Isabelle Palmer, In Their Shoes
Isabelle is a famed city garden designer and the brains behind The Balcony Gardener. She and her team have been transforming outdoor and indoor spaces across London since 2009. Isabelle believes that everyone can have a garden patch to enjoy in their city, however small. We caught up with her to chat container gardening, easy-care plants and share her How-To with a Summer Cottage Garden Planter project.
Tell us a bit about your background and your path to gardening?
I started The Balcony Gardener in 2009. I had two balconies myself and really wanted to create my own little garden. Having grown up with gardening being at the centre of our family life, I really missed that connection I had with plants and having my own garden space. At the time there wasn’t the availability of stylish, useful products in order to make the most of my balconies; also limited information on novice container gardening and how to create a small space garden with very limited space and at that time a limited budget too. This germinated the ideas I had for The Balcony Gardener, particularly as other people, who were city dwellers with limited space, might also be keen to develop their balconies, window-ledges and small outdoor spaces. As it transpired it was just the right time to launch.
What is it about container gardening especially that you love?
Container gardening is very different to gardening in a landscape, you achieve impact with containers immediately. The best thing is that you don’t have to wait for five years for it to mature and you can easily change the look and feel by swapping plants in and out, moving containers around to accomplish greenery, with pops of colour all year round. They work well as a stand-alone garden on balconies, roof terraces or a small terrace and can add an instant ‘wow’ factor and colour to a garden. They are incredibly versatile and coming up with new planting compositions is a joy I relish every year.
Do you need to have any garden knowledge or experience to get started with container gardening?
The most wonderful thing is they are a great foray into gardening. You don’t need to have any experience and it can be the best way to build up your knowledge before starting a landscaped garden, by learning from your mistakes. The management of containers is relatively easy, but you have to keep on top of watering and feeding them as they are reliant on you for this. It is such a good discipline to master and will carry you forward, no matter what size of garden you aspire to.
Where’s the best place to start for a beginner gardener?
I always say start off small. There is nothing worse than buying lots of plants and containers only for them to die and you then to lose confidence. I would also recommend getting the biggest pot you can afford. It is far better to get a couple of large ones than lots of tiny little ones as you will have to spend a lot of time watering during the summer.
What are some easy-care plants that are nice and happy in most situations?
The ideal starter container is always to have a base of evergreen plants - this will ensure that you will always have plants throughout the year. Some great, easy maintenance plants such as Skimmia, Pittasporum, Heucheras, Fatsia Japonica, Ferns and Ivy are probably my favourites to use until you become more adventurous. I would then add in seasonal colour that can be changed throughout the year easily. My ‘go to’ annual plants are Cosmos, Snapdragons and small Dahlias. Once you have mastered those you can move onto Perennials which will come back each season, but do take a bit more care.
Are there any mistakes that you see repeated with first time gardeners?
Yes, watering is key. When people say they can’t keep plants alive, it is nearly always because of a lack of watering. If the pots have drainage, over-watering is rarely a problem.
If someone has a very shady spot, what do you recommend they grow to bring some life to it?
Ferns are great and there are lots of varieties to give texture and green. Astrantia, Euphorbia and Aquilegia’s individually all offer lovely pops of colour too.
Do you have a favourite time of year in your garden balcony?
Spring is wonderful. It is such an amazing, hopeful & exciting time of year when plants begin to emerge and grow into new life. It also signifies the end of winter and that I can get back in the garden - so it’s win, win on both counts.
What plants are your current obsessions?
I love Peonies for their big, bold blooms and Delphiniums; they are such elegant and graceful flowers. I often take cuttings of them to put in my house so I can enjoy them more closely.
Do you have any favourite combinations for matching plants to containers and any recommended places to get great containers from?
It is paramount that the plants are the star attraction and should always be shown at their best, so I go for containers that are subtle in both colour and material. Zinc, Corten steel and terracotta are my current favourites. I often paint my pots as it’s a great way to transform old pots and update them economically in muted colours such as greys and light pinks. Most garden centres now stock a good range of pots and if there is something not quite right it is easy to spray them or paint them with a lime wash paint to get the perfect look.
And finally, are there any annuals that you wish were perennials?!
Cosmos Bipinnatus 'Cupcakes and Saucers', Cerinthe Major 'Purpurascens' and Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll'. They all have such unusual shapes and wonderful flowers. I sow them every year!
Summer Cottage Garden Planter
A beautiful array of pastel summer cottage garden blooms to brighten up your pots. The soothing tones of the plants compliment the galvanised hue of the container. Read on for the How To to create your own summer cottage garden planter.
What you will need…
- Large container approx. 50cm dia with drainage holes
- Moisture Control Compost
- Hydraleca Clay Pebbles
- Delphinium Flamenco
- 2x Astrantia Roma
- Scabious Moriposa Blue
- Campanula Viking
- 2x Pentas Northern Lights Lavender
- Lilac Osteospermum
Get the look
- Move the tub to its final position before planting, as it will be very heavy when filled with potting mix and watered in.
- Cover the base of the tub with 3 inches of clay pebbles Hydraleca. These granules absorb water and slowly release it protecting it from over-watering and creates a beneficial micro-climate.
- Fill with compost until it’s about two-thirds full.
- Then start to create your display. I normally position the plants before planting to ensure I’m happy with the display. Tip out the plants from their pots and gently tease the roots out to ensure healthy growth into the compost.
- This is an informal display, but I suggest planting the taller Delphinium Flamenco, Salvia, Scabiosa and Astrantia at the back as these are the taller plants.
- Ensure the top of the plan's rootball is an inch or so below the rim of the tub and add or remove potting mix, as required.
- Next position the Campanula, then the smaller Pentas and Oesteosperium at the front as these are the ones near the edge so they won’t be hidden from view.
- Check the rootballs of all the plants are level and fill in the gaps between the plants with more compost and firm in gently. Water well and allow to drain.
- Aftercare: deadhead the flowers regularly to encourage the plants to produce more flowers and so extend the season of interest.
Thank you Isabelle! We’re reaching for the gardening gloves now to get started…
If you want to read more garden goodness from Isabelle then check out her lovely new book, Modern Container Gardening.
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