The first thing architect Walter Schamu did when he and his preservationist wife, Nancy, moved to their Federal Hill townhouse in 1979 was to install a rooftop deck and greenhouse. That immediately gave the couple a third level for outdoor living and entertaining, as well as for his burgeoning plant collection.
Since then Schamu has replaced that greenhouse with a better insulated one that can be used year-round to house his ever-increasing number of containers.
Schamu’s gardening enthusiasm extends not only to the roof of the house but also to every window sill inside, a second-floor balcony and to the steps leading to the roof.
The stairs are home to a gigantic, two-story schefflera, a 25-year-old African ficus plant grown from seeds brought home from the British botanical gardens, massive clivia plants, tropical frangipani plants and dozens of tiny plants Schamu is propagating from seed and cutting.
BACKDROP: A 360-degree panorama offers a Mary Poppins-like view of rowhouse chimneys, roofs, brick walls and gardens. In the distant north, the skyline around the harbor rises up, with a more industrial view of warehouses to the south.
CONCEPT: “Nancy would like a white garden, but people keep giving us plants!” Walter says. The dapper horticulturalist says the all-white theme was inspired by their visit to Vita Sackville-West’s all-white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England. “Nancy is into design,” he adds. “She thinks white lets you focus more on design.”
Many of the plants on the Schamus’ rooftop are, in fact, white: white peonies, oleander, geraniums, lacecap hydrangeas, agapanthus, a night-blooming cereus that flowers on the equinox and solstice, Seville orange and lime trees whose blossoms are white, vinca, a new white marigold- even a Southern magnolia tree with creamy, saucer-sized blooms.
The white-blooming wisteria, however, pollinated with a neighbor’s and is now purple. It stands among colorful yellow lantana and tropical iris, pink double azaleas and red amaryllis and hibiscus standards that attract hummingbirds.
CHALLENGE: No surprise: the biggest challenge is lack of space, with wind and heat a close second. Schamu ameliorates those factors in summer with a computer-activated watering system that waters the plants six times a day for two minutes.
WHAT’S NEXT: The architect plant-grower plans to create a shade environment by building a lightweight tensile fabric structure across the seating area. Then he’ll be able to grow plants such as caladium and propagate more offspring of the perennial begonias he has had for 25 years. It would also provide shade during cocktail and dinner parties. “I am also thinking about adding a green roof,” Schamu says, pointing to the slightly sloped roof over his kitchen. That would allow him yet another growing surface.