Alan Titchmarsh: Why I’ve decided that life’s too short to keep growing the same old things in my greenhouse

Alan Titchmarsh's greenhouse has become a bit predictable – but he's now got big plans to mix things up.

Goodness, I’m grateful for my greenhouse at this time of year, not only to raise seedlings, but also to offer a respite from the caprices of the weather.

However, I was brought up short by a visit from a friend last year. She had first visited my garden about 30 years ago. ‘Goodness,’ she said, ‘the greenhouse is exactly as I remember it.’ She wasn’t referring to the structure itself, but to the display of plants inside.

I felt a mite ashamed of myself. You see, I’ve always loved my mixture of bright-flowered zonal and scented-leafed pelargoniums, a few Streptocarpus (which, to be honest, I’ve never really been wild about; their leaves always look like cows’ tongues), my pots of autumn-flowering nerines in a range of colours from white through pink to vivid scarlet and a variety of pots of succulents.

I also confess to having a few old faithfuls: a twining tower of the wax plant, Hoya carnosa, in one corner, a family of several generations of spider plant (Chlorophytum), speckling the tiered staging and pots of this and that I seem to have inherited from… well, I can’t quite remember where.

This year, I must bite the bullet and have a bit of a life laundry in my greenhouse. We can all get into a rut if we’re not careful; growing the same plants year in, year out. It makes for reliability, but it can be stultifying and rob a garden – and a greenhouse, in particular – of excitement and novelty.

An old friend confessed that he would never grow any tomato variety other than Moneymaker. ‘I haven’t got many years left,’ he confessed, ‘and why would I risk growing a variety whose flavour I didn’t like?’ Well, yes, but gardening is about renewal, about anticipation. Surely it’s worth risking a little disappointment rather than being stuck in a rut.

I did add aeoniums in variety to my greenhouse mix last year, but this season, I really must try to do better, to make the effort to pore over the seed catalogues and the websites and to give in to the blandishments of the plant breeders and try other things. I have no doubt that the results will be variable, but then greenhouse life is about a journey, not just a destination.

And the old stagers? Perhaps I should plant a few of the pelargoniums in summer pots for the terrace and in gaps in beds and borders to free up space on the staging for new things that catch my eye and take my fancy.

The greenhouse in the gardens of Walmer Castle, Kent.

Not that everything needs to be new to me. What about the plants I cultivated even earlier in my gardening life, but which have since disappeared from my greenhouse? It’s ages since I grew bright-leaved Coleus (do I really have to call them Solenostemon now?) and the Prince of Wales feathers – Celosia – that were the first pot plants I watered when I began work in a nursery all those years ago.

I’d like a few pots of Salpiglossis with their trumpets that look, on close inspection, like segments of stained-glass windows and I must sow some Primula obconica for colour next winter and spring, as well as a few seeds of Grevillea robusta, that fern-leafed New Zealand native that makes a good ‘dot plant’ in a greenhouse.

I do grow a few tomatoes and cucumbers among my ornamental mix, but you’ll gather from this list that my greenhouse is a conservatory in all but name. When I worked at Kew, my landlady, who loved visiting the greenhouse known back then as Number Four, always referred to it as Bournemouth, because it reminded her of the flower-filled Winter Gardens there. That, I suppose, is the nature of my own ‘crystal palace’.

Should you ever find yourself visiting the gardens at Balmoral, Her Majesty’s Scottish home, you will discover a small greenhouse that has tiered staging from which flowers and foliage tumble in profusion. The image of that glorious sight has never left me and, although I can’t aspire to such regal grandeur, I can at least capture the spirit of it.

If the residents of your own greenhouse seem a little tired, forget about repotting and taking cuttings to replace like with like. There are hundreds and thousands of plants out there that you’ve never tried and life really is too short to stick with Moneymaker tomatoes and bright-red geraniums.