The Balcony Gardener
by Rhiannon James
Isabelle Palmer’s balcony is one of those high-in-the-sky gardens that, glimpsed from the street, give you the urge to ring on the doorbell and ask if you can explore.
It would certainly be worth it because as it turns out, there’s not just one beautiful balcony outside her maisonette in a converted church in Hampstead, but two. The first is a walled country garden in miniature with the sweep of the city below. The second started out as a rather utilitarian gantry, but with the help of a whole lot of window boxes, is now a flower-edged path through the air.
Head for the high country
The tiny corner of countryside hidden away outside Isabelle’s office is the place she goes to relax and to be inspired. As the owner of The Balcony Gardener, an online shop selling stylish products for small urban spaces, and author of a book of the same name, her gardens are the place for her to experiment and dream up new ideas.
Despite being close to one of London’s busiest roads, with views out over north London, it’s a picture of bucolic bliss. Wisteria and willow drape elegantly across red brick; a tiny flower border runs along the wall and strawberries tumble out of wicker baskets.
“It really reflects the things I love about my parents’ garden – they’ve got a lovely big garden with a beautiful weeping willow, wisteria on the house and lots of pretty flowers,” Isabelle, 32, says. “It’s that little bit of home, I suppose.”
Much more a garden than a few pots, its design has evolved over time but it was a spur-of-the moment addition last year that has really made the difference, Isabelle says. “I’d always thought artificial grass was a bit tacky but I used it for a shoot and realised how real it looks. I had a bit left over so I put it here and it just completely transformed the space.”
Tips and tricks
The secret, she says, is to cleverly use every inch and to keep things simple and scrupulously neat.
By putting planters at different levels – some on the floor, some on a table, some attached to the wall – she has managed to fit a vegetable garden into one corner where she’s growing kumquats, chillies, runner beans, strawberries and lots of herbs. “I have herbs throughout the year because I love cooking with them and they can survive the winter in the balcony’s little microclimate,” she says. The trees grow out from each corner and window boxes lined up along a ledge provide plenty of room for flowers without encroaching into the space. There’s even a tiny handmade tool store that fits neatly behind the door.
While thoughtful arrangement has saved space, a restricted palette helps the balcony to feel bigger. “It helps not to use too many colours and to keep all the containers similar in tone so things flow into each other,” she says. Using the same mulch for every container can help to tie things together too. “It’s also good to keep things quite neat. You can let things run wild in a huge meadow but I think you have to compartmentalise things a little more in a small space,” she says.
While the secret garden is a place to get away, the top-floor balcony is all about creating a display for the living room which looks on to it. “The room is really light and airy because the balcony brings the outside in,” Isabelle says. Window boxes packed with blooms start out an ethereal white to echo the interior and then gradually intensify through pastels to a vivid purple.
It’s a treasure trove of ideas from the delicate purity of a white dahlia planted with rosemary and salvias, to a vibrant mix of purple delphiniums, lavender, osteospermums, alyssum and heuchera. Striking in its simplicity is a polystone container filled with lavender. “Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons’ kitchen garden has these gorgeous paths with lavender tumbling over them and I’m hoping this container will gradually create the same effect,” Isabelle says. “I take so much inspiration from gardens of all sizes. It’s just about whittling the idea down until it works on a smaller scale.” The lavender, along with box and bay, also creates an evergreen structure to see the balcony through the winter.
One thing that’s striking about Isabelle’s garden is how pristine all the plants are – there’s hardly a yellowing leaf or a wilting stalk in sight. The key she says is regular watering and feeding and very frequent repotting. She does admit though to the odd mistake. “About two years ago I had this gorgeous laurel bush. I planted it in a container but I’d forgotten to put drainage holes in the bottom and it drowned. I really learnt my lesson from that,” she says. The things that do so well they get too big for the balconies are shipped to her parents. She says: “I can still go and see the plants so they’re really just on holiday; I haven’t sent them away for good. When I get a garden, I’m going to take them all back!”