Green Roofs: Dry in the Sky

Successful—and affordable—green roofs are possible in the hot, dry climate of the American West.

By: Mark Fusco
Fusco

GrowWest

http://www.growwest.org

Mark Fusco works as a Green Roof Consultant/Architectural Sales for Bison Innovative Products. Mark began his career as a Senior…

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Agave, Hesperaloe parviflora, and Impomopsis rubra with hardy groundcovers on the Denver Botanic Garden green roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Agave, Hesperaloe parviflora, and Ipomopsis rubra with hardy groundcovers on the Denver Botanic Garden green roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Most rooftop gardens and green roofs experience climate extremes that make plant selection especially challenging. Both the 10,000-square-foot green roof on Chicago City Hall, and the 20,000-square-foot green roof on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building  in Denver, endure drastic fluctuations in temperature and wind speed every 24-hours, year- round. On the top floor of the EPA roof, wind speed clocks in at more than 50 miles per hour, and temperatures vary from -25°F in winter to 105°F in the hottest part of the summer.

In addition to dramatic seasonal and daily climate variations, rooftop plants typically grow in just four to twelve inches of substrate. The growing medium— usually expanded shale or slate mixed with compost—is highly porous,  well-drained, and depending on the percentage of compost, nutrient poor—abysmal growing conditions for most plants. However, many drought- adapted  plants thrive in these conditions. Identifying and utilizing suitable plants is key to building healthy green roofs with low irrigation and  maintenance requirements in the arid West.

Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver with Chilopsis linearis. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver with Chilopsis linearis. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Moving Beyond Sedums

While aesthetics play a major role in the design of many green roofs, budget considerations and economic incentives are often the primary motivators for implementing medium- and large-scale projects. Most building owners want the benefits of a green roof coupled with lower operating costs. A healthy green roof can evolve into a low-maintenance ecosystem that sequesters nitrogen oxide, retains stormwater, and provides aesthetic value, along with a laundry list of other standard green roof benefits. Biodiversity is increasingly understood to contribute to successful green roof plantings. Work by Dr. Brad Bass at the University of Toronto supports the idea that greater plant diversity leads to healthier conditions and increased  cooling.

Rock Pink (Talinum calincyum) blooming on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Rock Pink (Talinum calycinum) blooming on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Sedums  are adapted to growing in minimal soil and withstanding extreme temperature fluctuations and desiccating winds. Their success  in many rooftop gardens and green roofs in Europe and eastern North America has been well documented, and many roofs throughout North America are covered in green mats of Sedum album, S. sexangulare, S. spurium and S. kamtschaticum. However, in many places throughout the West it is challenging for these plants to flourish during the hottest times of the year. To create regionally adapted and successful green roofs, I would like to see specific plants identified and integrated with proven performers like sedums and native grasses. Forbs like Yellow Ice Plant (Delosperma nubigenum), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Fame  Flower—or rock pink (Talinum calycinum), and grasses like Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Idaho Blue Fescue  (Festuca idahoensis) and Blue Grama Grass (Chondrosum gracile syn. Bouteloua gracilis) are gaining  popularity on North American green roofs. Many of these plants perform well in the West, but there are hundreds more possibilities and plant species to explore.

Penstemon pinifolius  Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG)Green Roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Penstemon pinifolius Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG)Green Roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Regional plants offer promise for green roof application since the growing conditions in many natural areas in the western United States—desert, plain, and mountain regions—mimic those found on a green roof with cold, dry, windy and desiccating winters followed by short springs and hot summers. Higher elevation areas from the North American steppe, subalpine, and alpine regions,  to the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Great Basin deserts undergo daily temperature fluc- tuations of 40°F or more. Plants growing  on rocky outcrops or in talus, scree, and sand thrive in shallow, well-drained soil and with little protection from wind, sun, and cold. It is important to note that not all species living in these habitats are suitable for planting on a green roof. Many of the plants growing in the aforementioned regions and plant communities  have long taproots or need particular soil conditions to thrive. Still, there are most likely a few hundred species, unrelated to sedum, that merit further testing for green roof planting.

