A conservatory or sunroom adds more than just a little extra space to a house and it’s scarcely surprising that they remain high on the list of Britain’s most popular home improvements. Planting them, however, is not always without its problems – and not just for ambitious gardeners trying to recreate Kew in miniature! Designing the scheme calls for an understanding of the physical and environmental constraints that the structure itself imposes, coupled with an awareness of colour and form and a bit of imagination. If you get to grips with a few basic ideas, it really isn’t particularly hard to come up with a striking display that will fit in perfectly with the way you use your conservatory.
Inevitably, many of the physical factors that affect greenhouse growing also apply to conservatories and sunrooms – issues such as heating, lighting, the need for shade and good ventilation, for instance – and can be dealt with in the same way. The real potential problems begin to occur with those aspects which are more specific. While a gardener generally chooses the site for a greenhouse in the optimum spot, where it will be best positioned for light and the growing conditions are as near perfect as possible, the location of a conservatory often hinges more on architectural criteria than horticultural ones. What looks best or is most convenient isn’t always ideal for plants, and the repercussions of being too hot, or too shady, will obviously have an impact on what can be healthily cultivated. This in itself can also further complicate other factors. A conservatory that stands in full sun will need particularly good ventilation; a shady one, calls for effective heating and so on.
Water and Humidity
Water relations are another area which can prove a bit of a challenge. Sunrooms and conservatories can tend to be rather too dry, particularly if they are located in sunny positions which demand the doors be left open to achieve proper ventilation and cooling. Under these conditions, on a hot summer’s day, water will be being lost by evaporation at an almost unbelievably rate. The traditional approach of damping down would undoubtedly work – but the resulting humidity might not mix terribly well with soft furnishings, books and electrical equipment, if that’s how you tend to use your conservatory!
Planning the Scheme
Unless you’re attempting to create the mini-jungle look, the most effective way of having plants in sunrooms and conservatories is in focal point groups, with each specimen ideally chosen for the contribution it makes to the overall effect. No matter how large your conservatory, space is limited, so careful selection really is at a premium and planning is a must.
The obvious aim is to select plants that work well with each other, but it isn’t always as easy to do in practice, though one trick that can often help is to mock up your display at the garden centre before finally making your purchase. Individually beautiful specimens with particularly striking leaves or strong colours which look fantastic on their own can sometimes clash horribly when they are brought into close proximity to each other. Armchair forward planning has a lot to recommend it, but in the end there’s nothing quite like actually seeing things for yourself and frequently many of the more blatant mistakes can be avoided this way.
Colour, Shape and Texture
One of the biggest positives about sunroom and conservatory planting is that there are so many plants available, in such a range of sizes, shapes and colours, that whatever “look” you’re hoping to produce, there’s plenty of choice to help you do it. Again, to avoid the sort of clash described, it’s essential to plan your groupings in advance and probably advisable to restrict the colour palette to one main theme, unless you’re deliberately setting out to make a particularly bold statement.
Large, architectural plants such as yuccas or palms make ideal centre-pieces for the group, allowing you to play with different heights and make use of both complementary and contrasting foliage forms to build the interest. If flowers are your passion – and nothing brightens a dull British winter quite like exotic blooms in a conservatory – there’s an enormous range of possible candidates. It’s worth remembering that working with leaf and stem texture can also add a major element to any display, particularly if you’re planting for year-round interest.
Whether you opt for large established sunroom “traditionals” such as the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) and rubber plant (Ficus elastica), or choose something smaller and less well known, such as the bizarre South African “living stones” (Lithops), a little imagination goes a long way.
In the end, it all comes down to what feels right and fits in with the way you live your life. After all, it’s your conservatory – the only person you’ve really got to please is yourself!