Instant change of scene; GARDENING

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The Independent Culture
Nicole Swengley wanted her balcony transformed,

dramatically and at once. Could it be done? At what cost?

LIKE most flat-dwellers, I cherish my balcony. As a sunbathing spot it has never been much good since it faces east and south. By one o'clock the sun has disappeared behind the Victorian terrace opposite and the area is completely shaded. But as a place to potter outdoors, it is perfect - well, almost.

It is 6ft by 9ft, but that is quite big enough for propagation experiments and I have had great success with some vegetables. True, the courgettes ran amok in their Gro-Bag, their huge leaves threatening to swamp the entire balcony, while the broad beans, grown in tubs, attracted a plague of ants. But tomatoes, lettuce, spring onions, radishes, mini-beetroot and bonsai carrots have all been happily harvested. What my balcony has never been is that "extra" outdoors room you read about in interiors' magazines.

While exhuming the sad corpses of spring bulbs on a chill afternoon in May, I decided to have my balcony redesigned. Since the space - which is actually the asphalt roof of the ground-floor flat - is in full view of every house across the street, I wanted more privacy. I also needed additional security as the balcony's foot-high parapet was unlikely to prevent anyone falling over the edge during those glamorous parties that were fast becoming part of the fantasy. But, most of all, I wanted a touch of drama - a hint of exotica - in the heart of the city. And I wanted it all instantly.

And there in Yellow Pages were Instant Gardening Services, which seemed to promise what I was after. I imagined my balcony transformed overnight, ready for the next sunny day. It didn't quite work out like that: in the end the whole exercise took a frustrating - though finally rewarding - two months to complete.

The initial site inspection took place on 15 May when Jane Seabrook came to measure my plot and discuss possibilities. When I explained that I wanted excitement she looked at me doubtfully, eyeing the worn asphalt floor, the dingy downpipe in the corner and the eclectic clutter of plastic pots.

Among the options she suggested were re-covering the floor space and raising the tubs on to the parapet to clear enough space for a table and chairs. Building up the sides of the balcony would offer more privacy and better security, she explained, while the parapet's pitched coping could be flattened to provide a secure base for railings or window-boxes.

Three weeks and several phone calls later, I received her evocative sketches of possible options. The first scheme, with its arched and latticed trellis and window boxes, was my favourite but it cost a staggering pounds 4,073.72 - the biggest expense a wooden deck to cover the asphalt floor which would cost more than pounds 1,000. An additional pounds 705 would buy me mirrors fitted within side arches to create the illusion of extra space.

I swiftly turned to the second design. This one created a secret garden hidden from the terrace opposite by a latticed wall with an opening arched door in the middle. Planting was confined to terracotta pots, leaving space on the floor for two teak benches. Although the scheme cost pounds 3,125, this sum could be considerably reduced by using cheaper containers and less expensive garden furniture.

The third scheme, though it was much cheaper at pounds 752, seemed hardly worth the trouble or the money. It was very basic, with groups of terracotta pots planted with small trees and seasonal colour, leaving room for my own chairs and table.

I was certainly keen on the trellis idea but balked at the price of the second scheme and decided to investigate the possibility of an amalgamation of one and three. I did have a few worries about the trellis, though, which I put to Charles Gordon Lennox, who owns and runs Instant Gardening services. How high would it be? Was planning permission required? Charles reassured me that this wasn't needed as the trellis stood less than six foot above the existing structure.

I was also concerned about the parapet. Was it possible to avoid breaking the coping? I was told that supportive brackets could be used to secure the window boxes instead. And the decking, wouldn't it prevent rainwater flowing into the gutter below the downpipe? No, it came fixed to a frame raised two inches off the floor to allow for drainage underneath.

I pointed out that it might be tricky transporting the teak benches through the building's narrow hallway, up the stairs to my flat and around the door, which is sited awkwardly in front of the small passage leading to the balcony. But it transpired that the benches could be taken apart and plugged together in situ.

I still wasn't satisfied. What other ideas did he have? A more rustic effect could be achieved by fixing rounded metal arches to the parapet. These could be linked with ivy-strewn rope garlands attached by loops of wire. With window boxes containing evergreen shrubs and seasonal colour, this scheme cost pounds 2,103.25, which was cheaper than the trellis design but offered less privacy.

The price could be reduced further by focusing on colour rather than clever hardware, he suggested. Groups of terracotta pots, washed blue, with blue window boxes and seasonal blue, white and green planting would come to a reasonable pounds 878.81. But a scheme like this lacked the dramatic effect I was after.

How about a fountain? I had grand ideas, but this struck me as faintly ludicrous. Had I thought about automatic irrigation to avoid losing expensive plants while I was away on holiday? I winced at the additional expense. I'd just have to rely on neighbours for watering duties.

Eventually, I decided in favour of the arched trellis and window boxes which, with soil and plants, cost pounds 2,737.75 including VAT. It was a big outlay - twice the amount I had planned to spend - but I convinced myself that I was adding that extra outdoor room to the flat and increasing the property's potential value.

Two weeks later - during which time I received an invoice for work not yet begun - the installers arrived. I had been told the work would take two hours to complete; in fact, from start to finish it took six hours. Pretty fast, I agree, but not really "instant".

The dark-green window boxes arrived already planted with jasmine, clematis, trailing ivy, nicotiana, salvia and hedera helix. But they were too short for the width of the arches and had to be replaced with longer ones. Nor were the window boxes white, as I had expected, while the planting was more purple, pink and green than the blue and white suggested at my last meeting with the company. But I didn't mind, the effect was stunning.

By 25 July my balcony was transformed. Despite the delay and the frustration of unreturned phone calls, I'm delighted with one of the prettiest nooks I've seen in London. In fact, I've been enjoying it too much myself to dispatch any party invitations yet.

! Instant Gardening Services, at the Chelsea Gardener, 125 Sydney Street, London SW3 6NR (0171-351 2388 or 5656)