I would like to begin this post by saying I HAVE NEVER PLANTED A THING. I once owned some succulents during the peak of the succulent trend, but they were re-homed after a year when we moved for the umpteenth time in our renting lives. Also I have never lived anywhere with a garden.
This post relates to two things – my own personal travails as a Balcony Gardener and an amazing book by Isabelle Palmer of the same name that has changed my life.
When we bought this flat with balconies in the front and back, we only ever planned to neaten them up a little so we could enjoy sitting out there in rare good weather. When winter turned to spring earlier this year we were excited to get out there and transform the concrete balconies into warm extensions of our home using Ikea’s genius PLATTA decking system.
Once I started being able to walk out into the back balcony which was connected to the kitchen I began to think how nice it would be to have some sort of a kitchen garden out there. ‘Too small” I thought, and “I’ll never be able to grow anything” and “How can I grow anything in this temperamental weather” and ” I don’t think this balcony gets enough light anyway” and many more excuses…
Then after a serendipitous meeting at the launch of One Leicester Street, I spent an enlightening afternoon with florist/landscaper Miria Harris in her abundant English garden in Homerton. She walked me through her and her chef husband Tom Harris’ kitchen garden in the city. She offered me heavenly herbs to rub between my fingers – fronds that smelled like onions and leaves scented like lemons. She showed me an abundant trail of climbing roses that she was training to eventually hang charmingly over her kitchen door. An outside table was scattered with pots of experiments.
At first I thought “Oh she’s a professional gardener, of course her garden is going to be this wonderful” but Miria explained the trials and rewards of gardening in a way that no manual I had ever read really could. She opened my eyes up to looking at ‘failure’ differently – that sometimes things worked and other times they simply didn’t – for example one year her beautiful roses didn’t flower at all and this year they are abundant… she explained as a gardener you just grow to be intuitive to what you are cultivating. It’s the first time I truly understood the meaning of ‘nurturing’ in this context. She showed me that there was magic in the surprises and possibilities of a garden and she me think that I could do it too!
Inspired, I ran home, straight to the garden centre and dived in headfirst. A visual being more than a practical, I accosted the garden centre assistant as to the things I needed to install a climbing rose. I wanted one like Miria’s. I bought a tall trellis for my back balcony, a pot and an inexpensive rose plant [for my first try]. I planted it and it stayed alive! I couldn’t believe it – a climbing rose is the cherry on every home-owner’s cake is it not?!
“So, that wasn’t too traumatic” I thought. “But I definitely won’t be able to grow anything edible.”
That’s when I received “The Balcony Gardener, Creative Ideas for Small Spaces” by Isabelle Palmer the founder of online store The Balcony Gardener. The first thing that struck me in the introduction to the book [and further research] was that the author Isabelle has balconies too! I loved that this book wasn’t written by a cultivated gardner with acres of land, but someone who once was a novice like me. The idea for The Balcony Gardener came about due to her own experiences living in the heart of the city and coming across the difficulties of gardening in small spaces.
The book takes you from the basics like ‘Potting Mix’, ‘Tools’ and ‘Picking the Right Pots’ to ‘Seasonal Care’ and how to address ‘Difficult Areas’. It gives you hundreds of creative DIY ideas including ‘Screening Plants’ that assist overlooked and shared balconies, to the ubiquitous ‘Vintage Crate Salad Box’, and shows you how easy it is to grow everything in pots on your balcony from Strawberries to Aubergines.
Isabelle also knows what time-poor balcony gardeners crave and that is tips and tricks that make modern life easier. The book is filled with easy to digest visual information like plant colour charts for easy selection to match your overall scheme. My favourite time-saver is a clever section which lists an array of mix-and match options for your Kitchen Garden window boxes from ‘Herb Boxes for Chicken’ and ‘Herb Boxes for Fish’, ‘Curry Boxes’, ‘Cocktail Boxes’ [Mint, Mini Kumquat Tree and a Strawberry Plant] and a ‘Medicinal Box’.
The most important thing I have learnt about this whole experience which I was hugely daunted by is – you just have to start! Nothing is irreversible, if it doesn’t work, you can just try again, it’s just mud, sun, water and nature – and it’s wonderful!
The Back Balcony [by the Kitchen]
– Two months later my Climbing Rose plant from Homebase is blooming regularly but I think that it is either not getting enough light, or I needed to give more attention to the mix of soil i used [I just used standard compost from Homebase]. The blooms dont last very long and the variety of the blooms aren’t very structured. I will see how it goes this summer and may research and plant a different one next Spring.
I was lucky enough to receive two beautiful window boxes in a ‘Clay’ colour from Garden Trading. Elegant and lovely they have transformed my concrete balcony.
– Window Box – I planted herbs, Coriander, Rosemary, Sage, Parsley and Chives. The Coriander and Parsley were Supermarket buys and didn’t take. The Parsley died and so did the Coriander but a few strands hung on and seems to be growing. I bought a Parsley plant from the garden centre and potted it separately from the others.
– Mint – I bought a small pot of Mint from garden centre and it is flourishing with a few hours of sun a day – I have been using it in cocktails and in sparking water and makes the whole balcony smell amazing!
– Spring Onions – I grew these in a small trough from seed in very average conditions – and they are sprouting – magic!
– Window Box – I used The Balcony Gardener’s colour chart, choosing plants that were ‘Ethereal’ and Mysterious’ in frosty white and purple hues.
– I tracked down a stylish Jute growing sack and planted some salad plugs. My first bowl of salad never tasted so good!
Now I have started I cannot stop. The Balcony Gardner helped me start small – at first I skipped the chapters on ‘Growing you Own’ but now I am more confident I am going to dive back in. I plan on using the front balcony which gets the most sun to grow potatoes, onions and courgettes. Then – who knows?!
Author: Rohini Wahi
Rohini is a London based freelance journalist and trend forecaster for the design industries. She has worked for Elle Decoration, Living Etc, Houzz and Design Sponge amongst others.
She loves a period drama and keeps a tidy home. Launched in 2007 The Beat That My Heart Skipped focuses on home inspirations, design trends, lifestyle and food – coupled with an insight into Rohini’s work and home life – from key picks at trade shows to styled weekend soirees. To contact Rohini for queries, work for hire or just to say hi drop her a line at email@example.com