Taking advantage of warmer winters in the garden

As a child, I always used to go and stay with Aunt Vicky on Sark. I have some wonderful memories of that magical island including having tea with the Dame (Sybil Hathaway), but I mustn?t get side tracked. Having always been fascinated by plants I have long been aware of Echium pininana, a dramatically beautiful biennial, native to the Canary Islands with tall, elegant spires of blue flowers beloved by bumblebees. It has almost become a weed in the Channel Islands, but it is also a most welcome addition to any garden so long as you can get it through the intervening winter, that is.

I was only thinking the other day how complacent I had become over recent mild winters, and the fact that I have got away with blue murder in recent years. I am ashamed to admit that my roll of protective horticultural fleece is covered in spiders? webs. My friend David Bellamy (we are both patrons of Southport Flower Show) tells me there?s a lot of nonsense talked about global warming. He says that climate change, which is cyclical, is one thing, and that global warming, caused by human pollution, is another. Back to Echium pininana.

I?ve grown it in the most sheltered part of the garden, in the company of Melianthus major, which hails from South Africa. For shelter, I have placed them in front of a fence, painted black. This colour choice acts as an excellent foil and does, as I had hoped, successfully trap the heat of the sun, retaining some warmth after nightfall. Despite the fact that we?ve experienced a series of quite nasty frosts tail-to-tail this winter here in Oxfordshire, there is surprisingly little sign of frost scorch on the echium?s lower leaves. But those that have self-seeded by the bonfire in the field are not faring as well.

My bonfire site and goodness, how I love a bonfire is positioned just over a low stone wall in the field. As well as seedlings of Echium pininana there is also a healthy army of teasels and Onopordon acanthium, the tall growing ?Scotch thistle? with silver stem and leaf, all marching into the field. Next year?s hay harvest is certainly going to be interesting.

Now to indoors. My darling old mum died seven years ago, and with the money she left me, I had a conservatory built. There are several important things to remember when designing a conservatory. First, do create planting pockets in the floor on the edge of the building so that climbing plants can grow to full maturity. Given a generous root run, they grow faster and larger, and need watering far less than those planted in containers.

I have chosen Plumbago capensis for its blue flowers and the fact that it never succumbs to pests or diseases, and Bougainvillea Scarlett O?Hara for her dazzlingly red flowers. Both have now covered the whole of the ceiling, and together they lend a jungle like ambience even on the greyest day in mid winter.

Incorporate easily opened vents on the highest part of the building to enable you to release excess heat, and insects, and a ?propellor? fan to cool you and the plants, and to keep the air circulating on the hottest days. Erect blinds on the side windows to prevent sunburn on plants laid along the shelf under windows (Tania chose plain ecru cloth blinds).

Have a water butt fed by a down pipe with an overflow, to ensure you have water at room temperature to give to plants in winter.Install under-floor heating which effectively and equally distributes the heat rather than having hot radiator zones which plants find uncomfortably desiccating. The floor should also be paved, so that it can be doused with water to create humidity.

Perhaps my favourite plant in the conservatory is a succulent from Mexico called Sedum morganianum which, if placed on a tall, narrow stand, will cascade down to the floor. For me, plants always have a layer of extra interest if they have a story to tell. In this case, my sedum grew from a cutting that somehow found itself in my pocket, its parent being in the garden of a house in the Hollywood Hills that used to belong to Elizabeth Taylor. It therefore seemed appropriate that it should have its own pair of sunglasses.

Next week, In My Garden comes from the Welsh Borders where David Wheeler has a new take on rose pruning and recalls inspiration from an Italian garden he visited this year.