There’s nothing like a project to kick-start the New Year. My garage, built 10 years ago by my younger son Max to house his beloved scratch-built beach buggy, and then taken over by his brother Jacques to pimp up his Audi TT, is suddenly empty.
Hallelujah, at last they have garages of their own. Quickly, before it becomes a repository for a shedload of vinyl or home to someone’s collection of Nineties shoes, I’ve decided to turn the space into what my mother used to call a sunroom.
Hers was not quite a greenhouse or a conservatory: she would rest in her sunroom in a bower of plumbago and bougainvillea and drink tea all afternoon. More energetically, I need somewhere to overwinter tender plants, force bulbs, dry flowers or just hang out on cooler days, and I have made resolutions to propagate my own plants.
I can no longer blame profligate plant purchases on testing what will grow on my yellow clay that floods in winter and bakes in summer. I need space to major on what will proliferate.
So, enter son Jacques in carpenter mode, slumming it a little: his projects usually require more craftsmanship. But he replaces the Onduline roofing sheets on the sunny side of the roof with see-through corrugated plastic, clads the walls with fibreboard, installs a French window in place of the side door and builds me a scaffold board work surface – oh the joy of potting upright, while undercover. I colour-wash the walls pale yellow, paint the woodwork with my usual purply-grey (from Mythic paints), and roller the floor with navy concrete paint.
Shelving arrives courtesy of John Ruler with a collection of ancient Dexion units (I could have used modern Caverswall metal and slatted wood staging from The Greenhouse People and I get to work displaying my pans of fleshy succulents like echeveria, pachyphytum and graptoveria that wouldn’t reliably survive the first frosts. My collection of scented geraniums will appreciate somewhere safe and light to overwinter along with my cuttings of friends’ varieties.
Tender perennials like salvias and plectranthus need shelter and care to thrive, and houseguests will be relieved they no longer have to share the spare room with umpteen pots of cymbidium orchids.
I’ll store and force bulbs on the lower shelves and care for my large pot of amaryllis ‘Evergreen’ – a sprightly, spiky variety bought from Pheasant Acre Plants at Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair, now waiting in the wings before it brightens the kitchen in gloomy February.
I’ll hang bunches of flowers and seed heads to dry: I love dried flowers, and I need somewhere safe to store homemade Christmas decorations to perform again next year.
The two elements to successful growing under glass, heating and ventilation, need constant balance. Too much heat can result in condensation that will rot plants and moulder the contents of the room, so I’ve bought a Simplicity 3kW fan heater with a thermostat that comes on if the temperature drops below freezing. I’ll also turn on the fan if the room gets too hot – unlikely with the draughts that filter through the gap between roof and walls.
The light in here is soft and flattering, it’s always warmer than the garden and I can’t wait for the season to begin. In my dreams, I listen to my radio, potter and pot, take cuttings and sow, then read and relax on my slatted daybed, and may even open the odd pop-up plant shop. We shall see.
Follow my progress @francinehens
My garage is 9ft x 12ft. Similar-sized off the peg structures include:
- The Westminster Greenhouse in Western red cedar by Alton, £6,980, with toughened glass (altongreenhouses.co.uk).
- Sherwood Range insulated garden rooms with flat roof, shiplap cladding and double doors, £6,639.99 (waltons.co.uk).
- The Crane Summerhouse in Scandinavian redwood painted in National Trust colours, £13,999 (johnlewis.plc).
- The Grand Grow and Store from Gabriel Ash (12ft x any length) is half shed/half greenhouse in red cedar. Price on application (gabrielash.com).
Bring tender plants inside
- Before bringing tender plants undercover, cut back leggy growth, check compost for pests, especially fat white vine weevil grubs, repot if necessary and water well. Take cuttings as a precaution.
- Tender salvias need shelter in a cool but dry airy spot. They’ll keep on flowering. Remove any leaves that fall to prevent mould and keep soil surface tidy.
- Plectranthus plants may need trimming after a long summer. Keep them out of sunlight and only water when compost is fully dry.
- Coleus can be overwintered as long as the temperature doesn’t fall below 5C. They can also be cut right back and kept under the staging or treated as houseplants.
- Scented geraniums need a cool sunny spot. Water sparingly when needed. Take cuttings in water.
- Succulents: most of my collection spends the whole winter in my porch without being watered. Those in bigger pans and containers are kept undercover in the garage, dry and cool in a light position.
- Cymbidium orchids bloom during the winter. I like mine to flower late in February, so bring them undercover in December away from frosts and rain, then into the house in late January to help them into bloom.