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Making gardens in the sky. For urban dwellers, greenery brings charm to the concrete jungle

By Jacqueline HeriteauSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1985

MY husband and I have sat under apple trees, picked herbs, and babied snapdragons on our Manhattan roof 14 stories above Park Avenue for more than a dozen years. We know firsthand that the best investment an urban dweller can make is a garden, be it a few feet on a condo balcony or the whole roof of a penthouse. Leaf patterns and bright blooms charm concrete as nothing else can -- the harsher the environment, the greater the garden's gift.

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The most rewarding gardens are those designed to be viewed from indoors as well as enjoyed outdoors. What the garden suggests is almost as important as what it does. A small table and two ice- cream parlor chairs beside a young willow imply a world of outdoor living, even if it's mostly stage set; a Chinese ceramic garden stool, chair, or chaise longue beside a pot of geraniums with ivy at its feet makes promises of rest and comfort. Floodlit at night, the smallest rooftop garden is magical. Designing the garden

A garden is any grouping of plants that unfolds the seasonal play of earth and sky with skill and taste. Space can always be found somewhere. If there's no horizontal space, plan a garden in moss-lined mesh baskets or big clay saucers hanging outside a sunny window. If there's just enough space to stand or sit and a scrap of sun, design the garden in groups of pots and hanging baskets.

Small apartment balconies usually accommodate one 18-inch deep planting box 12 by 36 inches, along with several 12- or 16-inch pots, a strawberry jar for herbs, a few hanging baskets, and even a modest trellis to support a tomato plant and a climbing rose. Larger spaces can handle everything from corn to waterlilies.

Since the largest plant will be the dominant one in the overall plan, choose it first. Then select secondary plantings to complement and contrast with its mature form -- columnar, weeping, horizontal, and so on. Contrast adds visual tension to a design; repetition enhances basic shapes.

To winter successfully in a cool climate, a tree will require a planter 3 feet across and 2 feet deep. A shrub succeeds in a tub 2 feet across and 20 inches deep. Use chalk to outline the space your largest plant will take, then you'll know how much space you have left for other elements.

Before leaping to implement a plan, submit it to the building supervisers for an OK. If it's going to be an ambitious rooftop project, check it out with the fire department and the city as well. Be aware that planters must be three inches off the roof or terrace to avoid possible damage to ceilings below. And make sure water for the garden will be available and handy.

Roof surfaces that are neither tiled nor decked (tar paper, for instance) are fragile, especially when hot. Get permission to deck or tile the garden before proceeding to design. In the Northeast, wood decks require annual rejuvenation. White asphalt tile is the currently favored low-cost tiling material used in luxury penthouses in Manhattan. Baked red ceramic tiles are gorgeous and more expensive than Fort Knox. Light is the key

Light is the first requirement of all green plants. Study the number of sunlight hours your garden space offers, and chalk outlines on the floor and wall areas where there is full sun (at least 6 hours), half sun (3 hours), and low sun (less than 3 hours).