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April 26, 2021 —

Love What You Do: Isabelle Palmer – the Balcony Gardener

Transforming even the most minimal of outdoor space into a beautiful and verdant retreat is Isabelle Palmer’s passion – we find out more about her thriving business, The Balcony Gardener
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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Photo: Ali Allen
Photo: Ali Allen

Hi Isabelle! Tell us about your business, The Balcony Gardener – how would you describe what you do?
The Balcony Gardener transforms small indoor and outdoor small spaces into stylish, desirable and enviable settings through inspirational planting. We try to make an ordinary space somewhere that people can enjoy nature, outdoors and plants however limited the area is. Our work is to create the joy and magic of a beautiful green space for city dwellers.

How did The Balcony Gardener come to be?
I set up The Balcony Gardener in 2009 with one clear mission: to transform indoor and outdoor spaces into stylish and desirable room-like havens, through innovative and inspirational planting and a modern aesthetic. Focusing on my own balconies I realised I wanted to make the most of the tiny outdoor area and reflect my own modern design aesthetic. But I couldn’t find stylish products, and ones that could adapt to balconies and utilise the aspects that constrict a balcony garden. I thought if I wanted this, then others would too, and hence The Balcony Gardener was formed. At first, we produced readymade window boxes and I imported lots of our products from Europe, where balcony gardening was more commonplace. Over the years the model has changed and we now focus on bespoke designs. I also focus on my garden writing, which I love as you can connect to a greater audience.

headshot credit Nassima Rothacker
Photo: Nassima Rothacker
Photo: Nassima Rothacker
Photo: Nassima Rothacker

How did your career begin?
I came from a background of PR, but I also studied at art college which I think reflects what I do now in gardening. I always think of gardening as painting a picture.

Where do you find creative inspiration?
I really take quite a lot of inspiration from interior trends and design. I think it’s nice to have that influence, especially when you’re dealing with a small outdoor space. It makes that outdoor room more considered. There’s a lot of cohesion in terms of colours from rooms leading from indoors to outdoors. I don’t see them as being exclusive from each other.

How would you describe your style?
Contemporary, with an eclectic edge of vintage pieces.

Are there themes that run through your work?
Yes, I think I would call it kind of a ‘confined wild’. I like structure with fluidity in my style, and colour is a really a big part of my work, experimenting with different combinations.

91 Magazine interview with Isabelle Palmer

How did you first discover your love for what you do?
Gardening has always been an intrinsic part of my upbringing. My family are very keen on it, and it was something that we did on the weekend as a pastime together. I’ve always found it calming and a homely activity, whether it be watering, planting seeds, or pruning. When I moved away, I really wanted to carry that on, so I set out how I could make my tiny space into a garden. This in turn set me on this path and consequent journey.

What career would you pursue, if you weren’t a garden designer?
I think I’d be an interior designer – I love the whole process of design and creating something from a blank canvas. I really love that whole element of sourcing, planning and discovering. Then the rush of putting it all together – that whole process from start to finish is extremely thrilling and such a creative kind of journey.

Describe a typical working day…
My typical day starts with me waking up a bit – I’m quite reluctant at times! I then normally do a 20-minute bike ride or 10 minutes of Pilates. So much of my job involves strength, so it just gives me a good start in the morning. I have never really been a gym goer, but I love cycling. I have such a varied workday life in the week, so it depends on what’s in the calendar – I could be writing my gardening column, working on a book, client work, sourcing planting for a job. I could be on a fact-finding mission, at a reclamation yards looking for vintage items, and on the odd occasion, I get to be just in my own garden, gardening.

Photo: Helen Cathcart
Photo: Helen Cathcart

What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?
I think you need a strong belief in yourself, and then you will attain your own perceived level of success – so I’d say the only hurdle would be talking negatively.

Tell us about your work process…
I think you really need to have a strong understanding of your clients, and as much background as you can, so I find out as much as possible and have images of the space before I meet my clients. I discuss their needs and what they want to achieve. Their lifestyle plays a big part in the garden design, maintenance, and how they want to use that space. Things have changed remarkably in the last year in terms of how people work, so that has played a big part of how we define our outdoor rooms and garden spaces – and also the client’s leisure and relaxation time. The outdoor space needs to work a lot harder and has become an extra room. My job has had to become more creative in how to utilise design a lot more effectively.

