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Conservatories: Getting the better of winter

A conservatory can add a whole new dimension to your property, says Cherry Maslen, they can either add a room to your house or provide your own tropical-garden heaven by – Cherry Maslen

In our climate we dream of a room bathed in sunshine, where we can sit in the warmth on chilly days and have a full view of the garden without venturing outside.

Even better is having the perfect spot for watching the sunset with a gin and tonic in the evening. No wonder conservatories are such big sellers in this country, where for a fraction of the cost of an extension you can have a whole extra room, which can be a dining room, playroom, second sitting room, kitchen extension, study, or, to stick to the original idea, a room to relax in with wicker furniture and exotic plants that you couldn’t hope to grow outside. Many people whose homes were built without a separate dining room find a conservatory an economical way of getting one, with the added bonus of dining under the stars. I even know a violinist who is planning to have a conservatory built so that she can use it to give violin lessons without disturbing the rest of her household. But however you want to use your conservatory, before you pick up the phone and order one, there are a few things to consider to make sure you really do get a room you will use all year round, and not one that becomes a stifling oven in the summer or an abandoned, chilly outpost in the winter.

Choosing the Right Style
There are lots of alternative designs, from simple ‘lean-to’ arrangements to elaborate constructions with L-shapes or turrets. Among the most fashionable are double-height conservatories that create a lofty atrium, great if you want to grow a tall olive or banana tree. You can also now have whole glass walls that will fold back or slide away, which you may have seen in some trendy cafés, so that the room really can be an extension of the garden. The best thing to do if you have internet access is to browse through the websites of several conservatory manufacturers to get an idea of styles, materials, and prices.

Heat up and cool down. Even if your conservatory is south facing, it will need proper heating if you want to use it as an extra room all winter, rather than a glorified greenhouse just for plants. Conversely, a south-facing conservatory in the summer is likely to get unbearably hot unless you have some way of cooling it down. It is better to position a conservatory on an east or west wall, but if a south wall is your only option, you may want to think about having a sunroom with a tiled roof to keep it from overheating. Make sure there are plenty of windows you can open easily both to cool it down, and for ventilation to stop the room getting too steamy if you have lots of plants. You can have an air-conditioning unit incorporated in a conservatory design, or blinds specially manufactured for conservatories, or a ceiling fan, which looks particularly stylish with Edwardian or Victorian-style conservatories (look at www.coolandwarm.com for inspiration). Some conservatory manufacturers use a special type of glass designed for the British climate, with a coating that cuts down the intensity of solar heat, while at the same time retaining warmth from heaters in the winter. Others offer a ventilation system which keeps air circulating all the time to prevent overheating.

Do’s and Don’ts
The nitty gritty: do you need planning permission?
Always check with your local council before going ahead as there are different rules for different types of houses.
A general guideline is:
*For detached houses, your conservatory can usually be 15 per cent of the cubic area of the house before you need planning permission, to a maximum of 70 cubic metres.
*For terraced houses this is reduced to 10 per cent or 50 cubic metres.
*Your frame can be either hardwood or uPVC; most people choose the latter as it is cheaper and needs less maintenance.

Choosing Furniture
Be prepared for mess – the more plants you have in your conservatory the more bits of foliage you will be sweeping up. The kind of patio furniture you can wipe down might be your best bet if you have a lot of overhanging plants, particularly grapevines. Hard-wearing cane furniture with a gloss finish will be easier to clean than matt. You will find a section on furniture on many of the conservatory manufacturers’ websites.

Best conservatory plants
A common mistake people make are to assume any houseplant will be happy in a conservatory. Often the opposite is the case: the intense sunlight they get in the summer will kill off many plants, so choose heat and sun-loving species like those mentioned below. Olive, lemon and orange trees look wonderful in a conservatory in a stylish pot or square planter, providing an exotic Mediterranean touch and the fun of adding to the culinary delights of your kitchen.

Olive trees, with their attractively gnarled stems, can be grown outside in the summer in a sheltered, sunny spot, but need to be in a conservatory for the rest of the year. Two of the best to try are El Greco, which is quite compact and Sativa, which has lovely foliage and white-scented flowers. When planting the olive tree in its pot, put some gravel in the bottom for drainage, use John Innes No. 2 compost and give the root plenty of water, ideally covering the compost with a pebble mulch. Don’t position it too close to a radiator or in a draught, and make sure plenty of light gets to the plant, to enable it to produce autumn fruit, by pruning overcrowded branches from the centre.

Lemon, lime and orange trees will all thrive in conservatories and produce fruit and flowers. The lemon variety Quatre Saisons will give you flowers several times a year if it’s happy. Both the calamondin orange tree and the scented-leaved Tahiti lime are easy to grow and should provide you with fruit before too long, or try the willow-leaf mandarin orange, which is tangy with fragrant peel. If you like chillies, the plants are small and attractive and you can grow lots of varieties of different strengths, shapes and colours. For real holiday nostalgia, the fabulous colours of bougainvillea are lovely trailed in a conservatory, and once established will keep producing flowers for months right through a gloomy British autumn. Plant in a mixture of John Innes No. 2 compost and gravelly grit, which will help prevent moisture loss, and feed with liquid tomato feed when flowering.

Bougainvillea will also benefit a great deal from cutting back to encourage new growth when it has got going and looks healthy. If you have trouble finding bougainvillea in the garden centre, look in the houseplant section.

Another good conservatory plant for producing flowers in winter is mimosa, which will come out in small yellow blooms in late winter. A conservatory is also your chance for a touch of the exotic. Banana trees will grow in a conservatory and their lush foliage looks wonderfully tropical, or for exotic blooms look for passionflowers, particularly the slightly more hardy ones. If you fancy a nice big fern, the Tasmanian tree fern is ideal. They do like a lot of water when in strong sunlight, so in summer the best thing is to stand it in water, where it will grow quite happily. Don’t forget that anything grown in pots needs regular feeding if it is to look its best.

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