“You have to be a bit of a perfectionist to have a rooftop garden,” says Sid Dickens. He is the same Sid Dickens whose tiles-lovely objects faintly reminiscent of Medieval times-seem to be everywhere, collected by the famous and non-famous alike. They are called Memory Blocks and though his garden doesn’t look at all like them, it has the same yearning for a romantic past. At first glance this oasis high over the city is like a European grotto, Italian perhaps, which has been there, if not forever, for at least many decades. In truth, it is four years old.
When he started looking for a base in Vancouver, Dickens knew he’d found what he needed in a solid building with a stunning prospect over English Bay in the city’s west end. What captured his imagination was not so much the penthouse, which he bought, but the possibility of creating the garden of his dreams on the roof. Dickens says, “I sat up there and spent a lot of time looking around at the other buildings. I wanted something as private as possible. I decided on high trees on the north wall so I could block the building that’s directly across from me. And I wanted a grotto.” His rooftop gazing gave him a scheme to provide a space of at least 1300 square feet capitalizing on the views he had of the Bay (to the northwest), Stanley Park (to the north) and downtown (southeast). And a grotto.
“I knew it was going to happen,” he says “And it is exactly as I imagined.” He describes it as a sort of funny garden on the side of a cliff. It wraps around his entrance to the roof that opens directly at roof level. There is a wide set of steps to the left and on top of this raised there is a dazzling view of water.
How to accomplish the dream was another matter. From mere murmuring at the edge of his imagination to completion was more than a year. The space was daunting-all gravel and desiccating winds. Though complex rooftop gardens are fairly common elsewhere, this was the first time anything quite so elaborate had been tried in Vancouver. Since the site was fraught with problems, he turned to a landscape architectural firm called, Artifolia, to realize his ideas. “I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted,” he says “And they had New York experience.” To live and work in a garden is everyone’s dream, but most locations aren’t this dramatic. Nor are all the problems encountered so elemental. The first to emerge was that the 25-year old roof membrane was rotten though the building itself, he says, is built like a rock. That brought on a siege of permits and inspections as the city worked hand in hand with this highly revolutionary design.
The next move was to lift the deck off the roof, which meant putting eight-inch posts tall enough to accommodate the rise of a four feet for the deck plus four feet for the steel railings around the top of the building, a process that took nine months. The posts were covered in steel and concrete. Then with a worker hanging off the side of the building for a month, a crane was used to get the railings in place. All the railings had to be fabricated by structural engineers with the city following their every move.
The edges of the building now support a grid work of steel beams underneath the garden so none of the weight of the garden actually rests on the roof. This brilliant solution meant that very large planters could be installed at the perimeter. The depth of the planters could be four feet and a half feet deep to be at the same level as the raised deck giving the illusion that they are at ground or soil level. These eight foot wide planters are strapped to the steel posts along the edges. They are made of pressure-treated wood and lined with thick black polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to keep water from escaping. The garden is watered electronically by an irrigation system on timers. Both drip and spray were used depending on the plants in particular areas which are adjusted every spring to accommodate the kinds of new plants introduced to the mix.
In the lower part of the garden which is reached through a fire door on to the roof, the walk out is to concrete slabs “I was looking for an Italian villa grotto feeling.” Dickens says. The grotto is based around a double tiered fountain and is the centrepiece of the whole garden. A wooden structure eight by eight feet in the shape of the fountain was constructed and then moved into the corner of the lower paved part of the garden. It was pushed into place in the corner then layer after layer of strips of fibreglass were laid over the surface much like papier mache to get the final shape. The finishing touch is a surface covered with shells, lava rock put there with an industrial glue gun. In some places mesh applied and concrete trowelled on. As Dickens says “It was so complicated, there’s no way it’s possible to change things now. A steel pergola was erected to provide shade needed for the atmosphere of the grotto and to protect its plants.
The focal point of the grotto is a concrete Bacchus. Dickens originally wanted a Zeus or preferably a Neptune to keep his oceanic theme consistent, but there wasn’t time to sculpt one so he took what he could get. He then did a mass planting of Algerian ivy (Hedera algeriensis) which is now taking off to the point where he’s out there with a machete to keep it under control. One of the joys of this garden is not only the restful sound of the fountain but the birds that flock to the two bird feeders. He hates mess and deals with it by using shelled sunflowers. No mess and happy birds.
