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Bringing the garden indoors

By Andrew Fisher Tomlin. Despite the vagaries of the weather at this time of year many of us are lucky enough to be able to enjoy the garden by bringing the garden indoors...

I grow many different plants on my kitchen windowsill that gets loads of light from early on each day. I once was lucky enough to have a cactus house and still have the remnants of the collection - the rare stuff that I couldn't bring myself to give away - sitting on my windowsill. A customer of mine has the advantage of a shaded north-facing Kitchen windowsill and grows some amazing orchids that repeat flower all year round. But for the lucky few who have a conservatory there is an opportunity to really bring the garden indoors.

In our London climate a conservatory can be used to over-winter the more tender plants in the garden. It's a great place to bring in Agaves and succulents that could easily suffer in a wet and cold winter. But using a conservatory just for this purpose underestimates the potential for providing the warm, humid environment needed for tropical and sub-tropical plants.

The key element when planning conservatory planting is the aspect and temperature. Select plants that suit the aspect - conservatories can be costly to heat in winter and stiflingly hot in summer. But the high light levels can encourage intense colours in foliage and repeat flowering in many different plants. Fragrant flowers such as Jasminum polyanthum work especially well and a relative of mine grows great passion flowers on an unidentified variety that I've never seen outside but loves the inside.

The conditions of a cool, frost-free conservatory are ideal for a great display of flowers year-round. One of my favourite flowers is Plumbago Plumbago auriculata. I saw it first as a hedge in a side street of Marrakech where it was densely covered in pale blue flowers with a string evergreen foliage. Its an amazing colour flower but unfortunately doesn't survive a winter in this country if planted outside. The nearest we get to re-creating it outside is by using False Plumbago Ceratostigma plumbagnoides but with a conservatory you can create the frost-free environment it needs and have it flowering for most of the year. Team it with an under-planting of slipper flower Calceolaria arachnoidea or Australian Fuchsia Correa backhoseana "Dusky Bells" for a great display.

Many people love to create big tropical foliage displays and some quite ordinary plants will work well and require little maintenance. Use plants that are complementary to those outside the conservatory in the garden such as Vines that can grow over the walls. For a stunning and unexpected impact create a small raised pool where tender water lilies and other marginal plants will give you flowers in the quieter times when the outside garden is dormant.

You don't have to have a conservatory to create plant displays but always remember a few key elements when positioning your plants. Plants tolerate different light levels, some liking direct sunlight, some preferring filtered or indirect light. Kitchen and bathroom temperatures and humidity vary greatly so pick plants that can cope with the conditions. Make sure that the plant fits it's setting and is in proportion to the room. There are few plants that can cope with whatever you throw at them but some of the more common plants are popular for just that reason so don't knock the likes of Aspidistra, Sansevieria and Chlorophytum.

Whatever space you have cheer up your indoors and it'll remind you of the good things to come when the weather gets better and you can get outside again.

Jobs for the Winter

You can still relax a little now and plan for the Summer. But this is also the time for preparation and what better way to shed those excess Christmas pounds than by getting out in the garden and digging a new border.

  • Trees and shrubs - you can still do some pruning and cut back dead wood.
  • Lawns - there's not much you can do but remember to keep the lawn clear of leaves that can smother and kill the grass.
  • Ponds - keep ponds free of leaves and don't forget to feed fish with winter food - your local aquatics centre can help you choose the correct type.
  • Mulch - Mulch your borders and top dress plants in containers.
  • Borders - if you've got a patch in need of some major renovation, dig it over now, spread compost and let the frost break down the soil for you before Spring planting.
  • Tender plants - keep an eye on tender plants by protecting from frost damage by either bringing into the greenhouse or conservatory or covering with a fleece. This particularly applies to plants such as palms, tree ferns, olive trees and Agaves.

Andrew Fisher Tomlin