Container gardens – growing up to cool us down!


Mia shows off fruits of the roof garden.
Mia shows off fruits of the roof garden.

Of all the gardening I do, I think container gardening is my favourite. The fact that a plant can live in a container above ground means that life and beauty can be almost anywhere. They bring energy and fresh oxygen to sterile spaces and expand nature to where there was none. On a deck, a balcony, a rooftop, on walls and inside our homes…almost anywhere.

Container plants have been used since ancient times and are now proving to be a way to help us reduce the negative effects of pollution and climate change.

The most inspiring example of this is Stefano Boeri’s award-winning Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy. The Vertical Forest is a pair of condo towers with protruding balconies that contain 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 ground covers.

Plants in pots. Photo by Mary Stead.
Photo by Mary Stead.

These beautiful living towers are the equivalent of one hectare of forest, absorbing an estimated 25 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing 130 pounds of oxygen a day. Boeri has gone on to create The Cedar Trees Tower in Switzerland and currently another twin tower forest in China.

And what does this have to do with Leaside, you may well ask?

Our neighbourhood is already lush with nature and healthy too because all that green is helping to cool and clean our air. But things are changing fast, both within and all around us. We’re removing vegetation in favour of larger homes, parking pads and big decks. At the same time we’re losing our mature tree canopy to age, disease, extreme weather and pollution.

A bigger concern is with the “heat island” spots that surround us on Bayview, Eglinton and Laird. These streets have extreme amounts of cement, asphalt, steel, stone and other impervious materials that hold heat with very little shade and vegetation to cool them down.

Cities need buildings, roads and sidewalks, but we need plants too – lots of them. According to Boeri and other forward thinkers like him, one excellent way to go is up!

Imagine if every condo and apartment balcony here had at least a few plants and every flat roof became a green one. We would boast cleaner air, support pollinators, reduce storm water runoff, and lower our temperature.

Mary Stead of Leaside understands this and has been nurturing her rooftop garden for 16 years now. She remembers the first time she saw it and said, “It was just a big flat mess,” but she knew what to do. Today, high above the street sits her lovely garden filled with evergreens, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables and herbs of every kind. It’s an oasis in the sky that welcomes the birds, butterflies and any pollinator that wants to visit.

It hasn’t been easy, but Mary learned to cope with all the challenges. Wind is a big one, but weight is the biggest, so plastic is her container of choice. Soil adds more weight, especially when it’s wet, so lighter mixes of mostly peat, vermiculite or perlite are best for large plants. Watering is always a chore because containers dry out fast, but native perennials require less water and adjust to her microclimate better. This makes natives her favourites, but she continues to experiment.

These special gardeners might be making a piece of paradise for themselves. If only they knew how much they were helping us all. I just wish there were more of them.

As Mary says, “All gardens are friendship gardens.”

About Debora Kuchme 64 Articles
After a 30-year career as a fashion designer, Debora worked at Horticultural Design for over a decade. Now with her concerns about climate change, she hopes to help local gardeners find positive solutions for a greener and healthier neighbourhood. As a board member of the Bayview Leaside BIA, she created the Bayview Pixies, a volunteer group introducing sustainable gardening practice to Bayview.