak, anonymous city. In this rarefied atmosphere, the sensual qualities of herbs are perhaps more treasured than they are on earth, where they are more easily won. Stepping outside one’s door to snip fresh basil may be a greater pleasure on the nineteenth floor than at ground level, and the scent of lavender more intense in the night air high above the usual diesel fumes.

The challenges of creating such a city oasis are matched by its satisfactions, attests Linda Yang. A Brooklyn native, she was an architect before she found her way into the garden. She began when a neighbor in her apartment building asked her to look after some houseplants on the balcony. As Yang tended them, she grew aware of the potential for raising plants in that small space.

Yang has gardening in her blood; her earliest memory is of her father clipping lush red roses and placing them in a black glass vase. She also enjoyed cooking with fresh herbs, though at the time of her plant-sitting stint, only a few were available year-round to city dwellers. Herbs, then, were an obvious choice for her first garden.

Since then, Yang has combined practical experience with solid research. She is the author of numerous articles on urban gardening and The City and Town Gardener: A Handbook

for Planting Small Spaces and Containers. She also wrote a New York Times garden column for sixteen years. Throughout her career, her gardens have flourished, with herbs abundantly included among trees, shrubs, annuals, and flowering ornamentals.

The essentials: light, water, and soil

Urban high-rise gardening spaces range from blocky balconies and sunny terraces to wide, shady windowsills and steaming patches of asphalt roof; Yang has dealt with many. Despite their differences, she notes, all garden spaces require light, water, and soil. Supplying these necessities is often the urban gardener’s first job.

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