What sort of space do you work in?
I currently work in my living room. We’re very lucky that we’ve got two living rooms, and the upstairs one actually leads off onto a balcony and has a view of the green in front. It’s a very creative, inspirational place for me to work, and also in the summer I can just open the balcony doors and let the outdoors in.

Credit: OKA
Credit: OKA

Where is your business located?
I live in Richmond, London. It’s such a fantastic place to live, we are so spoiled – we have the river, Richmond Park, and there are so many other green spaces around here as well. Not to mention Kew Gardens which, I literally visit once a week in the summer.

Has your work evolved since you began?
My work has evolved massively since I started, my aesthetic, my knowledge, and also my confidence. I’m a real believer in saying ‘yes’, and worrying about it later. I’m glad of that though, because then you don’t question if you can, you just find ways to do it. So many opportunities have arisen that I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined I would accomplish, and I have learnt so much on the job. It’s been a constant knowledge expedition of finding and discovering new aspects of my job, such as writing books.

Photo: Caroline Rowland
Photo: Caroline Rowland

How valuable is the online community to your work?
The online community has changed so much since I started, in terms of influence and connection. I think gardening is a very visual vocation, and now with Instagram, gardening has a platform for people to share ideas, their work, and gain inspiration – so it’s of massive value to my work.

What’s been the biggest eye-opener for you in running your business?
I would say the constancy of it. You take your work with you everywhere you go. On the flip side, I can say that it’s because I’m still so driven by it that I am lucky to wake up every day raring to go!

How do you differentiate yourself in a creative industry?
What we do is very focused on small spaces, so we have that niche, but I think I’ve realised that you really have got to be true to yourself in terms of your creativity. If I’ve taken influence from something that isn’t my own style, I very quickly realised that it’s not going work and doesn’t sit well with me. So, embody yourself – there is your difference.

Do you enjoy working as an independent – what are the joys, and what are the challenges (if any)?
I love being my own boss, it has so many positives in allowing you to reach for opportunities and give you the sense of freedom. Also, you can adapt so much more readily to changing times and focuses.

Photo: Ali Allen
Photo: Ali Allen

How do you approach marketing and PR?
I’ve been lucky to have that as a background, and my approach has been quite organic in terms of reaching an audience. Lots of opportunities have come my way in terms of collaborations, writing, and working on events and big brands, which got my work out there through these different ventures.

What have been your business highlights so far?
Well, there have been so many where I have thought ‘that’s so cool’. But I think two that stick out were when I was featured in Vogue as a top online shop. Also, getting a copy of my first book! I’m still doing what I love after 11 years.

What’s one thing people would be surprised you do in your job?
Oh, gosh, probably my weekly visit to the tip or the recycle centre. I’m in charge of getting rid of all the landscape waste! I actually quite like it as I’m a neat freak, so I like to have everything tidied away!

Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?
Well – gardening, but I love cycling, visiting different places around the world, cooking and painting.

What is the most important lesson that running your business has taught you about life?
Patience, and to take every opportunity by both hands. I think it’s made me a lot more assertive in terms of going out and getting things in life – it’s made me a lot more confident.

Isabelle Palmer - The Balcony Gardener

Any good advice for independent creative businesses who are just starting out?
Have a really strong belief, be confident about your products and be assured you’re going to make it. Get a good accountant as well.

What does the next year hold for you?
I’ve been doing quite a lot of TV work, so hopefully that will grow. It’s always nice to have another element to my job and exciting starting new things!

Quickfire questions

Books I love: The Story of Nancy Astor by Adrian Fort, The Duff Cooper Diaries by John Julius Norwich

Creative Heroes: I love the hotel Thyme, its owner Caryn Hibbert is so inspirational, and what she has achieved in that place is utterly remarkable. The fact she’s a physicist, entrepreneur, artist, hotelier, and fashion and print designer is creativity embodied.

Shops I love: House of Hackney, The Old Cinema, A.P.C

Inspirational places: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Dartmouth, Devon – especially 1920s country house Coleton Fishacre, Waterperry Gardens, and Crane Park in Twickenham – which saved my sanity during lockdown – a hidden gem.

Instagrammers I love: @vintagefrenchfr, @carriejeangoldsmith, @nomadicdinners

www.thebalconygardener.com

@thebalconygardener

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