Four long steps up to the raised deck and the same mood is carried on in the incredible tile work. But this is another illusion. Because of weight restrictions, all of these tiles are painted on wood. Wade King the faux painter of these splendid mosaic tiles gave Dickens a book on mosaic floors. They decided on a look. Then it took King months painting with little sponges cut up in square to dab away at these blocks of wood. The finish was painted with acrylic and to even the most experienced eye it looks like genuine mosaic tile. The effect is precisely what he was going after. The surrounding troughs are constructed of wood, wrapped in mesh with concrete trowelled over the top. And they do look like concrete though and through. They are filled with an amazing assortment of beautifully harmonious sempervivums and echeverias. Everyone pretends they live in California here, he contends, but you’ll notice no palm trees, and no other plants from California in this garden.
Wind is a major factor in any high rise garden project. In an extreme site such as this one with exposure from every angle, windbreaks in the form of very large trees had to be installed almost immediately. The problem, of course, was that anything planted along the edges had to be able to withstand not only the prevailing winds but fierce storms as well. They decided on honey locusts and given the size of the trees (up to 35 feet it took hoses running slowly into the root balls for more than two weeks to get them properly wet for installation. It was the worst, driest, windiest August on record and he says, “There was nothing we could do to keep the leaves on the trees, they just cooked.” But now the pergola is smothered in vines and the trees have taken root with everything growing to a fare-thee-well. But the honey locusts may not last too much longer since they tend to litter for three seasons in these fierce conditions.
Dickens who is 37, had grown lots of plants on many balconies over the past twelve years, but this was his first real garden. His influences are mainly from what he observes around him but where he actually gets serious design work done-is in the Queen Charlotte Islands-where he has been going since 1987. This where he developed his tile techniques and where he collects detritus from the sea: from shells, to bits of copper wire to whale bones. He has incorporated them into sculpture in the past, but now he brings them back to a new home on the roof.
His choice of plants is influenced his own wanderings along the Stanley Park seawall and up at Sand Spit, his place on Queen Charlotte Island. He wanted to re-create a sense of the rich denseness of the rain forest. The plants and mosses, and ferns he found there were to be echoed high above the city. He decided that moss would be the finishing touch to the grotto. He tried the old trick of painting the area with buttermilk, but daylong exposure to sun and wind was too intense. Last year he added bonsai-ed plants to spaces around the fountain and with the continuous and healthy growth of the vines casting a denser shade there is now plenty of moss growing all on its own. It does however require regular watering and he never lets it dry out.
For most rooftops a gravel garden would be just the thing. But not when there’s an automatic watering system geared to a shade garden. It’s just as hard to control not watering, as it is to control watering. Out went the lavenders and artemisias, and other silver plants and in came the ferns and shade lovers to fit in with the grotto concept.
He has made it his policy not to spray and has found few problems except for slugs. They’ve come in on plants and they love the newly dense grotto area. They seem to appreciate the dark and ominous look he’s been trying to get with ferns and vines. The grotto near the fountain is dark “as though it’s been there for a lot longer than three years. After a couple of glasses of wine, I get up there with a flashlight and a Tupperware container to kill slugs until it’s full.”
The pleasure of a garden on root top is added to immeasurably by a gas heater which extends the seasons. He can go up there with his bowl of oatmeal all winter even when the weather isn’t particularly good. “Of course,” he says “Once you’re up there with your little clippers in your hand, hours go by. I don’t want to leave and I love clipping.” If he hates the colour of a flower and it doesn’t fit in with his scheme he will remove every single bloom. The effort is worth it. One texture flows into another, the foliage is harmonious with splashes of daring colour to keep up the interest all through the garden.
In the many steps along the way to achieve this garden, one thing that Dickens mentioned over and over again: what he imagined in his head, actually came out exactly as he saw that inner vision. The resulting garden for him is the catch in his breath as he looks at the wild contrasts between where he sitting, with seagulls swooping all around him, and the city beyond. “It’s so contradictory,” he says “that you can even do this. It’s inspiring for the possibilities of doing anything you put your mind to.” For Sid Dickens his garden is truly paradise found.
Sid Dickens’ garden is comprised of planters and containers all skilfully designed so that each element is part of the whole. Here are some of his suggestions for rooftop and balcony style: