Interview: Isabelle Palmer of The Balcony Gardener

by Maxwell Tielman

Photo by Andrew Montgomery.

Starting a balcony garden or, in my case, a fire escape garden has been on my to-do list for years now. Growing up in Buffalo, one of my favorite things about spring and summer was watching flowers bloom in my family’s front yard. Once the tulips and daffodils began rearing their colorful little heads, I knew that it was officially spring. There’s something peaceful and beautiful about sitting out on the front porch on a hot summer day, watching bees move from flower to flower and listening to the subdued hum of life happening. Although I’m not sure a fire escape garden, small by definition, would match the lush beauty of a full yard, I’ve been desperate to recapture some of this green, summertime romance in my Brooklyn apartment. The only problem: I don’t know the first thing about gardening, let alone gardening for small spaces.

Enter Isabelle Palmer, Balcony Gardener Extraordinaire. The author of The Balcony Gardener and proprietor of a garden supply company of the same title, Isabelle has made a name for herself by providing easy and concise lessons to aspiring urban gardeners. Based in the UK, Isabelle is familiar with the pitfalls that face many a container gardening enthusiast, especially those working in four-seasoned climates. With her relaxed, go-with-the flow approach, clever tips, and talent for creating stunning urban gardens out of underutilized spaces, Isabelle Palmer shows that balcony gardening is not just rewarding, but totally accessible. Isabelle was kind enough to talk with us about her own balcony garden and some of her favorite gardening products— just in time for your own balcony garden planning! Check out the full interview after the jump! Max

Photo by Keiko Oikawa.

Design*Sponge: Because of today’s fast-paced urban lifestyle, the notion of gardening might not even occur as an option to many city-dwellers. How is it that you came upon balcony gardening and what pushed you to pursue it in earnest?

Isabelle Palmer: The idea for  The Balcony Gardener came about simply due to my own experiences, I have two balconies and live in the heart of the city. I wanted to  make the most of my outdoor space and have always seen it as an extension of my own home, wanting to create spaces indoors and outdoor that were modern and contemporary. I searched for somewhere or someone to help, trying to find an interesting shop or a supplier but it proved difficult – I just couldn’t find anything, so I thought other people would think the same and thus created “The Balcony Gardener.”

I know an inordinate number of people who claim to have “black thumbs,” killing every plant that comes into their home. What would you suggest to these people if they have an interest in getting into balcony gardening? Are there any plants/techniques that they should start with?

Start simply! I always try and put novice gardeners off from investing in expensive plants, if you kill these at the beginning it can easily put you off for good. Best to start with easy planting and grow your gardening confidence, easy plants to care for and watch grow are lavender and boxus plants. If you want to grow your own food and edible plants, start with herbs – plant up thyme, rosemary, salad leaves – they all grow quickly and you’ll be able to soon enjoy your home grown produce.

The key thing to remember is that plants are living things, they need light, water and regular food. The most common reason that people kill their plants is watering – they either water too much or too less, check with your finger – if it’s moist up to your knuckle then you don’t need to water your plant for a couple of days, if it’s dry then water slowly and moderately until moist.

Photo by Georgianna Lane.

Your book, The Balcony Gardener, features a broad range of absolutely beautiful balcony and rooftop gardens. I’m curious to know what your balcony garden looks like at the moment. What sort of plants are you propagating these days? What aesthetic choices are guiding your gardening?

If I’m going to be completely truthful the balcony at the moment is in what I call its “dormant stage,” it’s been a cold Winter and I’m waiting for some warmer weather before I re-start my balcony gardening! At the end of last year I decided on a key planting scheme of evergreens to last through the Winter months, giving solid colour and form to my balconies. During this cold spell I’m making choices for the season ahead – each year I change my scheme in terms of look, colour and moving my containers around. This year I’ve been planning to create a strong and architectural feel to my planting. A key thing I’m excited about this year is indoor plants, I’ve been exploring terrariums and house plants – both are wonderful ways to introduce a green landscape even if you have no outdoor space.

Throughout your book, you advise that aspiring gardeners choose tools and accessories with a well-balanced mixture of aesthetics and functionality in mind. Do you have any specific go-to gardening tools or brands that fit both of these criteria?

Last year I had the great privilege of working with the U.S. based Home Interiors store West Elm on their current urban gardening range. Their new range has a great synergy with The Balcony Gardener: aesthetically pleasing whilst working hard to provide products with great usability for small spaced gardening. The new range fits both these criteria.

