Green Roof Photos

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

When the new California Academy of Sciences re-opened last year in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the green roof was a big story with its central design concept-“lifting up a piece of the park and put a building under it”.

Green roof Academy of Sciences

Green roof Academy of Sciences

I was eager to photograph it but could not get permission to walk out on the roof beyond the observation deck because I was not working on any real story.  I just wanted to get some cool photos of the 2.5 acre native plant meadow on a roof, having just completed my meadow book and loving California native plants.  Alas, there were so many requests for photo access to the roof, I was told quite politely to come back when I had a better excuse.

Now I am working on a project (about alternatives to lawn) and the publisher specifically asked for photos of Cal Academy’s roof.  Visions of bright sunny meadows and colorful wildflowers danced in my head. The day I scheduled was typical San Francisco mid-summer fog –  really foggy.

Native plant green roof by observation deck

Native plant green roof by observation deck

Fog can be a garden photographer’s best friend, but wet drippy dense gray fog is almost as bad as rain as far as lenses and equipment are concerned, so I had to wait out the first hour of my time, waiting for the fog to lift a bit, impatient that the intern watching me was ready to cut off my time.

It is a good thing to wait for photos in a garden.  Too often when we visit gardens we rush through not really seeing the essence, not letting the garden speak to us of what it is doing in that moment.  In those moments on the roof of the Academy I began to see a garden being revitalized by the fog, a garden perfectly adapted to San Francisco, a living roof adapting to the climate.


Dudleya on windswept foggy coastal cliffs are common in Northern California, so that idea became part of the day’s story on the San Francisco roof whose rolling “hills” cover rainforest exhibits and planetariums below.

Studying the Dudleya and noticing how well they were set off from the dominant groundcover on the roof, Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris).  I “worked the scene” as I like to say, studying angles and the relationship of plants to each other.  The angle that began to work was a very low one where I could see the whole profile of the plant, like a botanic illustration.

Dudleya and Prunella on living roof

Dudleya and Prunella on living roof

Suddenly I began to see all the flowering plants juxtaposed against the Prunella.  They all began to make sense in the fog, looking perky in a drought tolerant landscape.  The Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus) has become a staple in California landscaping, but its native habitat is the foggy edge of California.  It looks quite happy on this rugged exposed rooftop.

Erigeron, Seaside Daisy on living roof

Erigeron, Seaside Daisy on living roof

After a while I began to be in a garden.  Designed as a functional ecosystem on imported soil to insulate a roof and help the earth breathe, it took on the mantle of a garden.  Granted, the designers of this green roof only planted the more colorful, meadowy wildflowers and grasses near the observation area, but even as the fog lifted enough to get wider photographs, the lesson, like my camera’s vista, became clear:

Rooftop cover, or garden groundcover ?

Rooftop cover, or garden groundcover ?

Native plants offer great groundcover alternatives to lawn – as well as to standard roofing. I think my publisher will be pleased.  With a little help from the designers, the camera always lies.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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joco September 9, 2009, 6:54 am

Lovely story about a great project.
I will be thinking of this when I look out of my kitchen window on my Prunella lawn, not come about by design, but by neglect and a sneaking admiration for all those plants that creep in amongst our grass.

Joco – Seems you have the makings of a fine natural lawn meadow. Those plants creeping into your lawn are designed fro success – Saxon

Helen September 9, 2009, 7:22 am

I love green roofs they are such a good idea. Hopefully we will see more and more of them in the future

Hello Helen – We certainly are seeing more and more especially as metropolitan areas encourage developers to find ways to cool cities and reduce reflected heat. I know in Chicago leads many US cities in downtown green roofs and Berlin has been encouraging green roofs for generations.
– Saxon

Carol September 9, 2009, 7:57 am

Utterly beautiful and fascinating… Great story and your photos are gorgeous… the fog was so accommodating. To walk or drive around and see lawns like these would be so uplifting! I should think your publisher would be thrilled. Now I would love to see the inside of the building … looking out… do you see the plants as trees… the tapestry of plants a forest? Do the sky lights open to allow these views?

