There’s plenty to pick if you can take your eyes off the spectacular scenery of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains.
IT MUST BE EASY to get distracted while picking peas and beans in Dean and Shelley Sleeper’s Magnolia garden. Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains are in clear and spectacular view from the raised vegetable beds on top of their garage.
It was an unattractive view of the garage roof that inspired Dean to turn such a pricey piece of real estate into an organic garden. The house is built upslope from the garage, so the Sleepers had an asphalt and gravel roof in the foreground of their water view. The couple lived in the house a year before coming up with the perfect solution.
The Sleepers hired Colin McCrate of Seattle Urban Farm Company to transform their garage roof into a vegetable garden. Now 255 square feet of raised-bed garden flourishes in the unobstructed sunlight, a green and leafy space for the family to plant, snack, harvest and hang out. That includes 2-year-old twins Zoe and Mia, who love to munch on anything that’s ripe, especially strawberries. Custom wrought-iron railings, gate and entry arch add a handcrafted, formal feel to the space — except when the metal is covered in leaves, fruits and vegetables. By midsummer, the tomato ladders attached to the railings are thick with beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“We planted the garden just weeks before the twins were born,” says Dean. The rooftop is square, so to maximize growing space, McCrate designed and built a central cluster of raised beds, and wrapped more planting beds around the roof’s perimeter.
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First, McCrate figured out the weight of all that soil, including when it was wet, and passed those calculations on to a structural engineer. The old garage, which predates the house, was shored up with a new structural beam and post. To ripen crops faster, McCrate floored the roof in concrete pavers that raise the temperature by soaking up, then radiating, the sun’s heat. He built the beds of 2-by-6-inch unfinished cedar, a width he’s found structurally sound for raised beds. Each was lined with a durable landscape fabric that drains well, then filled with a special lightweight soil blend combined with a high-fertility soil mix.
Only then did the two vegetable enthusiasts get down to the plants themselves. Dean started with McCrate’s list of 40 annual crops that do well in our climate, crossing off what he wasn’t interested in growing. Which wasn’t much. The first year, they planted 37 different edibles.
This year, the Sleepers are picking their second harvest of carefully sequenced crops. Early in the season, the beds hold arugula, mustard, spinach, kale, chard, radishes and a variety of lettuces. By June, the basil, scallions and more kale go in, as well as tomatoes, beans and cucumbers.
“Dean is a great example of how more attention paid to the garden results in more food production,” says McCrate. “He’s using spreadsheets from our new book ‘High-Yield Vegetable Gardening’ to make sure we don’t miss any succession plantings.”
Well into its second year, the garden is escaping the confines of the rooftop.
“Not a square inch of the property is safe,” says Dean.
There’s a new apple tree, a raspberry bed, and the driveway where the Sleepers used to park their car is taken over by potatoes growing in bags.
“Dean knows how to get things done,” says McCrate. “Every time I’m in the garden, I discover something new he’s just planted.”
Dean, an avid cook, is inspired by the abundant productivity of the new garden. He’s learned to pickle, can, freeze and make salsa and more salsa. The couple makes baby food in bulk from the harvest.
“It’s been transformative,” Dean says. “We plan our social calendar around the garden, when the peppers and tomatoes ripen … everything about the garden has become what we most enjoy doing.”