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Gone Fishing

Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley

Living Roofs

Going green is growing to new heights

May 15, 2013 - 03:54 PM
Living Roofs

Photos by Thia Konig

Although the concept has long been popular, especially in urban areas, for some strange reason rooftop gardens usually seem like a rather odd idea to most mountain town folks. 

After all, people lucky enough to live in breathtaking valleys like the Big Wood’s will ask: who needs a garden on the roof when you’re surrounded by Mother Nature’s garden blooming across the top of the world?

It’s a good question.

But it turns out there are a few very good answers. For rooftop or “living roofs” not only enhance the natural surroundings, they help buildings become more energy efficient and don’t cost much to install or maintain.

Basically, it’s beginning to look like roof top gardens are about to catch on in ski towns like Ketchum the same way “sick days” spread after a night of freshly fallen powder. 

Seven Wonders
The idea of rooftop gardens—which first blossomed when Adam and Eve began picking fruit from their living roof in the Garden of Eden—really became famous around 600 B.C., in what we now know as Iraq.

King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the world and decided to celebrate by turning his castle into the foundation for a massive living roof. Trees, grasses and flowers of all sorts were planted among the many tiers of the complex. The plants cast their roots and flowers alongside the palace walls, doors and walkways; allowing those inhabiting the place to see and feel a part of the abundant flora.

It was considered such a spectacular example of living art and horticulture that the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” were one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The popularity of roof top gardens seems to have waxed and waned ever since. Over the last couple of decades, however, the living roof movement has blossomed in big cities—and the idea has slowly begun to creep into ski towns as well. Whistler’s famous roof top gardens at the Fairmont Chateau and Nita Lake Lodge are a couple of well-known examples. Snowbird’s verdant rooftops in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon are another. And it appears that Sun Valley just might be growing in that direction.

The Gillespie's rooftop garden north of Ketchum.The Problem
James and Ellen Gillespie have a beautiful home on Eagle Creek Road, nestled alongside the Boulder Mountains north of Ketchum. The home offered spectacular mountain vistas—so long, that is, as you only looked out into the distance. For what was right in front of you was a bland, regular old blacktop roof of the garage-tuned-guesthouse.

“It was so ugly,” James said, in his Australian accent. “We had to do something.”

Since James is co-owner of Native Landscapes, his thoughts naturally turned towards a more natural solution. He and his business partner, long-time and well-respected Valley gardener, Kelley Weston, decided to replace the eyesore by doing a case study on creating a living roof of native, high desert plants at the impressive elevation of 6,500.’ Two years later, they feel the study was a success.

“We are thrilled with the results,” James said, as spring began to sprout across his rooftop. “It has literally solved all of our problems. This was an experiment and a very successful one.”

Various views of a living roof, Idaho-styleThe Solution
“We used proven systems,” Kelley said, explaining that they did, however, have to take some experimental leaps. “The challenge was that we couldn’t find examples of anyone using this kind of plant pallet in this kind of climate and elevation.”

To assure that the rooftop garden would blend in with the natural landscape, they used a pallet consisting almost exclusively of Rocky Mountain native plants. They planted native grasses like Great Basin wild rye and Idaho fescue, shrubs like wax current and green rabbitbrush, perennials like Western yarrow, sticky geranium and a handful of different varieties of penstemon. Sedum, the most common and controversial rooftop plant, didn’t make the cut.

With weight being the biggest issue for rooftop gardens, they choose to go with a Hydrotech Living Roof system, which kept things well within local weight codes. So for the mere cost of just $13 a square-foot to install, the once ugly roof has become resplendent.

“It’s a success story. It’s really done well,” Kelley said. “We can now go out with confidence and know that this works and it offers a lot of benefits. Heck, if you can grow it on a roof at this elevation, you can pretty much grow it anywhere.”

As an added bonus to the native beauty now blooming on what was once an eyesore, the living roof has dramatically helped reduce the costs to heat the guest room in winter or cool it in summer. The soil and plants help the building retain temperatures much better than the old roof did.

“It feels good to do something like this. We don’t have to use lots of water or chemicals. It looks much better and has dramatically cut down the costs of controlling the temperatures in the room below it. It didn’t cost very much to do or maintain,” James said with a big smile.

With testimonial like that there’s no wonder why living roofs are certain to soon start popping up in ski towns. For even in breathtaking mountain towns like Ketchum sometimes during summer storms or winter snow flurries the vistas disappear for a spell. Leaving the only views those close by, like the rooftop right in front of you, which no longer has to look so … well, unnatural.

As author Michael Pollen reminds in his best-selling book, The Botany of Desire, “Letting nature have her way with us now and again still seems like a useful thing to do, if only to bring our abstracted gaze back down to Earth for a time.”


(This story originally appeared in the 2011 issue of Home magazine.)

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About This Blog

Whether he’s being out-fished by his trash talking mother-in-law, guiding one of his young sons through the perils of manhood or finding inspiration from the people of the Wood River Valley, Mike McKenna’s award-winning writing is always sure to entertain. Order a copy of Mike's highly-acclaimed book, "Angling Around Sun Valley: A year-round fly fishing guide to South Central Idaho" from Silver Creek Outfitters.

Gone Fishing's awards include: "Best Blog" 2010 & 2011 by the Idaho Press Club, "Best Web-only Article" of 2011 by the Outdoor Writers Association of California and "Best Fishing" & "Best Humor" blogs of 2012 by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.


"Angling Around Sun Valley" was selected as the "Best Book" of 2013 by Northwest Outdoor Writers Association!

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