Hey Carol – The green roof aptly fulfills the designers idea to lift the park up and put a building under it. Inside, the big central skylight opens up to create a feeling of a café looking up to the sky. The smaller round, porthole looking skylights add light to the exhibits in the building. Visitors only see the greenroof from the observation area. – Saxon

Dave September 9, 2009, 8:09 am

I’ve been interested in those green roofs for a while now. Very neat stuff!

Thanks for dropping by Dave. Green roofs have, of course, been around since the man first made domiciles, but I first came across them when I was working on my “Hardy Succulents” book. Ed Snodgrass, one of our guest contributors here at GGW and author of “Green Roof Plants”, invited me to his Pennsylvania farm where he hoisted me and my tripod up in a bucket lift tractor to get photos of succulent groundcover tapestries – on his roof. – Saxon

Commonweeder September 9, 2009, 10:36 am

This is a fascinating post, both on the taking of photos, and the creation of a lawn-less area – on a roof or on the ground.

Thanks for your kind words, Commonweeder. I would argue the word “lawn” can mean far more than a mowed monoculture of grass and would include any group of plants that can be mowed. – Saxon

our friend Ben September 9, 2009, 11:59 am

Wow, Saxon, this is so cool! Thanks for persevering so you could share it with us!

Ben – Thanks for the comment. I sorta had to persevere, as I had only the one opportunity to get the photos and realized, that like the adage of making lemonade when life serves you lemons, there was a beautiful side to that foggy day. – Saxon

healingmagichands September 9, 2009, 12:04 pm

What is implied here but not explicitly stated is that we could all make our “lawns” into “green roofs” if we cared to. Think how much of our resources would be saved.

I enjoyed reading about the evolution of your experience with the green roof, so often we are in too much of a hurry to allow ourselves time and space to truly experience a place. I can must imagine the sorts of lines the intern’s mind was traveling on as you “wasted” time waiting and breathing in the essence of the garden you were in.

That many traditional lawns can become meadows is certainly the explicit premise of “The American Meadow Garden”, my new book with grass guru John Greenlee due in November.
The intern, while politely staying out of my way, was cold standing around in the wind swept fog. I, at least was working … Saxon

Susie September 9, 2009, 9:22 pm

I am so excited…I get to tag along for my husbands conference in SF this Nov. This is the one site zi plan on visiting! Thanks for the photos & info.

Suzie – The Cal Academy is quite popular and can be crowded. Try to plan for an afternoon when it is open late and get tickets on line in advance. Assuming you are a gardener, as long as you are going to be in Golden Gate Park, across the street is the Japanese Tea Garden which will be in fall color
and of course the fabulous SF Botanical Gardens are also right there. – Saxon

ryan September 11, 2009, 7:28 pm

The Prunella Roof. I read in the ASLA magazine article about the roof that the prunella was only 25% of the planting originally but is now 70% and rising, that the Armeria and Sedum are already mostly gone, and that the California poppies can’t reseed anymore. Sort of heading towards the monoculture of a lawn, but better habitat I guess and it certainly makes for much nicer photos. That’s the nicest I’ve photo I’ve seen of the Erigeron and the Dudleya photos are great too.

Ryan – I do not know how much of the original roof was intended to be Prunella but the most diversity was always planned to near the observation area. It will be interesting to see how the roof evolves. In a way it is an experiment and learning tool all in one. – Saxon

Garden Lily September 14, 2009, 11:50 pm

I love the closeup photos, and the many colours of that “green” roof. What are the many circles, are those skylights for the building below? That’s really cool. I hope to visit it one day.

Garden Lily – Yes, the “portholes” are skylights to the exhibits below. – Saxon

grass hopper November 18, 2009, 9:11 am

that was really awesome. those portholes adds more grandeur. really fantastic. looking for more on this.

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