Saturday 20 January 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: How to grow a garden in your conservatory

Conservatories were once exclusive to palaces and big houses but nowadays suburban gardeners can nurture more exotic plants. The renowned garden expert on how to grow under glass

Diarmuid Gavin: conservatories are at the centre of craft gardening. Photo: Fran Veale
Diarmuid Gavin: conservatories are at the centre of craft gardening. Photo: Fran Veale
Citrus Fruit
Olive trees
Gardenia jasminoides

Diarmuid Gavin

We're so used to seeing conservatories now it can be easy to forget that they only became available for ordinary gardeners over the last few generations.

For dedicated gardeners glassed or even plastic buildings such as polytunnels are at the centre of the craft of gardening, as they allow us to get a march on the season early in the year by sowing seeds in a bright frost-free or even heated environment and we can protect species which are tender in winter. Using them also allows us to grow plants such as vines to produce grapes.

But stepping back a bit, let's take a moment to put glazed structures into context. In these islands they were pioneered by the owners of big estates who wanted flowers all year round but also wanted to innovate and display.

If a grand house could produce a pineapple for the dinner table it was a sign of their wealth, sophistication and scientific endeavour. Great palaces such as Versailles outside Paris had orangeries for growing citrus fruits. These brick, wood and glazed structures were often magnificent in scale, ornate by design and attached to the south facing wall of house or palace. Similar houses were subsequently developed for individual species and to this day, tours of gardens will often take in fig houses, vineries, peach houses, orchid houses and camellia houses.

In Victorian times, conservatories were developed for the wealthy but not quite aristocratic. They were ideal for displaying plants which would be mounted quite theatrically if a conservatory tour was planned for guests, or their contents could be barrowed into the house as temporary decoration.

But now cheaper technology and dramatically lower glass prices mean that conservatories have become commonplace in suburban homes.

And for gardeners they provide great opportunities for growing plants that either find our winters too cold to stay outside or can't cope with low light levels indoors. Nowadays the trend is to build onto a house to create a bit of extra space and perhaps a venue to enjoy a view of the garden. Often plant growing will be a by-product of having one, the furnishings come first and plants can be an afterthought.

If you have a conservatory, orangery or greenhouse there's a number of things to consider. Choosing suitable durable furniture and floor-covering is important - the space is exposed to light which can damage many finishes and watering. The humid environment can also do a lot of damage.

Often a structure like this will allow you to show off species in decorative pots such as antique ceramics which wouldn't be frost-proof and are therefore unsuitable for outdoors.

Remember that all your plants will need saucers/trays, so that when you're watering them you have a drip tray to prevent damage to the flooring or furniture.

Shading such as blinds will be important - even though plants like sunlight, when it's at its strongest it can burn flower and foliage and it will also be a deeply uncomfortable place for you to spend time.

Ventilation will be important - good air circulation will help keep fungal diseases at bay. The temperature you maintain in your conservatory will dictate what plants will grow best. If you keep it heated all year round, this will create a dry atmosphere, suitable for palms, agaves, succulents and cacti. In our rainy climate, conservatories are often abandoned for winter and will be great for overwintering tender plants, such as citrus fruits, that would be killed off by temperatures below zero. In effect you are using the space as you would a greenhouse.

Design features

As with our outside gardens, you can increase your enjoyment of greenhouses and conservatories by introducing a few design features.

1 The trickle of water can be a delight along with adding some valued moisture to the atmosphere, so consider creating a water feature such as a central fountain or miniature waterfall or waterwall. However, pay attention to the design of these features - the aim is to have something beautiful rather than a feature which may be found in a cheap restaurant.

2 Wall murals can look great in this environment. By having a conservatory you are already creating an unusual environment. Complete the picture with a bit of fantasy and introduce a scenic backdrop such as a glorious tropical scene complete with colourful exotic birds.

3 Traditionally, trellis structures were used in greenhouses and conservatories not only to host climbing plants but also to create illusions of perspective, with intriguing linear designs or suggested openings or doorways.

My Top 10 Plant choices for conservatories

These are the plants that will tolerate the most amount of abuse and neglect; they look great and can surprise you with their floral displays.

These species are ideal for a warm, bright environment; many will enjoy a couple of months outdoors during our mild summer season but will also create a sense of nature within your home during our sometimes long, bleak winter months.

They'll need some careful attention, however. Plants under glass will mainly be grown in pots and containers and will therefore dry out much faster than their garden friends. So, everyday make sure they're not thirsty - nor overwatered. If you can, damp down the space by drenching your whole structure in water creating a moist atmosphere which many of your collection will love. Be aware, however, of the conditions some groups like - orchids for instance will be thrilled with the mimicking of their native jungle conditions but cacti and succulents won't thank you for a moist bath. They like a hot, bright and dry atmosphere.

1. Bougainvillea


Bring the Mediterranean to your conservatory with this brightly coloured climber.

2. Citrus fruit

Citrus Fruit

Grow your own lemons and limes. Glossy evergreen foliage and scented flowers.

3. Plumbago


This has lovely delicate blue flowers -you'll see this delightful climber on your holidays in Spain and France.

4. Olive trees

A beautiful Mediterranean tree with silvery leaves and you could get some fruit after a few years.

5. Stephanotis


The Madagascar jasmine has fragrant clusters of white blooms.

6. Gardenia jasminoides

Gardenia jasminoides

For fabulous fragrance - you won't need scented candles when you have this beauty.

7. Orchids


One of the most beautiful plants and very long-flowering.

8. Abutilons


For a splash of colour, abutilon will provide lots of paper-like flowers - try 'Canary Bird' for vibrant yellow flowers.

9. Brugmansia (Angel's trumpet)


This shrub will make an eye-catching display of large exotic trumpet-shaped flowers but be aware that they are poisonous if eaten.

10. Succulents and cacti


These are the plants that will tolerate the most amount of abuse and neglect; they look great and can surprise you with their floral displays.

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