What to grow in a conservatory, from cacti and succulents to orchids and herbs

Conservatories are once again being used for cultivating and enjoying plants. Amelia Thorpe reports on a growing trend.

At last, conservatories are being used for their original purpose: to nurture hot-house flowers, trees, shrubs and climbers.

It’s a fact, endorsed by the RHS, that houseplants support our health, not least because they improve air quality by trapping and capturing pollutants. And, as conservatories are being used to grow plants, so are greenhouses now being used as spaces in which people can relax among their plants and ‘enjoy a cup of tea while listening to the rain patter or as an alfresco space in the summer months,’ says Tom Barry, managing director of Hartley Botanic.

How you choose to fill your conservatory is up to you. One approach is what Tom describes as the Victorian look, reminiscent of ‘an era in which plant-hunters filled their greenhouses with exotic plants, ferns and giant palms’, or you could attempt the artfully arranged displays created by indoor-plant specialists such as Conservatory Archives (www.conservatoryarchives.co.uk).

‘The benefit of growing under glass is that the temperature can be controlled through appropriate ventilation and heating,’ advises Emma Parkin, of Marston & Langinger Garden Rooms. Double glazing and low-emissivity glass will help provide year-round comfort, as will underfloor heating in the winter months. A constant temperature of about 19˚C–20˚C is ideal and there are many ways to maintain a steady micro-climate in a conservatory all year, such as blinds and ceiling fans.

Most plants will live happily in a conservatory, but the golden rule is to avoid anything that prefers shade. Emma recommends houseplants that favour bright sunlight, including cacti, succulents, African violets, pelargoniums, Cape primroses, begonias, Aloe vera, string of pearls (string of beads or Senecio rowleyanus), Ficus cyathistipula (African fig tree) and Sansevieria varieties.

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For splashes of colour, important in grey winter months, she says: ‘Invest in a Mandevilla, reliable for colour most of the year with vibrant-pink trumpets and deep green, shiny foliage.’

For those in search of the lush tropical look, palms, such as the feathery Kentia palm or Monstera, with its deeply cut, huge, green leaves, can be surprisingly easy to grow in a conservatory, requiring little more than regular watering and an occasional feed.

Evergreen lemon and orange trees are favourites for their large oval leaves and exotic scent. Orchids are also popular (try www.mcbeansorchids.com). ‘Grow pretty “sweet shop” colours in individual pots,’ suggests Tom, who is also keen on herbs, particularly non-hardy varieties from warmer climates, including the Mediterranean, such as basil. ‘Many herbs are ideal for growing in containers and can be kept close at hand for ease of picking, which allows you to appreciate the scent they release when touched.’

Anyone who’s enjoyed a candlelit dinner on a warm summer’s evening amid scented plants can testify to their magic. Stephanotis, jasmine and cyclamen are good choices for their delicate fragrance.

‘Keep an eye on the amount of water you give all your plants in the conservatory,’ advises Emma. ‘Over-watering does more damage in the colder months than you would think.’ Wipe leaves with a moist cloth to keep them free of dust.

One or two large plants can be used to create a sculptural focal point and a grouping of different-sized plants can create a softer look. Interior walls can be used for climbing plants, such as bougainvillea, a popular choice for its striking colour and because it flowers continuously during the summer. Shelving at different heights works well and is one of the best ways to show off the beauty of your plant collection.