Photo by Georgianna Lane.

Aside from your own store, of course, what are some of your favorite shops to pick up gardening supplies and flowers?

My favourite place for picking up plants and flowers, is really great place is Covent Garden Flower Market in South London. It’s a wonderful spot to find a plethora of interesting plants and flowers, and brilliantly you can meet and chat to the suppliers directly, who often give you great tips and know their plants really well with an active working knowledge.

For the gardening novice, the vast number of options in garden centers and seed catalogues can be overwhelming. What do you suggest to make the process of beginning your balcony garden more manageable?

I find the best way to tackle a space is by using the method I call the three “S” rule – Space, Site & Style. Space: first thing first is to consult a qualified architect or a structural engineer to see how much weight and if planning permission is needed. And then think about how you wish to use your plot – for entertaining? Grown your Own? Site: this is the habitat your plants will live – think about which aspect that your plants will face. The more southerly the better light you will have i.e longer sunlight hours. If you have a north facing garden/roof terrace then you will have low levels of sunlight so you will need to tailor your plants to be shade tolerant. Style: choose a theme such as country or modern and reflect this in the approach in your choice of containers and accessories.  I always find as a rule bigger is better and those which create focal points. Now add those finishing touches such as tables, chairs, cushions and lights to really complete the look!

Photo by Keiko Oikawa.

Although balcony gardening is, in essence, more manageable than a full-sized garden, some aspiring gardeners might still find it difficult because of traveling or work. Are there any simple ways to bring more greenery into a busy, nonstop life?

I always choose low maintenance planting, plants such as bamboo, grasses, laurel and ivy; plants that are relatively easy to maintain and easy to care for. A good idea is to introduce an irrigation system and there are plenty of economically ones that are available.

When you’re not working on your own garden, I’m sure you’re gathering inspiration and new ideas. What are your favorite sources of inspiration? Are there any particular public gardens, spaces, or publications, or designers that you find particularly inspiring?

I can take inspiration from anything and I’m constantly looking for new inspiration – wallpaper patterns, fabrics – designs with interesting colour schemes. I’m constantly being surprised by different planting schemes and styles, and can gleam inspiration from all sorts of outdoor spaces from the structured planting at the Thames Barrier Park in London to other people’s small front gardens.

Photo by Andrew Montgomery.

This month’s theme on Design*Sponge is “green.” What are some of your favorite earth-friendly gardening techniques and products?

On the website we sell some really great products that can be used to recycle different products into gardening tools. My favourites are the brightly coloured eco watering can adaptor that turns old water bottle into watering cans, and then the paper pot maker which helps recycle old newspapers into seedling pots.

Although gardening has gained considerable popularity amongst city-dwellers in recent years, there are most definitely those who haven’t discovered its joys and benefits. Why should people start a balcony garden?

Not only is balcony gardening relaxing and often therapeutic (particularly after a gruelling day at work!) it’s a wonderful way to enliven your city living space. I also think there is nothing better than walking down the street and looking up at people’s balconies and seeing greenery in the sky in the heart of the city.

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  • Just picked up her book at West Elm yesterday. It’s beautiful! Great to see this post this morning.

  • This is really inspiring. I have a tiny garden where I grow herbs and runner beans. Maybe I’ll be more adventurous this year! Beccy

  • Now I want to read her book! I live in an apartment near Chicago so I found this article particularly helpful. I try to have as many plants and greenery in my living space as I can!

  • Thanks for sharing this. I am so inspired to upgrade my balcony with some of these great ideas.

  • This is such a feel good post…I definitely will be checking out her book. I think I give some of my plants some TLC today!

  • small spell-check in the second to last question: recylce … just thought you’d want to know!

  • I want to read her book! I just brought 4 small flowers (pansies and violets) for the children and they are already looking a bit sick. I definitely need to start with ‘easy’ in order to build confidence. Great interview!

  • I’m just in the process of creating my own green space so this was just what i needed. Now armed with Isabelle’s book and a day of sunshine here in london i may just have a chance! Great interview, thanks.

  • Thanks for this article, he says…while looking at my last year pots with their dead contents, waiting for me.
    Noticed a small typo in answer to third question:
    “I’ve…” should say “I’m planning.”

  • Some of the plant holders are actually quite innovative uses of otherwise useless storage boxes and the like! Makes for a very down to earth and homely feel in the balcony garden!