Commercial Rooftop Farming in Australia: 5 hurdles to jump

If other countries have developed commercial roof farms, what’s to stop Australia?

Lots of city folk like the idea of growing food on the roof. The most ambitious aspire to grow something bigger than a veggie patch or community produce garden. Here is an opportunity to make productive use of space, to connect with mother nature in the heart of the city, to provide others with fresh food, to reduce the carbon footprint of food by reducing the miles it travels to reach customers, and to begin to make our cities self-sufficient.

The notion of farming above the city allures. There’s a great, Swiss-Family-Robinsonian satisfaction in the prospect of a commercial rooftop farm.

Is this notion far-fetched? Well, it’s been done successfully in North America.

Riverpark Farm, New York

Riverpark Farm, New York – a 1400 square metre farm which supplies 100% of the Riverpark restaurant’s organic herbs, lettuce and flowers. Among the plots grows Cylindra Beets, Atomic Red Carrots, Goldmine Squash, Matchbox Peppers and Black Prince Tomatoes.

Brooklyn Grange Farm - a 2.5 acre organic farm which grows high quality vegetables and honey for local restaurants and markets. The farm spans across 2 rooftops which together produce 40 000 pounds of organic vegetables each year.

Brooklyn Grange Farm – this 2.5 acre (10 000 square metre +) organic farm grows high quality vegetables and honey for local restaurants and markets. The farm spans across 2 rooftops which together produce ober 18 000 kilograms of organic vegetables each year.

Laval Rooftop Farm - Montreal's first rooftop greenhouse, this 31 000 square foot farm produces enough vegetables for 9000 people, with over 30 varieties of hydroponically grown herbs and vegetables.

Laval Rooftop Farm – Montreal’s first rooftop greenhouse, this 2880 square metre farm produces enough vegetables for 9000 people, with over 30 varieties of hydroponically grown herbs and vegetables.


Pullman greenhouse, Chicago – Measuring over 6968 square metres, the Pullman is the world’s largest and most productive rooftop farm, producing over 1 million heads of herbs and leafy greens each year. Spanning 2 acres, the greenhouse is located on the second floor of Method Products manufacturing plant.

There are rooftop farms in in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Osbert WS roof

Osbert Lam Rooftop Farm in Hong Kong – This small farm holds up to 500 planter boxes, each capable of producing up to 14 kilograms of vegetables a year. “You have more selection in the winter time, less options in summer time, but still you can grow about 30 to 40 different crops in the summer, melons, squash and beans and herbs as well.”

Pasona O2 Rooftop Potato Farm, Tokyo - This state of the art farm was created by Tokyo- based temporary staffing agency Pasona Group Inc. The farm carefully adjusts temperatures, humidity and lighting so vegetables can grow under the ground. The “Green Potato” project aims to help prevent overheating of Tokyo as well as harvest sweet potatoes in autumn

Pasona O2 Rooftop Potato Farm, Tokyo – This state of the art farm was created by Tokyo- based temporary staffing agency Pasona Group Inc. The farm carefully adjusts temperatures, humidity and lighting so vegetables can grow under the ground. The “Green Potato” project aims to help prevent overheating of Tokyo as well as harvest sweet potatoes in autumn

And Holland has the largest commercial rooftop farm in Europe.

Zuidpark, Amterdam - This 3000 m2 rooftop farm is set to be the largest in Europe.

Zuidpark, Amterdam – 3000 m2 rooftop farm, Zuidpark completed construction in 2012

If commercial farms can operate on roofs in other countries, why not in Australia?

But the countries above all have very different climates, economies and labour forces from Australia, not to mention differences in building codes and horticultural standards.

As always with green roofs – and indeed gardens, horticulture and ecology more generally – we can learn much from ventures on other continents and islands. But we also need to address the particularities of our continent, both geographical and political.

Do it on the Roof sees 5 hurdles that anyone currently planning a feasible and sustainable commercial rooftop farm in Melbourne needs to jump.

The first is the business case. The cost of labour in Australia is vastly different from the US, and we are subject to different industrial relations laws. We put this hurdle first because we find many rooftop farm enthusiasts put great effort into leaping the fifth hurdle, only to be crippled by the cost of labour. Our labour costs are high. Who will farm your farm, and how much will you pay them?

