Planting in the sky: Berkeley’s secret rooftop gardens

A field in Tilden? Nope – the roof of the Freight & Salvage in Downtown Berkeley. Photo: Eden Teller

A field in Tilden? No — it’s the roof of the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Eden Teller

There’s a secret green side to Berkeley, one that is not visible from the sidewalk.

They are Berkeley’s roof gardens — oases of calm amidst a city of concrete. Some were created to provide food, others to make buildings more energy-friendly. Whatever the reason, they remain mostly unseen.

Over the past few weeks, Berkeleyside has located several living roofs around Berkeley. Of course, journalists can’t fly, so we likely did not find every rooftop garden. By contacting architects, squinting at Google Maps, and combing through past exposés on green living, we found four living roofs scattered around the city. If you know of any roofs that we missed, please let us know in the comments.

The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison St.

The Freight & Salvage from the street and from the roof. Photos: Eden Teller

The Freight & Salvage from the street and from the roof. Photos: Eden Teller

The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse music venue in Berkeley’s theater district used to be the Stadium Garage until it was renovated and turned into the performing space it is now, said Bob Whitfield, the Freight’s production manager.

The roof garden, which came about when the Freight’s designers decided to seek LEED certification, is a flat, meadowy expanse of native grasses and flowers accessible by ladder. It’s self-sustainable, said Whitfield, so much so that “we forget about it sometimes.” The garden, which was recently replanted, reseeds itself each year and needs a minimal amount of water from the irrigation system built into the roof.

The only hint that the space is not a natural meadow — besides the buildings on all sides — are the two hatches that lead to the building below: One is the access point for the ladder and the other a skylight looking onto the stage.

The Ecology Center’s EcoHouse, 1305 Hopkins St.

The EcoHouse's storage shed roof has gone through several changes, from edibles to succulents. Photo: Eden Teller

The EcoHouse’s storage shed roof has gone through several changes, from edibles to succulents. Photo: Eden Teller

The EcoHouse at 1305 Hopkins St. was built in 1999 as a demonstration of green building techniques. The EcoHouse became a space for programs of the Ecology Center in 2006, and it is used for workshops and demonstrations of sustainable living techniques. The green roof is not on the house, which has a slanted roof, but on the gardening shed behind the main house.

The shed was built in 2001 by Babak Tondre, the owner of Dig Cooperative, in conjunction with UC Berkeley architecture students, with the idea of a roof garden in mind. The shed was specifically designed to bear heavier weights and has tubing for irrigation built in, said Tondre. In the roof’s first generation, the plants were “mostly edibles,” said Tondre, but when it came time to replant, the caretakers vetoed the idea of more herbs and fruits due to the amount of tending the plants needed.

The cob shed in the Peralta Community Garden has native grasses growing atop its roof. Photo: Eden Teller

A shed in the Northside Community Garden has a live roof of native grasses. Photo: Eden Teller

By its fifth generation, the roof was a succulent garden, as it is today. Berkeley’s mild climate and the hardiness of the plants ensures that gardeners don’t have to clamber up a ladder every week, but someone climbs up at least once a year to pull weeds that determinedly find their way to the roof, said Tondre.

Across the street in the Northside Community Garden, another living shed sprung up after the EcoHouse was built, though this one is one step higher on the green scale. Its architect, John Fordice, constructed a cob shed, made entirely of clay, sand, straw, water and dirt with native grasses springing from its roof.

The Berkeley Animal Shelter, 1 Bolivar Drive

The Berkeley animal shelter's roof garden as of fall 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley animal shelter’s roof garden in fall 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley animal shelter's roof garden as of fall 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley animal shelter’s roof garden as of fall 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The designers’ first thoughts were to have an animal play area on the roof, said Kate O’Connor, who runs the Berkeley Animal Care Services. Unfortunately, a railing was never installed, so a rooftop dog run would have been too dangerous.

The Humane Commission put forward the idea of a living roof in hopes of receiving a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification. No one goes up there much, said O’Connor, save gardeners who weed the native flower beds, and birds from the nearby Aquatic Park who forage for seeds.

Comal restaurant, 2020 Shattuck Ave.

John Paluska plans to expand Comal's roof garden next season. Photo: Eden Teller

John Paluska plans to greatly expand Comal’s roof garden next season. Photo: Eden Teller

It was landscaper Beth LaDove who, about a year ago, proposed to Comal in downtown Berkeley that it consider having a garden on its spacious roof. LaDove had already been growing rare peppers for the Mexican-Californian restaurant, and “wanted to give them more control over the project.” It was the first time she had created a rooftop garden, she said, but “it’s the direction I’m interested in going.”

Closeup of the rare chiles Comal is growing in its rooftop garden. Photo: Eden Teller

Closeup of the rare chiles Comal is growing in its rooftop garden. Photo: Eden Teller

Aware of the potential weight-bearing limits of the roof, Comal’s co-owner John Paluska and LaDove used Earthboxes as planters, which are extremely lightweight and connect to a bottom-up irrigation system so watering is not a problem.

Roofs also tend to experience severe temperature shifts from night to day, but a dark wall next to the planters acts as a buffer, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it back onto the plants at night.

Some of the vegetables growing on Comal’s roof are difficult to find in the U.S. and, when you can find them, are $30 a pound, said Paluska. These rare chiles – chilacostle and chilhuacle chiles – grow next to towering cherry tomatoes and hoja santa, a plant whose leaves evoke the taste of root beer and are used in cocktails and wraps. “We sort of missed this growing season,” said Paluska, but next year the plan is to expand the garden to cover the whole roof.

Read about the City of Berkeley living roof permitting process.

Eden Teller, a graduate of Berkeley High School, was a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She will be attending Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, this fall.

[Editor's Note: The location of a shed with a living roof in the Northside Community Garden was misidentified. The story has been corrected to reflect the accurate location.]

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  • David

    And down in Oakland, there is the peaceful and expansive rooftop garden on top of the Kaiser Building’s parking garage. It’s open to the public on weekdays.

  • Google
  • Mbfarrel

    Henry J. was quite a guy.

  • BerkeleySkyGardener

    For small scale residential applications, Green Roof Blocks work really well and are compatible with conventional roofing materials

  • emraguso

    The Kaiser garden really is incredible. We also want to hear about more Berkeley green roofs if you know of any. :)

  • Tizzielish

    Oxford Plaza, at the corner of Kitttredge and Shattuck is four years old, built on city land using lots of affordale housing financing – owned by RCD — and it has a rooftop vegetable garden that residents maintain and all residents are free to take vegies from the roof. It is much bigger, esp. food wise, than any of the gardens you show here.

    Plus rainwater that falls on Oxford Plaza is captures and used as ‘gray’ water in the David Brower Center, which is next door to Oxford Plaza, built at the same time, also built on city-owned former parking lot land.

    AND the city still owns a parking lot underneath these buildings, still generating city income for parking, altho the city parking lot did lose a few parking spots — instead the city got 97 affordable apartments and the David Brower Center, which, I believe, is a successful nonprofit conference center that contributes very meaningfully to our city.

  • Diana

    Hotel Shattuck has a roof garden planned for the restaurant Five.

  • Commnt8r

    I’d love to know about more that are accessible to the public.

  • Dan Alpert

    One correction: The Cob shed living roof is not in the Peralta Community Garden, but in the adjacent Northside Community Garden (of which I’m a member).

  • emraguso

    Thanks, Dan — we’ll make the correction.

  • emraguso

    Thank you all for the suggestions (and please keep them coming). If we do a Part II of this feature we’ll have a great place to start.