Growing Conservatory plants

Whatever your conservatory’s primary role, an imaginative display of house and garden plants can give it a lush, verdant look.

Some conservatories are extensions of the living space – centrally heated, fully furnished and perhaps even carpeted. Others are basically for plant display -minimally furnished, if at all, with temperatures kept just above freezing in winter. Most, however, are somewhere between these two extremes, with a reasonable com-promise between optimum growing conditions for plants, and human comfort.

Depending on your budget, sense of style and enjoyment of and commitment to indoor gardening, conservatory plants have a range of decorative roles to play. For example, a single, large speci- men tree, such as Madagascar dragon tree, oleander or weeping fig, might be the only plant in a conservatory, used as a sculptural feature in a corner. A cluster of small plants, such as kalanchoes, cacti or African violets might form a table-top centre-piece; or a curtain of mixed flowers and foliage might cover the solid wall of a lean-to conservatory.

Temperature and light

As with plants in the home, try to match the conservatory plants’ minimum temperature and light needs to the environment of your conservatory. For example, if you have sunny, open borders – large planting holes left in the floor, usually against a wall – grow vigorous climbers such as jasmine, plumbago, hoya or passion flower in a cool conservatory; and stephanotis or gioriosa in a warm one. And in a cool, shady conservatory, you can specialize in ferns, ivies and streptocarpus, or Cape primrose.

Seasonal shows

As in an outdoor garden, it pays to have a permanent backdrop of tough, evergreen plants, such as ivy, weeping fig, kangaroo vine or grape ivy. Against this setting, ring the changes with short-term, ‘blaze-of-colour’ seasonal plants: forced hyacinths and narcissi, cy-clamen, azaleas, winter cherries, hippeastrums and ornamental peppers in winter and early spring; and tender annuals and perennials such as pelargoniums, marguerites, morning glories, black-eyed Susans and cupand-saucer vine {Cobaea scandens) in summer and autumn.

For a cool conservatory, buy trays of spring bedding polyanthus, ‘UniversaPtype pansies in autumn or even colourful ornamental cabbages; and use them to add colour to your conservatory all winter long. Or renew the charming Victorian practice of displaying pots of camellias in a cool conservatory, where their waxy blooms are protected from weather damage.

Vertical gardening

If you have a substantial collection of plants, tiered displays use space most effectively. These can be old-fashioned wirework tiered plant stands, flat-backed or especially designed for corners; modern, modulartype staging; or shelves, spaced at least 30cm (lft) apart, put up against the solid back wall. Alternatively, fix circular wire brackets to the wall and insert small, plant-filled terracotta pots, perhaps changing them according to what is in flower. (Remember to turn plants displayed against a solid wall regularly, towards the source of light, to prevent their growing lopsided.) Hanging bas- kets also maximize display space. For more flexibility, you can dis-play plants on multi-shelved, small tables – glass, marble, scrubbed pine and wicker-topped styles are especially suitable – or even trolleys or old-fashioned sewing machine tables.

Container choice

There is a wide range of containers available for use in the conservatory – frostproof, glazed and unglazed, plain and decorated terracotta flowerpots and troughs, wooden tubs and stone urns. And hanging baskets suitable for outdoor use can also be used in the conservatory. In addition to all these, there are the more delicate glazed china, wicker, bamboo, metal and earthenware pots or decorative outer cachepots, de- signed for use in frost-free places. You can use containers to intro-duce bold splashes of colour or keep them modest, but try to coordinate them to emphasize the décor, whether outdoor garden style or sophisticated and fully furnished. Some styles – glazed Oriental pots, for example – come in several sizes of the same design, for instant coordination. If your conservatory display consists of mainly foliage plants, consider introducing a floral note with painted, printed or decoupage floral motifs on the containers.

Clever options

If you want a lush effect but, for whatever reason, have few plants in your conservatory, consider a bit of gentle cheating: foliage and/or floral patterned tablecloths, cushion covers or curtains. A. soft green carpet ‘lawn’, all-weather artificial turf tiles or per-haps an opulent, floral-patterned rug would add to the overall effect. On the walls, hang old-fashioned framed coloured prints or posters of flowers, or floral decorated tiles or plates.

Good quality fabric flowers and plants can bulk out living plants, especially in winter; one fun solution might be to insert fake flowers such as silk lilies into a non-flowering or foliage plant such as aspidistra, in the Victorian style of combining cut flowers and plants in a single display (pot-et-fleur). Brightly coloured dried flowers such as strawflowers or annual statice can be inserted directly into the potting compost, for an all-winter-long show.

Even if you have only a few plants, try to create pleasing combinations of flower and leaf shapes, sizes, textures and colours, much as you would com-pose a flower arrangement or garden border. This is especially important for small groups of plants displayed in a single, large basket or other container on a table.

Hanging baskets

Unless the hanging basket is your only plant feature, it is inevitably seen in the context of nearby planting, so try to coordinate the overall effect. Choosing the same combinations of plants and/or colours for nearby window boxes, flowerpots, tubs, planters or borders always looks good.


Off a white or pale blue floral colour scheme. With a pale stone wall, you could opr for an equally delicate, pale colour scheme or a vivid, intensely rich one. Even nearby window curtains might help you decide which flower colours to choose or avoid.

Another more practical aspect to consider is the amount of sun, shade and shelter the basket receives. A baking hot, dry setting, for example, would be ideal for succulents such as Livingstone daisy, trailing cacti or, as a permanent feature, sempervivums. In semi-shade and shelter, ferns would be ideal, or some of the shade-tolerant, flowering bedding plants such as wax begonia, ageratum or dwarf tobacco plant.

Unusual plants A hanging basket filled with herbs makes a pretty, practical display, especially near the kitchen. In a sunny spot, use plain, variegated or coloured-leaved forms of thyme, sage and/or basil, perhaps with a central feature of trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’). In light shade, use parsley, chives and plain or variegated forms of mint.

Compact varieties of fruit and vegetables, especially those bred for patio growing, such as tiny tomatoes, dwarf runner beans or strawberries, can make an unusual hanging basket display.

House plants and conservatory plants can grace the garden from late spring through autumn – and all-year-round in mild climates. As well as enhancing the garden, the plants benefit from the exposure to fresh air, rain and natural light.

Those planted in hanging baskets can simply be suspended from a suitable hook outdoors. House plants kept in ordinary flowerpots can be suspended on wires or in net, mesh or macrame bags, children’s beach buckets or even wire lettuce shakers.

Instant ivy shapes

Train ivy house plants over simple, boldly shaped frames, for instant elegance.

I n the garden, self-clinging ivy (Hedera helix) clambers up walls, fences and old trees of its own accord. For a container display, however, ivy’s long, lanky-stems call for a different approach and some support is usually needed. Instead of bamboo canes, why not use supports inspired by a pack of cards, in heart, club, spade and diamond shapes?

You can buy ready-shaped supports from larger garden centres or make loops or personalized supports, such as your initials, from strong but pliable plastic-coated wire, available from garden centres. Give your ivy the best start by using a nutrient-rich, loam-based potting compost, and water and feed regularly in the growing season. Once the frame is fully covered, simply snip off the tips that continue to grow.

There are dozens of ivy varieties from which to choose but small-leaved types tend to look best, especially on a small frame. Variegated ivies can be stunning, but need good light to retain their colour contrast. Dark green vari-eties tolerate poorer light and all varieties like a cool room with plenty of ventilation. For a display that looks good from all angles turn the pot from time to time so that all growth has an even share of the light.

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