Periodically we talk to entrepreneurs who look to leap the hurdle of labour costs by proposing to use the farm work as a point of entry, or return, to the workforce for disadvantaged members of society. This may be a viable scheme. A key point to consider is how you plan to negotiate the highly probable tension between your commercial and social missions. Managing staff is time-consuming, and all the more so if your staff are unreliable or do not have previous training in their line of work. Have you planned how to compete in the market with suppliers whose management costs are lower?

The second hurdle you must leap is to make sure the land you are using is in a zone which allows for use for commercial horticulture. The city buildings on whose roofs you plan to farm are most likely in a commercial zone. Does this zone allow for use of the land for commercial horticulture? Whose support do you need in the council for any alterations you need in the uses allowed to be made?

The third, and in some ways lesser, hurdle is to source the right rooftop for your requirements. For your farm to be profitable, it will need to be of a certain scale. The size of area you require will vary according to what you plan to grow and the climatic conditions on the roof. Note that the climatic conditions on roofs differ from those on the ground. You may need to make assessments of light and wind.

You also need to consider the load-bearing capacity of the roof. What machinery will you require for farming your crops? Which parts of the roof are strong enough for you to use the machinery you need on them, and which parts of the roof do you need to reinforce or design to ensure sufficient structural strength?

Moreover, how will the machines get onto the roof? Is there a lift which can take them, or will you need a crane, and if so, how will it affect your budget? How will your work force access the roof? Is this route accessible at the times of day your farmer and farmhands require?

These logistical questions are not impossible to answer, but they need to be thought through, and their solutions planned, early on. Providing solutions may be costly, so you need to ensure you have budgeted for it.

The fourth hurdle is to plan how you will meet Australia’s horticultural (and, if relevant, agricultural) standards. How will you meet the Horticultural Code of Conduct? How will you provide the level of quality assurance, management of chemical residues, water quality, cleaning and pest control, safety of equipment and materials, and food safety training that the rest of the industry meets? These questions are rarely, if ever, raised in discussions of the viability of commercial rooftop farms in Australia, yet it is crucial to address them.

The fifth hurdle applies to those rooftop farms which are proposed on the rationale that by reducing food miles, they will benefit the environment. If the reason for creating a farm on a city roof is the environmental benefit, then of course you need to check the overall environmental impact of your farm. One area which is often overlooked is the run-off. What will the nutrient load of your run-off be? Where and how will you dispose of it? Will any detrimental affect it has to local waterways be outweighed by other benefits the farm creates for the environment? Does this sort of calculation make sense?

We would love to assist prospective rooftop farmers in implementing their plans for how to jump these hurdles. In the meantime, growing your own native or exotic product on your roof is a great way to use your space – and the more people who become practised at it, the greater the body of knowledge we will build about what works, and how, when it comes to Australian rooftop farming.

Artist's impression of a thirving rooftop farm in Melbourne - Do it on the Roof

Artist’s impression of a thriving rooftop farm in Melbourne – Do it on the Roof

Shelley Meagher, CEO – Do it on the Roof

Drawing on native traditions in sustainable urban roof gardens

17/04/2000 PIRATE: APRIL 17, 2000 : Australian native bush tucker, 17/04/00. Pic Grant Nowell. Food Pic. Grant Nowell

I want to talk to you about the untapped opportunity for the sustainable urban farmer.

For many of our clients, a green roof provides the opportunity to create that long awaited space for their vegie or herb garden. Growing food on a roof presents a unique set of challenges, because most edible plants require more maintenance, water and nutrients than non-fruiting plants. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed ways to address nutrient and water management. And we’ve also looked at herbs and vegies that do well on a green roof, but what about our own local edibles? I’m talking bush tucker.

Even in the twenty-first century, bush tucker is still the great unchartered area for many city gardeners. And yet there is an amazing variety of bush foods out there – and you can grow lots of them on your roof.


