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Create a winter room of blooms; Chase away the season's chills by planning your own private heaven, says JANET WHEATCROFT.

Byline: Janet Wheatcroft

EVERY time I go to visit my friend Mike in chilly Durham, I come back consumed with envy. The bottom line is that he's got a conservatory and I have not.

It's only a small pine and glass extension, nothing at all special. But there's not an inch of wasted space. All winter long it's packed with colour and scent.

It opens off his kitchen, so it's the perfect antidote to the winter blues that always seem to strike hardest when there's a load of tatties to peel, or a muddy floor to be washed.

When winter gloom starts to get me down, I start to dream about having a conservatory of my very own and of all the wonderful plants I would grow in it.

The high point of conservatory gardening came in Victorian times. Heating and labour were cheap, so there were practically no limits on what could be grown in conservatories.

The Kibble Palace at Glasgow Botanic Gardens is one of the grandest conservatories to survive from this period. The prosperous middle-classes were less ambitious, adding smaller conservatories to their solid stone houses. Occasionally, these lovely structures have survived, complete with cast-iron grilles for underfloor heating, tiled floors and elegant roof finials.

I'd be content with something much less grand. A simple lean-to garden room would suit me nicely. But there's one idea I would definitely pinch from the Victorians.

They often called their conservatories "winter-gardens" and planted them up to bring colour and scent into those smoggy and smoky winters.

And that's what I long for - a sensual indoor garden to lift the spirits and feed the senses when all is gloomy, dripping and brown outside.

I've spent many hours planning for the plants that I would grow in my fantasy winter garden. It wouldn't be heated - much too expensive, but just kept frost-free with borrowed heat from the house. The house wall itself is a natural spot for a couple of climbers and one would certainly have to be a heavenly-scented white jasmine.

Most are spring or summer-flowering, so I'd plump for the incomparable Jasminum abyssinicum, from Ethiopia. It's very floriferous with swags of white flowers opening from pink buds.

It performs well under glass, flowers from January through to March and, best of all, it's one of the heaviest scented of all the jasmines.

Then there's a fabulous twining plant that I've longed to grow ever since I started gardening. It's Lapageria rosea from Chile, an evergreen climber, whose handsome leaves look rather like a camellia. But when it flowers it's in a different league. Long waxy funnels of clear pink, hang heavily from the plant from autumn into winter. It's a real star and a cold conservatory provides the perfect conditions.

Because I love blue flowers, I'd try to squeeze in that old Victorian favourite, plumbago. It flowers reliably all winter long and will tolerate quite cold conditions, so an unheated glasshouse is ideal.

It might make a beautiful contrast scrambling through the jasmine, mingling sprays of blue and white flowers together.

Lots of the plants that have done sterling service in the garden throughout the summer will continue their display if brought under cover.

The big hybrid abutilons are showy and cheerful with their vine-shaped leaves and glossy bell-like flowers. Some of the best were raised in the nineteenth century, but have never been bettered for flower-power.

'Canary Bird' is pale lemon and will go on flowering until well after Christmas. 'Nabob' is an exciting lacquer red and 'Kentish Belle' has narrower yellow flowers opening out from dazzling scarlet calyxes.

The Brugmansias (daturas) will also go on with the display they started outside in late summer. Their huge pagoda-shaped flowers have earned them the name of 'angels' trumpets'.

Sometimes they seem almost too exotic when grown outside, but their over-the-top displays are just right for a conservatory.

No winter conservatory would be complete without a collection of citrus. Top choice would be a lemon, like 'Meyer's Hardy' that could overwinter inside and then stand out on the patio for summer. All citrus have beautiful shiny evergreen leaves and bear fruit and flowers at the same time.

The waxy, white blooms are starry and exotically scented, while the bright hanging fruits give a real Mediterranean atmosphere. If space is a problem, the little calamondine oranges that are sold as houseplants would give that citrus glamour without using too much space.

Finally, I would have at least one tender rhododendron. I'm not the world's greatest rhodo fan, but these beauties are irresistible.

Best is 'Countess of Haddington' with great frilled trumpet flowers of white touched with delicate pink. It's free-flowering and easy to grow in the protection of a cold glasshouse. Above all, the scent is dreamy, rich and heady like lily-of-the-valley. Even more fragrant, though smaller-flowered, is the dainty Rhododendron 'Fragrantissimum'.

If you've only room for one tender plant, in an unheated porch, for instance, one of these delectable rhododendrons is the one to go for. Flowering in early spring, they're a great start.

For the lushest effect I'd grow all these woody tender plants as standards, keeping the trunks bare to allow lower-growing plants to hide their pots. I'd pack in as many cyclamen, indoor azaleas, winter cherries and begonias as I could.

There would be bowls of scented narcissi and hyacinths and huge trumpets of hippeastrum (amaryllis) to dazzle my eyes. Finally, there would be an old, but comfortable, basket chair to bask in to drink in the sights and scents of my winter garden. Pure heaven.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 4, 2000
Previous Article:DOWN TO EARTH: A gardener's notebook.
Next Article:GARDENERS' Q&A.

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