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Originally published August 3, 2012 at 12:00 PM | Page modified August 6, 2012 at 11:03 AM

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Wallingford rooftop transformed into sky-high garden

Garden designer Susan Papanikolas divided the space into three outdoor rooms using decking of varying heights and built-in planters to delineate spaces.

WHEN CONNIE and Dick Nickel moved from Minnesota to Wallingford, they picked their new condo for its rooftop view deck as much as for its urban location. The couple fell in love with Seattle's greenness while visiting their daughter here. So when a new, modern condo came up for sale around the corner from a landmark theater, these movie buffs were hooked.

They found, however, that a third-floor terrace wasn't the easiest spot to cultivate. Dedicated gardeners, they were used to growing hostas beneath the shade of oak trees. Now they found themselves with a bright, bare, 1,800-square-foot rooftop exposed to sun and wind. As Dick puts it, "Being up here is like watching the weather channel."

The couple hired garden designer Susan Papanikolas, who set in to divide the space into three outdoor rooms using decking of varying heights and built-in planters to delineate spaces. She put a lid on the living/dining area with a pergola. A private little deck off the bedroom holds a couple of chaises. There's even a kitchen garden growing in pots along the deck's west side.

"It's so exciting what you can grow up here," says Connie, who harvests vegetables and herbs off the rooftop in summer.

"I learned all about how much wet soil weighs," says Papanikolas, reflecting on the challenges of rooftop gardening. Roy Mangel of Elements of Nature Ltd. did the construction work. He installed drain pads over the hot-poured asphalt roof, and topped them off with dark gray rubber pavers and decking. The elevator proved too small, so the plants were hoisted up by forklift. The pumice and soil mix to fill planters and pots had to be carried up to the roof in buckets.

Containers are mostly made of rubber or fiberglass to keep the weight down; some of the larger ones have false bottoms, so they look hunky but don't need so much soil. Shallow boxes are built of Trex, and planted with succulents, lewisia and creeping plants such as thyme that live happily in only a few inches of soil. To block the wind and cast some shade, Papanikolas planted wax myrtle hedges along two sides of the deck. The shrubby honeysuckle Lonicera pileata has proved hardy and good-looking through the worst winters.

"We've had to migrate toward tougher, hardier plants," says Dick. A drip system keeps the plants well irrigated despite full-on sun and drying winds, but winter cold has proved deadly for phormium and even carex. They've learned that silver-leafed plants visually disappear in the bright sun, and red superbells (Calibrachoa) light up the deck in summer. The red-leafed Japanese maple 'Beni Maiko' has proved a hero, maintaining a sculptural presence year-round.

The rooftop garden creates a foreground to the condo's view of Lake Union, Mount Rainier, the sparkling lights of the city and the Space Needle. "It's great that the garden keeps evolving," says Connie. "We're delighted to have a real garden up here."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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