Rooftop garden makes rain a resource

Gallery not found. Please check your settings.

Photos by Emily Cikanek * Story by Mandy Burrell Booth 

When Breanne Heath, an avid gardener, met Dave Vondle, she couldn’t help but fall in love – with his roof.

“He told me he bought a building, and I told him he had to put a green roof on it. And that’s why I decided to start dating him – because he had the space,” said Breanne with a wink and a smile.

Today the couple’s love has grown and so has their green roof, which sits atop the building that houses the Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Breanne and Dave applied for and received a grant from the City of Chicago allowing them to develop an extensive rooftop garden focused on food, including strawberries, three kinds of watermelon, basil, nasturtium, marigolds (edible!), zucchini, kiwi, hops, grapes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and more.

Dave, a self-confessed lover of green beans, never really cooked until he began growing his own food. Now, as he puts it, “I’m still going to be eating green beans out of a can. I just grew them [and canned them] this time.”

Both Breanne and Dave, who is a part-owner in the co-op, know fresh produce is just one benefit of their green roof. It helps insulate the building, lowering heating and air conditioning costs. Plus, all those plants soak up rain, which is one of the only free resources we truly enjoy, but which unfortunately all too often becomes a costly nuisance.

When rain cannot soak back into the earth – for example, when it falls on streets and parking lots, sidewalks and roofs, all of which fall under the category of “impervious surfaces” – the rain runs straight into the sewer. Once the sewer is full, no more water can go down the drain, and this causes flooding.

The problem is even worse in places that combine their stormwater and sewage in the same pipes. During heavy storms, the rush of runoff overwhelms these systems, and facilities just can’t treat it fast enough. To prevent the sewage from backing up onto our streets and into our basements, facilities release millions of gallons of this waste into our rivers, and on occasion, back into Lake Michigan. These “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) not only can cause fish kills and hurt other wildlife in our waterways – they can turn a precious asset into a huge liability: Rainwater that could recharge our water supplies ends up flooding our homes and businesses at great cost to local governments, utilities and, ultimately, taxpayers. In the Chicago area, water that we flush down our rivers also counts against what we are allotted to pull out of Lake Michigan. It just makes more sense, and cents, to use all of that water for something – such as growing a garden.

Unlike a normal roof, the one that supports Breanne and Dave’s rooftop garden has abundant plants that drink up rain “exceptionally well – so well that we have to harvest our neighbor’s stormwater runoff for the garden,” said Breanne.

To do so, she and Dave created an elaborate system of seven rain barrels, connected in succession and to a well pump, which they use to irrigate their roof. Their innovation is piquing the interest of gardeners across the city: Breanne currently works at an urban farm and has presented at packed workshops at Whole Foods, Center for Green Technology, Green Grocer, and Garfield Park Conservatory.

Breanne enjoys teaching fellow green-thumbers what she and Dave have learned, such as how to increase water pressure, best materials to use, and even how to harvest their own runoff. The couple started doing this when they learned that excess nitrogen in our water supplies, stemming from fertilizers (even the organic kind Breanne and Dave use), can contribute to environmental problems.

“We started rainwater harvesting primarily because we were concerned for the plants in our garden,” said Breanne. “Treated city water contains chlorine, and even in very small amounts, it can disrupt bacterial and fungal populations, which is so important for healthy soil.”

So by capturing rainwater and reharvesting their own runoff, Breanne and Dave not only are helping keep Chicago’s water supply healthy – they’re keeping their food supply health, too.

WOWW factors 

100 times dirtier
An average combined sewer overflow (CSO) contains 100 times more fecal coliform colonies than treated wastewater, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

For a limited time starting in April, the City of Chicago Dept. of Environment is offering a rebate for purchasing a rain barrel. Download a rebate form and a list of local rain barrel purveyors from  the city’s web site. 

850 billion gallons
Amount of untreated water discharged by CSOs annually into our nation’s waterways, which people use for recreation and where fish and other wildlife call home. Water in CSOs is 15 to 20 percent sewage and 80 to 85 percent stormwater, according to NRDC.

Conservation tips 

Support Illinois’ Rainwater Harvesting bill. Ask your House representatives to support Illinois SB 38, which would allow developers and homeowners in Illinois to install systems for capturing rainwater for nonpotable uses. Find your representatives’ contact information here. 

Make or buy a rain barrel. Watering your lawn and garden can account for as much as 40 percent of your home’s water consumption during the summer. Watch this video to learn how to make your own rain barrel, or Google your county’s name and “rain barrel program” to find low-cost rain barrel options near you. 

Reduce stormwater runoff at home. Check out Center for Neighborhood Technology’s “Pocket Guide to Green Solutions” for more simple, low-cost ways you can alter your landscape and home to reduce stormwater runoff and make better use of rain. 


Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Stormwater Management Strategy Report

Chicago’s Rainwater Harvesting Blog

Advocates for Urban Agriculture

This entry was posted in Water Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rooftop garden makes rain a resource

  1. Pingback: Turf’s up: Maintaining a healthy lawn during drought |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>