Think of greenhouses and I immediately think of tomatoes. My first experience of a greenhouse was the wooden, well-loved construction belonging to a childhood friend’s dad. We used to walk along the maze of narrow paths, past fenced off plots with chickens and pigeon coops to get to this little sanctuary. We were about seven or eight and used to love spending time on the allotment, but it’s the greenhouse I remember most. The heat, humidity, the potent smell of tomato leaves and warm compost. I walked into my own greenhouse the other day and the same smell hit me, transporting me back all those years. For me my greenhouse is very much a working space, packed with seedlings in spring and tomatoes and chillies in summer, but what if you fancy something different?
On a recent visit to Bryan’s Ground, a garden in deepest Herefordshire, I fell in love with the greenhouse there. There wasn’t an edible in sight. Instead it was filled with colourful pelargoniums and succulents. In the centre was a raised pool with trickling water surrounded by beautifully patterned tiles like those you see in Moroccan riads. Terracotta pots planted with an interesting selection of succulents were positioned around the edge of the pool, and there were larger pots filled with lilies and the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica. It was like being in a Mediterranean courtyard.
Greenhouses like this are nothing new. The plant-mad Victorians would grow all many of new discoveries in their greenhouses. Some even had greenhouses designed for their specific plant obsession with special adaptations to accommodate the plant’s growing needs.
At Bryan’s Ground it was the tiny-flowered species pelargoniums and the sumptuous colours of the regal varieties that really caught my eye. As soon as I got home I put in an order for some of my own. They came as plug plants and are now happily growing in terracotta pots on the benches of my greenhouse. I’m still growing the tomatoes and chillies, but the pelargoniums are adding a pleasing splash of colour. They love heat and sunshine, so are perfect for the greenhouse. They are also very easy to propagate – always an attractive trait for gardeners.
The greenhouse at Bryan’s Ground got me thinking about what else you could grow if you wanted an ornamental greenhouse rather than an edible one. Of course, heat- and sun-loving succulents and cacti would be perfect candidates. Then there are the tender fuchsias and the fantastically exotic pitcher plants. If you’ve got the space you could grow annual climbers such as cobaea. Several years ago I saw an impressive specimen scrambling towards the roof of a greenhouse at Pashley Manor in Sussex. And what about thunbergia, rhodochiton or ipomoea? For fragrance plant up pots with freesia corms in spring and you’ll have delicious perfume during the summer, and if your greenhouse is in a shady spot embrace this by creating a fernery inside or have pots filled with the crazily-coloured and fabulously textured foliage of varieties of Begonia rex.