A Balcony by Any Other Name


Recent Impressions

In reality my garden, such as it is, is a balcony/roof garden (probably not that as there is very little striding around room, a prerequisite of a garden I would think) or possibly a roof terrace, with some associated walkways, but the temptation to grandiose ideas is never far away. Particularly after visiting friends and family with enviable gardens outside the city bounds, catching up with reading or perhaps most influential of all, being transported through the medium of television to some of the out of reach horticultural wonders of the world, I get ambitious.

Not content with having a rather crowded balcony, a wonderful series of programmes on Paradise Gardens has made me think. Actually, think a lot about the history of these gardens, from the Alhambra, which I have visited, and eastwards to others that I haven’t. Beautiful, evolving and historic spaces with purpose and meaning at every turn, except perhaps under the Raj when swathes of green lawn took over.

A few weeks on and I have recovered a sense of proportion. I have a balcony which is emerging from hibernation, is filling up with colour and has mostly come through the winter unscathed, with hellebores in flower, the rosemary flowering too, and other promising blossom not far away getting ready for early flying visitors. However, lurking is a wish to recast this very limited, windblown, but much loved space into something else.

There are no rills nor the possibility of running water up here, the pleasures of fragrance and the scent of favourite plants are easily rendered impotent by the wind, and I am not sure that my single blueberry, planted for autumn colour, together with my new fruit bearing cherry add up to a sunken fruit orchard. But I did pay attention; I have learned something of these Paradise Gardens and I feel drawn towards visiting more gardens of all sorts. I also know that to think of the seating area of the balcony as a ‘kiosk’ (a kiosk being a small, separated garden pavilion, open on some or all sides, and common in Persia, the Indian sub-continent, and in the Ottoman Empire from the 13th century onward) would be a conceit but if I do, might that be a way of introducing a bit of coherence to the whole space – less of a jumble, more selected planting? I’m off to a promising start with a roof overhang offering some shelter and a collection of roses, some scented, as well as rosemary and the cape garlic, Tulbaghia Violacea.

One of the casualties of winter, or maybe the earlier flood when it first got badly broken and damaged, and was then too dry for too long as it was thrown out of reach in a exceptional dry spell, was a lovely Clematis ‘Broughton Star’ with a particularly pretty flower. Sadly, it was probably rather too vigorous for a container since its spread is on average six metres. However, I found an obelisk a few months ago that has a tendency to lean to one side as soon as you move away from it, but was bought with the hope that it would soon be covered with the early growth obscuring the imperfections of the recently acquired plant support, but as yet no signs of life. Neglect and mistreatment are largely to blame rather than clematis wilt. Another clematis can be bought and hopefully in time the two – obelisk and climber – can support each other, contributing to a frame round the seating area (well actually two seats and a small table doubling up as a plant stand) inviting the possibility that it can be a space for contemplation: a space to look out to the world towards the encircling panorama, lacking an expanse of water and the accompanying sound, but with distant hills that will disappear as the trees green up and obscure the view and in the background the intermittent noise of school children.

Back to Earth

Although the winter has been a time to dream there have been other things to contemplate, many of which I have ignored. I do know that it is a time to do the chores – clean tools (fortunately not many of them) clean pots (pot hygiene is not my strength) or move tender plants under cover or into more sheltered areas (not an option). I have, though, installed another bird feeder, put thought into the location of the insect hotel and nesting ‘wool’ and was rewarded by the visiting seven year old who reassuringly confirmed that this area was good for wild-life. Almost as good as getting a ‘Head Teachers Award’.

A month ago, to be precise the 28th January, signalled the start of more diverse visitors to the bird food as the distant drumming of a woodpecker could be heard not far away and the magpies, for the moment at least, seem to have accepted that the choice of menu and design of bird feeders do not have them primarily in mind.

I’ve also had to face up to reality and jettisoned a rose which has died, unsurprisingly as it had not developed a root system, although the other half of the pair has, and is now evidently ready for the summer ahead. A leggy lavender that has seen much better days has also gone. This opens the way to trying again with a standard lavender tied to a different table leg and hopefully in a less windy position.

So common sense is for the moment winning out on all fronts, although the battle between restraint and abundance, as well as with my planting prejudices keep me occupied. In the wintry months I’m aware of being drawn towards permanent and predictable choices, but as soon as the days grow longer transient and ephemeral flowers and plants of all sorts are centre stage, not only on the balcony but in the plants and gardens I seek out to enjoy. On the whole I like and love what I have without an excess of regret but every now and then something deeper is stirred and I pine for the impossible. Recently walking round friends’ plants, albeit largely admired and appreciated in the absence of their full beauty as it was drizzling, much further North and too early in the year, we arrived at a woody edge with emerging foxgloves waiting for their moment. No particular memories, but a sharp pang, reminded me that I do hold a very particular place for these tall, beautiful and ethereal plants – but a high rise balcony isn’t the place for them, and even if they are grown in the gardens nearby, my balcony kiosk is a distant and remote viewpoint.