So what are the best plants for a green roof in the western  United States?  It is a valid question and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. As with all gardens, hardiness zones, microclimates, site elevation, and exposure determine which plants will succeed. An understanding of local flora and drought-adapted species is valuable, as is research and trialing plants from sagebrush, alpine, and prairie  communities  like milk vetch (Astragalus),  sandwort (Arenaria), and pincushions (Chaenactis). With more than 200 species, the buckwheat genus (Eriogonum) is sure to yield at least a couple that are adapted  to green roofs; I have seen Sulphur Buckwheat (E. umbellatum) doing well growing in six inches of soil on a green roof in Colorado. Numerous paddle cactus (Opuntia) adapt perfectly to green roof growing conditions; other promising genera like Agave, Sphaeralcea, Physaria, and Phacelia, have multiple species throughout the West with green roof planting potential.

Delosperma cooperi and Sedum lanceolatum on the green roof at Denver Botanic Garden. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Delosperma cooperi and Sedum lanceolatum on the green roof at Denver Botanic Garden. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

While drought adapted in terrestrial situations, the plants mentioned above require supplemental water when planted  on a roof. As a rule, regardless of location, most green roofs should have irrigation  as even a short drought can imperil a planting. (Recently, even Atlanta, Georgia, has experienced dry conditions.) Considering the initial investment of installing a green roof, it is worth the additional cost to incorporate a basic irrigation  system. The only exception might be an all-Opuntia roof.

Given the necessity of irrigation on green roofs and the continued debate about water issues and the future of green roofs in the arid West, many people question if us- ing additional water to irrigate roof top gardens is worth it. The green roof at Denver Botanic Gardens thrives on only 1/4-inch of water per week from June through September. This relatively moderate amount of irrigation gets plants through the hottest time of the year and moderates temperatures of the roof membrane and the ambient air above the roof on even the hottest days.

Eriogonum umbelatum and Acantholimon hohenackeri. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Eriogonum umbelatum and Acantholimon hohenackeri. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Along with a good preliminary design and considered plant selection, ongoing maintenance is paramount to a high-functioning green roof. Even a small budget for a trained professional hired to care for a green roof allows for responsive adjustments to plant material and irrigation and provides invaluable insurance against failure. Introducing and monitoring the performance of previously untested species that may prove climate- appropriate and provide diversity can become a part of the overall maintenance plan as well.

It’s an exciting time as green roofs become an ever more important part of the built environment in North America. When well designed and executed, green roof projects planted with a diverse and expanded  plant palette in climates previously thought to be inhospitable offer increased design potential and provide the greatest benefit to building owners, occupants, and society.


Living (P)roof

Opuntia basilaris growing on the Denver Botanic Garden green roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

Opuntia basilaris growing on the Denver Botanic Garden green roof. Photo: Lisa Lee Benjamin

The following plants perform well in five to seven inches of growing medium. This list is not exhaustiveand  most of these plants are not new to horticulture.

•   Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)

•   Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)

•   Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)

•   Cutleaf Daisy (Erigeron compositus)

•   Plains  Pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha)

•   Spearleaf Stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum)

Roofs engineered for a deeper soil horizon will support the addition of woody  shrubs that provide cover and  habitat for birds and  insects and  may sequester more nitrogen oxide than herbaceous perennials.

•   Dwarf Indigobush (Amorpha nana)

•   Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)

•   Manzanita (Arctostaphylos ×coloradoensis)

With an increase in elevation, there are a few alpine  and  subalpine plants that can do quite well on green roofs. The following plants do well in mountain communities above 6,000 feet.

•   Moss Campion (Silene acaulis)

•   Prairie Sagewort (Artemisia frigida) also works well at lower elevations

•   Dwarf Phlox (Phlox condensata)

•   Narrow Oatgrass (Trisetum spicatum)

Green roof planting at Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo: Mark Fusco

Green roof planting at Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo: Mark Fusco