Green Roof Growers: Bruce Fields. Heidi Hough, Debbie Kong and Little Green Girl

By Staff
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Green Roof Growers

We’re growing organic heirloom vegetables on our rooftops and in our backyards in Chicago using homemade sub-irrigated planters (SIPs — more on them below). We started our blog, Green Roof Growers, to share our experiences and show other urban residents how easy it is to grow their own food — on a roof, balcony, parking lot, or on top of toxic city soil. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, growing food is a small but powerful gesture, one that can change the “cheap energy mind.”  

Bruce Fields 

After spending most of my life avoiding it, now I’m interested in connecting with the biotic world.  I began growing vegetables on my rooftop, in part as a practical response to many of the larger issues I felt powerless to address.  

Fortunately my previous life experiences left me with some skills I can still use, among them:

Bruce Between Gardens  

In the foreground, Bruce’s garage-top sub-irrigated planter (SIP) garden. Down on the street, Bruce stands at the western border of the Hermitage Triangle Garden, a once-vacant Chicago lot he helped shepherd through the system to become a community garden.  

Heidi Hough (H2) 

I’ve gardened for 50 years…most of them not like this. I grew up outside Chicago with an in-ground family organic garden that I tried to reproduce every place I lived. When the large shade tree in our current backyard blocked the sun needed to grow our beloved vegetables, my partner and I looked up. Up 40 feet to the roof of our building. 

Sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) are a remarkable tool for growing your own food, and lots of it. Because I’m happiest with people and nature in immediate proximity, SIP-growing opened a new world for me high above Chicago.  

We certainly save a lot on food, but more important is the quality of what we grow. It can literally be eaten off the vine while it’s still alive. It’s not genetically modified (our government apparently thinks it’s OK for farmers to grow these foods, but we do not) or sprayed with pesticides (ditto). And it’s not grown with petrochemicals, which form the base of most commercial fertilizers. 

I write about everything related to growing food and growing soil (we have a small in-ground organic bed in addition to our rooftop SIPs) in an urban environment. Here’s a post on the rat-proof compost bin my partner Art built. In 2008 we tried growing melons in SIPs for the first time and were astonished by the results. Occasionally we post on products, like this mass-produced SIP we got for a few dollars at a big-box store.  

Our roof is also home to two beehives, a source of endless fascination. Bees are in trouble (pesticides again?), and yet they’re responsible for every third mouthful of food we eat.  

And thus our SIP garden is place where we gain a small measure of control over our lives, experiment, and welcome a community of like-minded friends as well as those who have never grown food. Some of my happiest moments involve watching kids (and adults too) who have never seen a vegetable like broccoli growing. Shrieks of delight, the urge to pick and eat.  

Here we feel nature’s arm around our shoulders.  

Debbie Kong and Little Green Girl  

In our garden, Little Green Girl and I marvel at the abundance of produce and flowers. We grow in the ground, in raised beds, and in SIPs.


I started gardening because I wanted my 10-year-old daughter to eat healthier. Then I realized it was just as important for her to know how her food was grown and where it came from. In 2010 we spent a weekend on an organic farm. I gave my daughter her own garden bed because it made her a stakeholder in our food system. She decided what she wanted to grow and eat, and we grew everything from seed so that she could see the process from beginning to end. We learned to garden together and shared some very special moments visiting the garden each day. There was always something to discover, and observing nature transform life into the food that sustains us was a powerful and spiritual experience.

It is my hope that she’ll pass what we learn together to the next generation, and that those generations can teach the next. It’s been extraordinarily empowering for both of us to understand that we can be self-sufficient–to choose what we want to eat and grow it ourselves.

Our family is fortunate to have a large in-ground garden but I also love the challenge of growing in a SIP (sub-irrigated planter) and in small spaces. I’m constantly trying new ways to grow more efficiently and with fewer resources and I’m determined to get my friends and others living in an urban environment with a little sun to have a little garden.

I am certified to teach Fresh From the Farm, a curriculum that teaches children how to garden and eat healthier. I also teach schools and organizations how to build and sustain their gardens and will complete my Master Gardener certification in May 2011.

I’ve worked on an organic farm, served on my local community garden board, and developed educational programs for community gardeners.  

What Inspired Us?  

Green Roof Growers started a few years ago when three families living in our Wicker Park neighborhood saw this piece in the Chicago Reader. Titled “The Future in a Box?,” it’s the story of a tomato farmer in Florida, his crop wiped out by a hurricane in 1992, who designed a container growing system with a water reservoir in the bottom that wicks moisture up to plant roots. That’s Earthbox, a brilliant commercially available sub-irrigated planter (SIP) designed to produce large yields using less water and fertilizer. And because plants grow in a lightweight medium (based on peat and coir), SIPs are ideal for roofs or balconies.

Most important: SIPs eliminate the need for tillable land.  

The DIY Approach 

That last part got us thinking. A large shade tree had blocked vital sun from Heidi’s in-ground organic garden and the only place to reclaim the light was on her roof. For Bruce, his garage top proved the ideal expanse for full-sun growing. Do-it-yourselfers at heart, we found plans for sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) on the web: Heidi (H2) and Art would use two recycled food-grade 5-gallon buckets to make theirs, while Bruce chose the Rubbermaid container approach.  

A Living, Growing Community  

After one of our original roof growers moved to Minneapolis, Debbie stumbled on us one day and asked if we’d show her how to drill out a SIP for her daughter Little Green Girl (of course we would!), who went on to successfully grow melons out of hers. They told their story and the GRG blog gained two more valuable voices.  

Our growing community lives on the internet and down the street. We’ve expanded it by teaching SIP workshops in our yard and at a local church. We love to eat what we grow.  Each year we experiment with new SIP designs, finding inspiration and guidance all over the web, but especially from Inside Urban Green, where the Center for Urban Greenscaping (CuGreen) is developing SIP approaches in Brooklyn. On the west coast, our friends at Root Simple fire up our imagination for new projects.  

Just Starting Out? 

Start with a single SIP (OK, more if you want)–for your backyard, balcony, or roof.

  • If you decide to use a roof or balcony, consider how your structure will hold the extra weight.
  • Think about trellising: how will plants be tied up against wind and the weight of all those vegetables?
  • Find the sunniest location possible–many vegetables need 8 hours of direct sun to grow well. For shadier spots, try cool-weather greens, highly nutritious and flavorful.
  • You can use a simple watering jug to keep your SIP reservoir filled. Is there a water source near your SIP garden?

Share Your Stories

We write about our successes and our challenges at Green Roof Growers and right here at Mother Earth News. Come visit, have a look around, and tell us about your experience growing in SIPs.