Unashamedly, though also I know very fortunately, I do have frequent opportunities to head much further South where the irrigated civic planting is bright and seasonal with characteristic palms, some headless in an attempt to master the palm moth and red palm weevil, which in some areas now have the upper hand.  Colourful domestic cultivation (plumbago, bougainvillaea, pelargoniums and more) quickly shifts into the sun-bleached countryside beyond and a timeless desiccated herbal grassland as the summer heat intensifies and olives, citrus and pines are in command. Not surprising, perhaps, that European friends are perplexed by the plethora of olive trees in London struggling, quite happily, with damp and grey winters and that throughout the South of England olives, plant pots and sunny Summer outside spaces have become a familiar and life enhancing combination, with the potential, as I have discovered, to supply the Capital’s burgeoning craft food industry, food miles notwithstanding.

Actually at the moment here too there’s an imminent risk of desiccated plant life on the door-step. Bizarrely, as it is 24th February, and treacherous weather is forecast to arrive in two or three days time, the recent winds, sunshine and an absence of rain mean plants and bulbs are beginning to suffer and this afternoon will be dedicated to watering. A sure sign of Spring and Summer to follow are the inevitable arrival of aphids, first spotted on some tulip leaves, loitering in a sunny spot with the warmth of the building at hand.

Every Space Does Count

Every bit of space does count within each container, which I fill with as much plant life as I can, as well as occupying the wider area with as many assorted pots and troughs as possible. However, common parts, demised areas and personal property all play a part in the overall scheme of things and the question of what can be planted where. I avoid trellis attached to the walls as these are common parts but occupy the demised surface area as fully as possible. Apparently anyone in the building has the right to knock on the door, walk through the flat and stand on the terrace to admire the view, since although the surface of the terraced areas is demised to the adjoining top floor properties the supporting structures below are common parts. Of course I may have misunderstood the minutiae of this area of archaic law and so far no-one has knocked on the door with this sole purpose in mind which is rather a relief, as there are moments when the sound of an unexpected knock on the door is awkward.

Although opportunistically visitors with all sorts of reasons for coming aloft do stray towards the balcony doors (vertigo notwithstanding) and enjoy the 270 degree view towards Canary Wharf, round past Crystal Palace mast and the southern city fringe, dominated by a mixture of mature trees and buildings of varied vintages and purposes, until to the West the margin of the Chiltern Hills tops the sky-line. Even without the encouragement of tea and cakes, visitors are often generous, and frequently enthusiastic and helpful in their comments, if not too distracted by the passing planes coming in to land, and the potential trip hazards underfoot as small pots and other impedimenta always seem to be on the path to the view. If planning a visit I recommend dawn or dusk as the skies at sunrise or sunset are frequently spectacular.

Once upon a time I was trying to get ready for the day while answering a particularly difficult e-mail. I was preoccupied, and trying to juggle clothes, make-up, re-writes, change of clothes as well as my mounting anxiety. At this distance I have no idea what the e-mail related to but I do remember sitting in front of my lap-top  in a general state of disorder when from the left I saw a rather anxious man, wiry and cautious, coming along the walkway and heading towards my dustbin sized containers full of plants in full growth, obstructing the path in front of the window. It was late summer and the containers had done well with, amongst other things, a clematis on its third flowering, an oversized dahlia that I didn’t particularly like and the healthy E Nicholii recently re-potted.

I’m not sure who was most shocked – he quickly retreated and I quickly got dressed, guiltily anxious that my plants were in trouble – why else would he be there except to see what was going on in the demised area? As I gradually began to think more rationally I decided I needed to take action to establish was this was all about. There had been no knock on the door but I did remember that the stranger was approaching my window from the direction of a service door onto the common parts, and since the code for this door is only known to those with privileged access, excluding residents trying to get away from advancing danger, fire included, I assumed he was there for bone fide reasons.

I never did discover why he hadn’t knocked but he was, in fact, the surveyor called upon in an emergency to deal, alongside his team, with a damaging flood into the flat below. Several hours later and having borrowed a hose-pipe which to his delight I was in a position to lend him, the leak was sealed and passed a temporary stress test thanks to my hose. Under his orders the main balcony became the repository for the troughs and pots obstructing his workforce, and my pots and plants were exonerated. Since then I have been less anxious about the sensitivities regarding demised areas but I’m still careful to avoid trellising on the exterior walls. However, it was a moment when the attractions of a detached property, with or without the necessity for a ‘ride-on mower‘ were an appealing alternative to the complexities of flat dwelling. Fortunately, everyone is given plenty of notice when the abseilers are due to scale the building for their regular checks of the roof and guttering.

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  1. I love it all Anne : the description of your Paradise, the emotions, the stories, and the free flow of the writing. It’s full of drama and very peaceful at the same time – just like life I suppose… Thank you for doing it and allowing me to enjoy it.

  2. I read it to the end!! And did enjoy it!! Especially the strangers “lurking” about! Having survived another bout of being snowed in, and a beautiful spring day yesterday plus having a ground floor garden and no flowers on the rosemary yet! A toad got it wrong and tried to get into the kitchen – probably to get warm! In summer with the door open – I frequently have them in the kitchen at night and they get very angry when you try to pick them up! But not in this weather – hope he is back under his stone by now!

    • Many thanks for all your comments and appreciation, which in turn I very much appreciate. This reply has in part been delayed by the vicissitudes in the weather since my horticultural observations have been rendered obsolete by the shifts in the seasons. But with longer days here there is also a more stable certainty of the colour and life to come.