Seeing how Isabelle Palmer has made the most of the two small balconies attached to her top-floor flat in a converted church in north London, is truly inspirational. ‘When I step through the door of the flat, I get an overwhelming sense of relief,’ she says. ‘My home is my calm sanctuary.’
Isabelle has created an urban oasis by planting window boxes with evergreens, herbs, flowers and foliage and fixing them onto the rails of her two balconies, which overlook the busy roads below. ‘Gardening has happy memories for me; when I bought this flat, the first plants I decided to grow were lavender and strawberries – I remember playing in my grandparents’ garden when I was a child, and nurturing my own strawberry plant that my grandma helped me re-pot every year. As my grandparents are no longer around, caring for plants that I know they used to like helps me feel close to their memory, too.’
Isabelle first lived in this flat as a student with flatmates, then decided to buy it and make it her own. Pale walls and natural-coloured floors keep the feel light and fresh, while houseplants, flowers and terrariums bring the restful interior to life. ‘Gardening is all about caring for something and anyone can do it,’ says Isabelle. ‘My plants give me a lot of joy. I believe we are connected to nature and we lose that connection in our busy, modern lives, so it’s healthy to slow down and focus on an activity that’s relaxing and therapeutic. When I check on the plants, prune a little and do some deadheading, before I know it, I’m doing a whole session and it’s just me and the plants – it’s a meditation.’
After graduating from Chelsea School of Art and Design, Isabelle started a career in PR then was inspired to start her own business, The Balcony Gardener, for people who wanted to maximise the potential of a limited space. The company offers small space garden design, products and workshops for urban and rural dwellers who have limited space, but heaps of imagination and a desire to garden.
‘I was sure there were others like me who lived in the concrete jungle but wanted to garden too,’ says Isabelle. ‘There were people in my life at the time who didn’t think the business would be successful, but it just spurred me on to prove them wrong. My family was really supportive – my parents ran their own business and shared their valuable expertise – and I just stayed focused and disciplined. You have to survive those disappointments and knocks as they make you the person you are today. Now, working with a client to create their dream garden is satisfying – it’s like a work of art; you put your soul into it and it’s great to know you’ve helped people create their little oasis.’
Isabelle is a self-confessed ‘nature person’ and spends as much time in the outdoors as possible. ‘I love cycling, although not in the city,’ she says. ‘I’m lucky I live near Hampstead Heath and I love to cycle there – nothing can beat that carefree childlike feeling of being on my bike, surrounded by nature. I also love to challenge myself to do something daring every year – this time, it’s trapeze school and going down the ArcelorMittal Orbit slide [the world’s tallest slide] at the Olympic Park – I must be crazy!’
At least Isabelle can come home and relax surrounded by the beautiful foliage happily growing on her two balconies – the balcony at the back of the flat has space for a couple of chairs and Isabelle often sits there listening to the birdsong, underneath the Braeburn apple tree she’s cultivating this year. ‘I love living here,’ she admits. ‘I’m able to tap into the natural elements of life while being close to the centre of the city. It’s the best of both worlds.’
To find out more, visit thebalconygardener.com. Isabelle’s latest book ‘House Plants: How To Look After Your Indoor Plants’ (CICO Books, £14.99) is out on 8 September.
Photograph: CICO Books