Bringing the garden into your conservatory
A conservatory usually falls into one of 3 usage categories. The first is that it is a largely glazed extension of the living area and the second is the garden conservatory which is an extension of the garden indoors. The third takes both aspects in that it is a both utilized as a living space and an area to grow plants. The design of each of these conservatories requires different thinking and this article looks at the garden conservatory and dual use conservatories.
Planning a garden conservatory
Ideally you should have thought about the main use of your conservatory before it was purchased. A garden conservatory has requirements that are different from the usual sunroom. The design choices will vary depending on the type of plants you wish to grow for example minimum and maximum temperatures, humidity, lighting, etc. A simple lean-to conservatory is a good choice for growing plants as it is relatively low cost (though much more than a reasonable greenhouse) and gets a good amount of light. If your main priority is just growing plants you may want to think hard about whether you need a conservatory and instead would be better suited buying a greenhouse.
Garden Conservatory or Greenhouse?
What are some of the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between the two
- Good insulation - Better regulated temperature during the evenings and Winter months.
- Lower heating cost - Improved insulation and proximity to house mean that lower cost per kWh heating means are available.
- Living Space - A conservatory can be used as a living space as well, depending on the environment required for growing the plants you desire - the two may not be compatible.
- Usually quite a bit more expensive
- Less sunlight available due to studier framework on the conservatory.
- Position - Less flexible placement as they are attached to the house, usually near the patio doors. A greenhouse can be put virtually anywhere in the garden to maximize sunlight.
- Pest control harder - Harsher means of pest/disease control can be used in the exterior location of a green house.
Choosing the Right Location
A garden conservatory location is fixed to an extent by being connected to the property. Chances are it will be in your back garden near the patio doors. This will limit the location choice somewhat! Ideally you should choose the location of a garden conservatory for the best light but all locations can work.
- North Facing - Not the end of the world as it can encourage good foliage growth if the right types of shade tolerant plants are chosen. If you have to build a North facing conservatory and wish to grow plants in it then try and extend the conservatory away from the house as much as possible to maximize any light it will get.
- South Facing - These will get very hot during the summer months and will need special attention to excellent ventilation and some form of adjustable shade.
- East Facing - These will get the sun in the early morning so make great garden conservatories and breakfast rooms. Downside is that they are shaded in the evening which may be the time you will wish to do any plant maintenance.
- West Facing - Perhaps the best choice of orientation. It gets the sun in the evening but avoids much of the peak sunshine. The evening sun means it is a nice place to spend time in after work in the summer and can also make a good dining room.
Choice of Flooring
As it is likely that compost and water will be spilled on the floor, the choice of flooring for a garden conservatory is more likely to be stone flagging or tiles than carpet. Good hardwood floors are also suitable as are many of the special water proof flooring solutions that are available for kitchens such as Karndean.
Conservatory Design for Winter
In the winter months the plants you house will need protecting and whilst the conservatory insulation will help with retaining heat, it is likely you will need some form of conservatory heating. At a minimum you must ensure that the temperature does not drop below freezing and usually need to keep it above 5C. Most conservatories have an extension of the central heating system (radiator or underfloor). A potential problem for this is that many people (wisely to save money) have their central heating off during the night. Therefore, you may need a dedicated system to regulate the temperature in the conservatory perhaps just a frost protecting back-up for the very cold nights.
Conservatory Design for Summer
During the summer months the problem is keeping the conservatory below a certain temperature and preventing scorching of plants.
A garden conservatory needs lots and lots of ventilation. Ideally full length opening windows, double doors and some form of roof vent. With roof vents you need to be careful in windy locations. The ideal ventilation set up would have cool air coming in at a low level and hot air being vented out the roof.
A good alternative to a roof vent is an electric extractor fan which could, for example, come on if the temperature gets too high.
You have to get the balance right between enough sunlight to grow plants strongly and too much which will scorch the foliage. Conservatory blinds can help in this matter, though they shouldn't be down all day on a hot day as the plants need sunlight. Maybe just during the peak sun periods of 11am - 3pm. Use your own judgement though on the day.
General Climate Issues
Tends to go to extremes of either very high humidity or the air is too dry. In order to regulate the humidity you need
- Good ventilation - to reduce humidity
- A water source - For example a small indoor water fountain or trays filled with gravel and water which will help raise humidity. Another way is to spray the room with mist first thing in the morning but be careful of slippery floors!
As previously mentioned definitely need either interior or exterior conservatory blinds to control the amount of sunlight the plants receive to prevent scorching of the foliage.
To prevent some of the climate problems it is possible to use the conservatory as a warm, safe haven from the Winter weather and during the hotter times of the year move many of the plants outside again. Use your own judgement on the weather as to when it is safe to do this.
Where to Grow the Plants in a Conservatory?
Similar options to that of a greenhouse.
These for the most part permanent fixtures and if you have them it will cost a bit to replace them with flooring. You also have to be careful of the damp course and drainage could be an issue.
A better choice for a conservatory though semi-permanent if made of brick. These allow good drainage and can raise the plant height above any dwarf wall so that they get better sunlight.
This bench type structure is commonly used in greenhouses for trays of plants and containers. They can be wooden or metal structure and can be moved about or removed if chosen.
These can be attached to any walls.
Large containers were the traditional way of housing citrus trees in orangeries. Modern plastic or pot ones can (with some difficulty if they are large) be moved inside during the winter months and outside during the summer.
A conservatory with a dwarf wall will usually have a wide window sill on which smaller plants in pots or trays could be placed.
Garden Conservatory Furniture
This will need to put up with any spills of compost or water on them so perhaps harder wearing than normal living room or conservatory furniture. Due to its use it is likely that something similar to patio furniture would suit the feel of the indoor garden.
Watering Conservatory Plants
Options range from a simple watering can to a fully automated system. More important than the actual method of watering is when and with what you water. It is desirable to use rain water as it has the right pH. Tap water, especially in hard water areas can cause a lime scale build up in the plants soil and many plants suited to conservatory life (e.g. citrus trees) do not like alkaline soil. You could install a water softener but its cheaper to capture and store rain water for later use. Its best to water the plants early in the morning as it will reduce the risk of root rot or mould/fungi growing overnight. It's also best to water them occasionally - definitely not little and often. Ideally water well, then leave until the compost is dry and then water again. To avoid shocking the plants with a change in conditions avoid watering them with cold water. If possible fill up the watering can and leave in the conservatory so that the water is at room temperature when you use it.
These are best controlled by keeping the conditions right in your conservatory. So not too hot or cold, humid or dry and the plants well fed and watered correctly. At signs of any problems isolate the plant and deal with it. If the weather is ok, take it outside to treat it with a proprietary spray to maximize the ventilation. Inspect any new plants you buy for signs of pests before putting them in the conservatory.
Types of Garden Conservatory plants
How long have you got? Pick up a good gardening book or go down your garden centre and have a browse through the indoor plant selection. Common choices include citrus trees, grapes, various types of orchid and true heat lovers like cacti.
Garden Conservatory Summary
A garden conservatory requires some thought to go into its design and location in order to deal with the special requirements certain types of plant will need. If you do this initial planning you can have an ideal environment for all sorts of common and not so common plants in your own home.