Bush tucker, or bush food, is food native to Australia. For hundreds of years, bush food provided sustenance for indigenous Australians, but bush food also includes any native flora used for culinary or medicinal purposes. From seeds and grains to roots and fruits, there are hundreds of native edible plants growing across Australia.

The advantage of growing bush food on green roofs is that many of these species are uniquely adapted to the conditions on Australian roofs. Green roofs are subject to more extreme weather conditions than gardens at ground level. For plants to survive on a green roof they need to tolerate these exposed conditions, and often shallow soils. Coastal and rocky outcrop plants, in particular, are well adapted to strong winds, heat and lack of water, and present an excellent choice for the rooftop gardener.

While bush tucker plants are increasing in use and popularity, the sheer variety of plants and their uses are still little known. I’ve been talking about the opportunities for urban rooftop farmers with our ecologist Trevor Edwards. Together we’ve selected some delicious, roof appropriate bush tucker species for you to try.

Pig face (Carpobrotus species)

Pig face (Carpobrotus species) or the ‘bush strawberry’ is a robust creeping herb with succulent leaves. This coastal plant enjoys full sun with fruits that turn purple when ripe. The fleshy pulp can be squeezed out and eaten and the gelatinous flesh of the leaves has been used to relieve burns, stings, bites and rashes.

Apple Berry (Billardiera scandens)

The Apple Berry (Billardiera scandens) is a woody climber which produces bell shaped fruits. It can tolerate both sun or shade but favours well drained soils. Early Australians were known to roast green fruit and eat fallen fruits which have a flavour similar to stewed apples

Muntries (Kunzea pomifera)

Muntries (Kunzea pomifera) are a delicious and popular bush fruit used in desserts and pies. High in antioxidants, they grow on a prostrate sub shrub and enjoy a sunny area. They hold a significant place in the historical diet of the Narrindjeri people of the Coorong in the south-east of South Australia. The fruit played a major part in the diet, not only when fresh, but also after being dried and pounded into large cakes and stored for the winter months. These cakes were often traded with other tribes.

Sea Parsley (Apium prostratum)

Sea Parsley (Apium prostratum) is well adapted to exposed, sunny conditions and, much like its continental  counterpart, can be used as a garnish.

Wombat berry (Eustrephus latifolius)

The Wombat berry (Eustrephus latifolius)is a twining evergreen plant which prefers semi shaded conditions and produces seed pods that turn from green to yellow-orange when ripe. These pods contain many small black seeds surrounded by an edible sweet white pulp that tastes similar to coconut.

Native yam (Dioscorea transversa)

The native yam (Dioscorea transversa) is a twining vine which produces edible tubers that can be eaten fresh. It prefers a warm, semi shaded space and loamy soil

If you’d like to find out more about native edibles, or see the full list of bush foods suitable for roof tops and urban gardens, get in touch with Pip or visit our website.

Pip Hildebrand – Do it on the Roof

Grow it on the roof, sustainably

Many Australians have discovered the rewards of vegetable gardening, including those of us who choose to do it on the roof. Food production is a great way to get even more value from a green roof.

food on roof burnley

Producing food on a green roof takes good design, and some of your time. Good design is important because green roofs can be tough places for herbs, vegetables and fruit to grow. Even at ground level, they tend to be thirsty (for water) and hungry (for nutrients). On the roof, solutions can be as simple as selecting the best substrate mix and depth, or as sophisticated as an aquaponics system (the subject of a previous post).

Of course, it is also important to select appropriate plants. Plants will vary in their ability to cope with the high winds and other stresses on a roof. The most suitable foods for growing on roofs are herbs such as basil, parsley and chives, because they are relatively resilient. Even so, given the right conditions and care, a range of vegetables and fruit can also be produced.

brook grange

Once it’s up, the garden will need weekly attention to stay productive. For many gardeners, this is the fun part! The main tasks are watering, harvesting and, occasionally, applying fertilizers and re-planting.

While you should keep your plants productive and healthy, it is very important that you keep the environment healthy, too. This means doing what you can to use water sustainably. This could mean using rainwater harvesting methods, or simply avoiding watering in the heat of the day and adhering to local water use guidelines. Fertilizers should also be used sparingly, so that no polluted runoff leaves the green roof. This helps to protect local rivers and creeks.

