Interiors: Embrace the... Great outdoors
Making the most of a balcony or small rooftop garden can lift the soul
There's a little roof garden just down the road from where I live. It's a tiny space - not more than a few feet wide - but there's room for a brightly coloured table and chairs, and a planter with several tiers of well-tended plants. There's nothing expensive or fancy about it, but it lifts my spirits every time I pass. It's lovely to see people making the most of their outdoor space.
In contrast, cycling around the city, I can see any number of apartments where the balcony has become a dumping ground. They're drab spaces, full of bins and broken prams, and boxes covered in tarpaulin. My own hard-working backyard is nothing to write home about either. It's a functional area that accommodates the bikes and the dog and the recycling and the washing line. But it's not particularly inviting.
"Build shelters around the bins," advises Kevin Dennis, garden designer and winner of last year's Bloom in the Park. "Your eye is drawn to the stuff that bothers you. The first step is to get everything in order and create a space that makes you feel calm. Then you can start trying to make it nice."
Dennis's mission in life is to show people how to make the most of their outdoor space, whether it's a garden or a yard or even a balcony. "Don't be worried about the size of it," he says. "Good design can make the most out of a small kitchen or bathroom. It's the same for a yard or a balcony."
The problem, he feels, is Irish people don't value their outside space enough. "They're happy to invest in their kitchen or bathroom, but then they run out of money and make do by throwing down a few patio slabs by the back door."
As with an interior space, the first step is to define how you want to use your outdoor room. "Function comes first," he says. "Then you follow the sun." Dennis recently designed a balcony with a raised seating area at one end, built-in hardwood planters and artificial grass. "I'm a horticulturist at heart but artificial grass can work surprisingly well. It sets off a set of signals in your head that there's something growing here."
Artificial grass comes in several grades, the higher of which are much more realistic and nicer to walk on than the cheaper products. But, while installing artificial grass on a balcony is as easy as laying a carpet, in a garden it will have to be laid like a patio. If the product costs €40 per metre, calculate another €40 for installation. And it does help if you combine it with a few real plants.
Above the seating area, Dennis installed a piece of weather-resistant outdoor art. "I bought the image on the internet - the client helped to select it - and had it printed on to aluminium. I had the frame made up from steel, which works well in an outdoor context." The zigzag patterns in the artwork are echoed in the chevrons of an outdoor rug under the table in the dining area. "The rug is something you can power-wash if you want to clean it."
Hiring an expert to design a large balcony is an expensive business - this one cost about €4,000 - but there are plenty of ways of creating a cool outdoor space without a big expenditure. "The thing is to green it up a bit," he says. "It's cheap and immediate. I've just built a vertical planter out of a palette that I found in a skip. Put in a climber below and few trailing plants above and all of a sudden your few square metres of wall looks like the ground lifted up." Growing plants is good for the environment. It's also good for the soul.
"It's getting much more popular to have a little kitchen garden," says Marina Ferrer, an interior designer for Ikea. "I live in an apartment so I have mine on the windowsill." Ikea's Fröer growing set (€8) consists of three pots that look like bean cans with the labels soaked off in a metal tray and comes with three packets of seed and compost. There's also a larger version (€10) for growing tomatoes and basil in a planting bag.
On a more cosmetic level, Ikea's Sommar range (no prizes for guessing how that translates) has lots of accessories to pretty-up your outdoor room. Textiles come in raspberry and pear prints (a cushion cover costs €4). Marks & Spencer, BHS and Next also have alfresco dining ranges but it's hard to get anything cheaper and more cheerful than Ikea.
"The good thing about the Sommar range is that the colours are co-ordinated so that you can put everything together," says Ferrer. "I think that you might get tired of these patterns after two years but you can change them. It's not like changing the sitting-room sofa." In view of the Irish weather, she also points out the practicality of a plastic tablecloth (€15). "It makes it look like a party and it doesn't matter if it rains," she says.
Outdoor living is all very well, but the Irish climate requires a contingency plan.
You'll find Kevin Dennis at cityscapegardener.ie with more ideas at this weekend's Bloom in the Park (bloominthepark.com) and Bloom Fringe (bloomfringe.com). For accessories, check out ikea.com, marksandspencer.ie, bhs.co.uk, and ie.nextdirect.com.