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Behind the Design | A Shared Rooftop Garden Grows in Brooklyn

From high winds to weight restrictions, all rooftop projects have their complications. This project in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood had an especially thorny set of conditions to contend with due to the fact that the building — a condominium with four units — had deeded a certain amount of rooftop square footage to three separate apartments. Six-foot vertical fencing had been installed to divvy up the spaces. The result was a series of dark, cramped outdoor "rooms" devoid of airflow or greenery. The challenge became how to delineate the spaces and offer privacy without creating a walled-off labyrinth effect.

The rooftop in its original state.
One of the three individual rooftop spaces was essentially a long narrow corridor. 
Another unit's space seemed like nothing but walls. 

Key Issues:

  • Cramped, corral-like feeling from existing 6' high privacy fencing

  • No existing plantings

  • Blocked-off views

  • Minimal breeze, light, and airflow

  • No shade or cover

  • Unattractive utilities that needed to be hidden

  • Bland, aged hardscaping

It was clear from the start that the existing fencing would have to go. That meant we had to come up with a solution that separated the space and delivered adequate privacy while allowing for openness and views.

The Design

We chose an open fence–trellis hybrid, plus strategically-placed plants and containers, to create privacy and screening while introducing color and softness.

An inspiration board in the early stages of design development. 


  • A beautiful look and inviting feel to each of the three individual spaces

  • A cohesive design that also allows for individuality for each area

  • Lighting to extend usability after dark

  • Privacy screening but also openness

  • Shade

  • Lightweight and free-standing furniture, planters, and fencing

An early rendering showing the open fencing-trellis concept.
A layout plan and construction details showing boundaries for each space. 

The Installation

Extensive taping and measuring were done before the installation.

Before breaking ground, we carefully measured and taped out the boundaries to ensure accurate square footage for each space. This gave our clients a chance to visualize their new spaces.

Next, we began building out the dividers. We used common cedar for the structures because it is lightweight and long lasting — at least 10 years and often up to 20. Each post was secured into a steel bracket that was bolted to the concrete pavers. Together with the weight and rigidity of the planters, the structures were completely secure without having to be connected to the building.

Cedar for the structures and fiberglass planters were selected for their longevity and light weight. 
The garden team installs the new plantings and irrigation system. 

Because of sunny and windy conditions, and the clients' preference for minimal maintenance, we chose a grass-heavy planting palette and embedded an irrigation system. Calamagrostis Karl Foerster provided a 4' tall green screen for the HVACs and utilities. We chose prairie dropseed as the underplanting for the shady river birch trees. We went with honeysuckle and autumn clematis for the fence/trellises because they grow quickly and flower abundantly. We added catmint throughout for long-lasting color and ease-of-care.

We finished off the project with low voltage lighting.

The Finished Garden

All finished! Photo by Anthony Crisafulli for Staghorn Living.
Birch trees provide dappled shade, while strategically placed 8' posts allow for shades to be put up as needed. Photo by Anthony Crisafulli for Staghorn Living. 


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