Contact us if you would like to read our fact sheet on this topic. We also offer workshops and expert talks.

Paul Richards, Do it on the Roof

Sustainable urban food production: a challenge..and opportunity in 2015

One of our key challenges today is to ensure that when we inspire people to garden on the roof, on balconies, on walls and on the ground, the type of gardening we promote is sustainable.
At Do it on the Roof, we find Australians are more and more interested in gardening, growing food and connecting to nature. People want to bring nature back into the city. People in cities want to grow food.
And now people are excited about growing gardens – and food – on roofs. Property developers know this. Across Melbourne, body corporates are looking to retrofit existing roofs with plants.The challenge is to ensure that good intentions translate into great environmental outcomes.
In the last thirty years, common knowledge of weeds and nutrient run off and their impact on the wider environment has greatly diminished. There is a spreading misperception that all species of vegetation are beneficial to the environment in every situation. In fact, growing weeds and creating high nutrient run off can damage critically threatened ecosystems and harm our waterways.
But the interest in gardening among the community and the appetite for information about sustainable lifestyles can be leveraged to overcome this challenge.
green roof peopleGardening sustainably and ethically, based on an understanding of your impact, is not hard to achieve. It can be achieved by following a few basic guidelines that help gardeners to garden rewardingly and sustainably.
Sarah - In Garden professional
Over the next 5 weeks, our experts will be posting a weekly series on sustainable gardening and food production on city roofs. In fact, we’ve already started – check out our recent post to find out about the opportunities in aquaponics.
Coming up next is our advice on what to consider when getting started growing food on the roof.If you are interested in expert talks on sustainable urban gardening, get in touch
Shelley Meagher, CEO

Surf, turf, and a healthy earth!


Growing vegetables and herbs on your green roof can be very rewarding, particularly if the plants are kept well-watered and well-fed. But if polluted water runs off your roof, watering and feeding these plants can be risky for local waterways.

So, how do you do right by your plants and the environment?

One great design solution is aquaponics. Aquaponics combines two approaches to food production; fish farming (Aquaculture) and growing plants in soil-less systems (Hydroponics).  Plants and fish are produced in one productive, recirculating system.  Aquaponics not only adds an extra food group to your green roof, it contributes to a healthier environment too.

Its environmental benefits are particularly important when it rains. An aquaponics system captures and stores stormwater; the amount captured depends on the amount of rain and the system’s storage capacity. Something that sets an aquaponics system apart from other green roof designs is that it can otherwise be kept as a closed loop.  This means that less nutrient-rich runoff reaches local waterways, which helps to prevent problems like algal blooms.

There’s also good news when it doesn’t rain. Aquaponics systems use water very sustainably, particularly compared to traditional, ground-level gardens. In an aquaponics system, plants take what they need and very little is squandered, and because nutrients are taken from the water rather than from soil, you don’t have to worry about traditional plant spacing. This means you can produce much more food per square meter.

So, for healthy food and a healthy environment, consider scaling up!

Paul Richards, Geomorphologist and Allister Logan, Aquaponics, Do it on the Roof

Talk to Allister today about aquaponic solutions for urban food production,


The Sunshine Donkey Orchid

It is 101 years since Martha, the last passenger pigeon died at a zoo in Cincinnati. Her stuffed body is currently on display at Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as part of a ‘Once there were millions’ display.

The once prolific Passenger Pigeon

The once prolific Passenger Pigeon

Before Europeans invaded North America passenger pigeons were one of the most plentiful birds on the planet numbering between 3 & 5 billion. They were a valuable but soon recklessly over-exploited commodity – a grim reminder of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. It is easy to dismiss this as an insular and dated tale but when we look around Melbourne 2 similar species leap into focus.

The growling grass frog once extended into the NSW tablelands and the ACT, but these populations were extirpated before 1981. At one time the species was so common in Victoria that the University of Melbourne used it as the dissection frog for their undergraduate courses and the Melbourne Zoo used it for captive snake food.

growling grass frog

The growling grass frog

Today the species is listed as endangered under the Fauna and Flora Guarantee Act Victoria (1988). Fittingly the species is the centre of a multi-institutional research program led by University of Melbourne researcher Geoffrey Heard.

