Balcony Gardening Q&A with Isabelle Palmer

If you don't know of Isabelle Palmer already, you will soon enough. Isabelle Palmer is the talented founder of the online shop The Balcony Gardener and author of The Balcony Gardener. With the spring and summer seasons upon us, it feels even more important to make a small green space in the city. Isabelle was kind enough to answer a few questions to help urban gardeners create green spaces to call their own.

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How long have you been an urban gardener?

I’ve been interested in gardening from a very young age. But I suppose I really wanted to have my own proper garden when I was in my early twenties. I live in an apartment with two balconies, and I really wanted to extend my living space. I felt that having a garden would enable me to do that. I’ve been here now, urban gardening, for eight years.

You create container gardens that are readymade with one style, such as contemporary urban or English cottage. What is your personal balcony garden style?

Every year I try and extend my repertoire to try different styles. This year I’m keen on experimenting with strong architectural plants and formal lines. Normally I would say the country garden is my personal favourite — romantic, whimsical and evocative — but this year I’m going for cleaner lines. 

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Where should one start when attempting one’s own balcony garden? Does the plant come before the vessel or the vessel before the plant?

It depends on what your priorities are. Maybe you have a special container and you want to fill it with a plant, or you have a favorite plant and you need to find a container for it. There is no hard and fast rule, it depends which aspect you are coming from. For me, the plant always comes before the container, but that’s my own personal opinion.

What plants would you recommend to someone who has a notorious black thumb?

Start off with really hardy weather resistant plants that you can gain confidence with growing, such as bamboos, laurel, boxus, ivy, lavenders, rosemary. And you can interplant these with pretty annuals such as violas and pansies for color.

Have you ever found a space that was too small or didn’t have enough light for an urban garden?

No space is too small — you can even have a mini garden in a pothole or crack! Most people have a window sill, which is a great place to try growing fresh herbs. Ivy and ferns are an alternative when light is very low.

Thanks to your new collaboration with West Elm, our readers in the U.S. can have a bit of your style in their garden. You have worked to develop gardening tools for their marketplace shop. What is the one tool that everyone should own to begin gardening?

A trowel, because it’s incredibly versatile. You can plant up with it, flatten down soil with it, dig up soil and weeds, and mix potting mixes. Look for a trowel with a stainless steel head and a strong connection to the handle.

How do you feel about the quality of plants at a chain garden center (i.e. Homebase or Home Depot(USA)) as opposed to the small, independent garden shop?

Personally, for me, large scale garden centres don’t compare to independent nurseries, who not only have greater knowledge but also have varieties that you won’t find in the larger chain outlets.  

Living Walls are popping up everywhere. Are they more work than traditional plants in pots? Are there certain plants that are more suited to a living wall?

Living walls are beautiful and a great addition to the urban gardening scene. Unfortunately, they are more difficult to maintain due to tricky irrigation problems. You really need to invest in a good watering system to keep a healthy living wall. The plants also need to be very hardy — withstand drought, extreme temperatures, and strong wind. Try sedums, mosses, lichens, short wildflower meadows and low growing perennials, grasses and alpines. 

Thank you Isabelle for all of the inspiring advice!

The Balcony Gardener by Isabelle Palmer is published by Cico Books and is available from www.cicobooks.com