Your complete guide to planting a beautiful conservatory, according to the experts

conservatory plants
A complete guide to conservatory plantsshank_ali - Getty Images

Do you have a purpose-built conservatory or garden room, full of light, but looking a little bleak?

Not to worry, there are easy ways to turn whatever room you have into an extension of your house filled with greenery. From creating a tropical jungle-style retreat to designing a sleek living space highlighted with interesting foliage, this guide will help you enhance your conservatory with beautiful greenery...

conservatory plants
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Expert guide to conservatory plants

Make your space work for you

According to Lisa Rawley, owner of Fleur de Lys, a conservatory plant specialist, our desire to live alongside green plants harks back to those stunning Victorian greenhouses. “Glass buildings have traditionally been used to conserve rare species, and today, we all want to re-create the beauty and romance, the colour and fragrance, that amazing uplifting feeling you get as you breathe the warm, humid air of a greenhouse environment," she explains. "A conservatory, orangery, pool room, porch, or even a simple windowsill are all places we can use to explore our desire to ‘grow’."

Of course, there are some subtle differences between the environments that each of these buildings can offer. Ask yourself ‘what do I wish to achieve’, be it a modern statement, flowery retreat, or a green jungle. But also ask yourself honestly, how much light and shade, heat in winter, humidity, and attention you can offer your plants, where do you wish them to sit, and why.

You will need to research which direction your space faces, because that dictates the light, heat, and cold experienced inside by the plants.

Guy Barter, Chief Horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society says: “Conservatories work best if they don't overheat in summer, so south-facing orientation needs ample ventilation installed and also external blinds that can be rolled down in bright weather from April until September. North-facing conservatories are better in summer, but the plants must cope with low light levels in winter.”

But it’s not only about aspect, but also size. Guy adds: “When it comes to conservatories, volume is important - the bigger the volume the more equable the conditions, meaning fewer fluctuations or extremes of temperature, which in turn means happier plants.”

The best conservatory plants

If you are an absolute beginner, Richard Cheshire, the Patch plant doctor, suggests starting with plants that love the sunlight. He says: “Cacti and succulents are great for beginners as they'll love soaking up the sun and will only need occasional watering - and if they're really happy, they might even pop out a few flowers.”

Georgina Clay, Plants Manager for Monrovia, admits that it can take some trial and error to find the perfect plants for the conditions available in your space, but her top picks for conservatory plants are:

  • Ficus Tineke

  • Ficus Abidjian

  • Shangri-La Philodendron

  • Ginny Mini Monstera

  • Blue Star Fern

  • Raindrop Peperomia

  • Goldfinger™ Hardy Schefflera

  • Tectonic ™ Begonias

  • Jazzy Jewel ™ Hibiscus

Richard adds: "If you're looking for something a little more exotic (and colourful) for those special design highlights, citrus trees will bear more fruit when they're in a sunny spot and will be happy indoors or outside when it's warm. Fiddle leaf figs are a light-loving statement plant, just try to keep them at a stable temperature as they can be sensitive to change.

And, for something really special, a rare variegated monstera will do well in bright light but do make sure to keep it away from cold draughts in winter, as a drop in temperature can damage their delicate leaves.

Conservatory plants for beginners

Head Gardener at the Barbican Conservatory, Marta Lowcewicz recommends a variety of easy to care for plants. Including:

  • Monstera Deliciosa or Swiss cheese plant - "Which everyone seems to have at home including me."

  • Aspidistra Elatior or cast iron plant - "It’s called cast iron because you can’t kill it."

  • Philodendron Birkin

  • Chlorophytum Comosum or spider plant - "Those very classic, back to the 80s or 90s plants, which you almost cannot kill."

  • Syngonium Podophyllum

When it comes to the hardiest plant out there, there's only one choice for Marta - an aspidistra.

"You can put them in the shadiest, darkest corner. You can sometimes forget to water them you can sometimes overwater them but they will survive everything and anything," says Marta. "Lots of people don’t realise that they flower but they do…the flower will come from the soil. It looks like a brown crown."

conservatory plants
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Create your very own jungle

Lisa waxes lyrical about the conservatories she has worked on. "Every space I have seen over the last 30 years or so has been unique," she says. "Creating height, width, a waterfall of flowers and foliage are the challenges in some building, but there is always a way.”

The building type and design will suggest the group of plants you can grow and from where in the world they originate. For example, the climate and light levels in a garden room with solid roof and glazed sides (windows and doors) often really lends itself to the green tropical species loosely called ‘houseplants’. This is because these types of plant like to live beneath the canopy of a jungle which shades them from sunlight and experiences a similar temperature all year round, much like our homes too.

Lisa adds: "In my experience, there are distinct groups of ornamental plants like the Mediterranean species that relish a glass roof over them with no shade in the winter but a little shade in the brightest summer months. The South American plants also appreciate this climate but with a bit more shade in summer. The South African species require full sun all year round to do well."

How to care for conservatory plants

Now you’ve got your favourite plants, and it all looks good, how do you look after the plants to make sure it stays this way?

“With conservatories...we don’t have rain because we have a roof above our head so [plants] need constant tending and constant maintenance," says the Barbican's Marta. "[Plants] do need regular watering and feeding and checking for any pests and diseases.”

Georgina suggests that adding light makes nearly every space better for all plants, all year round. Simple tips such as keeping the windows clean, trimming any outdoor plants that might provide shade – unless you have a very sunny aspect, in which case that can be useful, and even adding mirrors and artificial light will help.

And while light is good, heat is not necessarily great. "Limit heat stress in summer or place the plants outside in the shade," Guy says.

In winter, when light levels are low, it is best to avoid overwatering. To keep the plants growing and supplied with plenty of nourishment, repot every two years using potting compost formulated for indoor plants, and liquid feed every fortnight when the plants are growing in summer. Also check for pests every day or so, to then introduce biological controls if they appear.

Richard sums up being a successful conservatory gardener with a very simple rule of thumb: “Even the hardiest plants tend to prefer a stable temperature, so keep them away from cold draughts or warm radiators in winter. Luckily, if you are comfortable in a room, your plant will be too."

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