A similar fate befell the beautiful and once common Sunshine donkey orchid (Diuris fragrantissima), which was also a commodity used in The University of Melbourne teaching practicals (Jones 1991).

Sunshine Donkey Orchid

Sunshine Donkey Orchid

Extensive utilisation of the basalt plains with the expansion of agriculture and Melbourne City has rapidly displaced the orchid so that the last wild population includes only about 40 individuals. Another collaborative research program is focussed on this species led by Arthur Rylah Institute researcher, Mike Duncan.

It is a relief that iconic species such as these have not been triaged out of existence because of ever diminishing finances. We should adulate companies and institutions that step into the breach left by political whimsy, and engage with conservation objectives, for extinctions portend the erosion of ecosystem services that will impact us all in the most profound ways.

Trevor Edwards, Ecologist

Jones 1991. Some rare or threatened Australian orchids. In, Conservation of rare and threatened plants in Australia. The proceedings of the conference: protective custody – ex situ plant conservation in Australasia. (eds. G. Butler, L. Meredith and M. Richardson). Australian National Botanic Gardens and Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Canberra.

Learning from Landscapes


Evolution of the Dandenongs

The Dandenongs are the remains of a long-extinct volcano. It was most active more than 350 million years ago, and it has been extinct since Australia was part of the Pangaea supercontinent. At its peak, this volcano was monstrous, and it is still the defining influence on the landscape of the Dandenongs.

The volcanic activity left behind hard rocks, which have endured. This includes lava-turned-rock (particularly dacites and rhyodacites), and molten rock that solidified before it reached the surface (particularly granodiorites). There are also some sedimentary rocks in the area, including sandstone.

Today, the landscape of the Dandenongs has an elevation of up to 633 m (at Mount Dandenong itself), and it is dissected by creeks. The result: a series of ridges and valleys with steep slopes, particularly in western sections like Ferntree Gully.

Water in the landscape

Water has been influential in shaping the Dandenongs, and the creek that dissected Ferntree Gully is still an important presence in the landscape. On the larger scale, this area is within the Dandenong catchment; rather than meeting up with the Yarra River, the rivers and creeks of this catchment make their own way down to Port Phillip.

Home on the Hillside

Within this unique landscape, on the edge of Ferntree Gully Park, sits Anton Englemeyer’s award winning home, at 8 Olivette Avenue. 

AE house

Fitting with the overall low environmental footprint of the home, 8 Olivette Avenue treads very lightly on the landscape, and helps to counter the effects of low-density urban development.The house begins filtering stormwater at the very top, on its green roof.AE roof

The substrate of the green roof immediately absorbs rainwater, some of which will be used by the plants and returned to the air, although most of the roof-captured rainwater is directed into two large rainwater tanks. By the time water has passed through the rest of the home’s 5-stage stormwater management system, there is much less of it. It is also cleaner than typical stormwater when it returns to the landscape, because sediments and nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) have been removed.

3- stormwater managment system main sediment pond

All of this makes for a better situation downslope, and beyond. Particularly given the absence of local storm drains. The slope itself is better protected from the erosive effects of stormwater (e.g. gullies), and properties downslope are better protected from damage too. 8 Olivette Avenue’s green infrastructure is also good news for Ferntree Gully creek, and probably for its big sister, Ferny Creek (these two creeks meet near Upper Ferntree Gully station).

These local waterways will benefit from receiving better-quality, lower-quantity runoff. For example, Ferntree Gully creek and Ferny Creek are home to a near-extinct crustacean, and stormwater drainage is the main threat to its existence. The mostly-indigenous plants grown on and around 8 Olivette Avenue also promote local biodiversity directly. Properties like 8 Olivette Avenue can even benefit the vast Port Phillip, particularly by reducing algal blooms caused by excess nutrients.

To find out more about this unique property, join us for an exclusive tour this Sunday 13 October for Sustainable House Day. Book your ticket today

Paul Richards, Geomorphologist