If anyone had told me that when we moved I would have a conservatory, I would have assumed they meant one of those rather spiffy “extra room” affairs, with comfy chairs, possible even heating. We saw quite a few on property details as we started looking, and although I always thought it would be rather nice to have the extra space, to be able to curl up with a good book in a light and airy place with a view of the garden, I also wondered how many seed trays I would be able to fit in and whether I would feel OK about perhaps spilling water and compost on the floor. I worried about whether I would mind hanging up washing to dry in some of the quite posh-looking “sun rooms” we saw as we searched for our new home. And then we moved here.

We do have a conservatory, formed by bridging the gap between the garage and the office extension with polycarbonate roofing. The low roof to the main house meant they had to dig down to get enough head height to actually walk upright, so there is a weird step along the outside edge. Very useful for dumping tools etc..

Strange step to deal with levels in conservatory

It is not in the slightest bit posh, in fact it is rather scruffy, and I think TNG was concerned I would want to find the money to turn it into a classier space. He needn’t have worried. I love it. We keep overflow food in the garage on shelving, along with the extra fridge and freezer, and unlike in our last house, we get to walk to and from the garage under cover. Bliss. And there is a Belfast sink, chipped and housed in a rather scruffy cabinet, but perfect for washing hands, brushes, pots…

belfast Sink

Last summer, when we first moved in, we did use it to sit and enjoy the garden without boiling, but for most of our time here it has been the place where we put on and take off scruffy wet outdoor clothing, keep the boots, the (very sandy) folding chairs we take down to the beach to wave-watch. There is a small nod to civilisation, in the form of a bookcase – this house has very few flat wall areas that will take furniture, most either have slopping roof bits (it’s a dormer bungalow), windows, doors, radiators, or sometimes all of the above.

Bookcase in the conservatory

it’s big, scruffy, has a washable floor, a large table, and faces south. So of course I have taken it over to start the Great Seed Sowing Adventures of 2013.

My bid to take over the conservatory

You can probably see that I have a new and slightly guilt-inducing toy, in the shape of a large propogator. I already have a rather wonderful little windowsill propogator that has served me well these past few years, perfect for starting off tomatoes and chillies, a few ornamentals. However, one of the vagaries of this house is a strange lack of windowsills in most rooms, and because the propagator just gives an 8C lift to whatever the prevailing temperature happens to be, it is most suited to use indoors. When I realised how many plants it was going to take to get anywhere close to making a start on the front garden, even if I mostly used annuals, I started looking around for a propagator with a thermostatic control linked to a sensor that could be put in the soil/sand/whatever to control temperature. Something that would be usable in the conservatory early in the year but which would also work well in the wooden greenhouse, which has power. I was going to plump for a a heat mat of some sort, until I started thinking about watering. I don’t mind splashing water on the floor, but soaking the table all the time didn’t seem like a great plan, and I wasn’t too keen on stealing greenhouse staging from the small greenhouse and setting it up in the conservatory only to then have to move it out again just when the gardening year is getting really busy. I wound up with a large Vitopod. Not a cheap option, but very flexible, with lots of excellent reviews. It’s huge, capable of taking 12 half seed trays, and when I first assembled it I thought I had been really stupid, that I’d never use it enough to justify the expense.

Propagator full of seeds

It’s already nearly full, and I’ve still not finalised the order for seeds for the front garden yet, so I don’t think I need to worry about getting use out of it. Currently it houses chillies, tomatoes, sweet peppers, annuals that need a good long run to flower like cosmos, cleome, perennials that if given enough of an early start will flower this summer such as verbena bonariensis and echinacea purpurea. Some salad leaves and early peas and broad beans getting a head start complete the current set, and as things germinate there will be plenty of other things to take their place. The thing is, I never usually start seeds off this soon, as even if they germinate they tend to become week and leggy, and plants sown later grow more robustly and soon overtake their early siblings. So I am experimenting. The only reason I think some things might work is that I recovered a grow lamp that someone gave me years ago and that I have never reassembled and used. Some internet research, a new bulb and plug, and I appear to have my own mini sun – this thing is VERY bright…


There are already plenty of casualties as I play around with my new set-up. The early cabbage seedlings are looking very weak and weedy, I already lost the first sowing of Cosmos ‘Purity’ (over watering plus not enough light I think), and the lamp is still causing everything to turn towards it, so I need to find a way to diffuse the light a little. The other bit of experimentation involves what I am sowing in to. Some years ago, when we first lived on Anglesey and I was trying to grow a cutting garden, I answered a freecycle ad for plastic plant pots and got lots of those plus a large selection of peat-based jiffy planting pellets. I struggled with them first time around, finding it hard to get the watering right, but I am hoping that by using capillary matting I will be able to keep them most without being too sodden. This means more Heath Robinson-style messing about with seed trays, cardboard and capillary matting to make sure I still stand some chance of keeping the labels with the right pellets, but at least as each pellet germinates I can remove it immediately from the propagator and grow it on under the lamp, which also belts out a lot of heat. The pellets are old, and take ages to rehydrate, but so far seeds are germinating almost faster than I can deal with, I have to check the propagator morning and night. I am reluctantly impressed. I say reluctantly, because I would never buy peat-based pellets, and can’t really see me forking out for the coir ones, but I did get a large pack of coir jiffys with the propogator, so I should be able to do a side-by-side comparison. I’d be really interested to hear about anybody else’s experience of using Jiffy 7’s and getting any tips on getting the best from them.

First ornamental seedlings

The first echinacea and gaura seedlings are looking good, so fingers crossed I can stop them from following the cabbages into baby giraffe-like gangliness! If not, I’ll switch back to sowing my first seeds in early March on my birthday, but nothing ventured nothing gained, and it does feel good to be sowing in quantity again. Now I just have to start the rest of the tomatoes off and cull that seed list for the front garden…

46 thoughts on “When a conservatory isn’t

  1. Hi Janet,

    Good luck with the seeds! I need to get sowing the Cosmos/Tomatoes too. Think I’ll wait for the snow to leave us finally and hope it’s not as wet this year because most of my seeds last year were a failure because it took so long to get them out into the garden.
    When we (finally) move I’m looking for somewhere with a conservatory or space to build one and no doubt mine will serve the same purpose as yours! :D

    1. Hi Liz, I do hope you get to move soon, I know how frustrating it is just waiting for things to fall in to place, very unsettling. I don’t think I am expecting much success from this early sowing, if I am honest, though I live in hope, and should certainly learn more. But I do want lots of lovely cosmos to fill in the gaps there will be in the front garden, and can’t wait to be growing tomatoes again, I really missed them last year. I just wish it would stop raining, it seems never ending!

    1. I know! I could go seriously over board, though I was reading something recently that said citrus don’t like being in warmish conservatories over winter, so perhaps my dreams of home grown lemons for my G&Ts are destined to remain dreams…

  2. Loving that big propagator! I could spend hours in a room like that :) Oddly I’ve just bought a new windowsill seed tray which came with a load of jiffy’s. Never used them before so I’ve no idea what to expect either??

    1. Hi Anna, I guess we can learn about Jiffys together then! The propagator is a delight, I have high hopes for the plants it will help me raise.

  3. Ah, envy, envy. Would love a conservatory and would fill it with seed trays immediately! I used a few Jiffy 7s last year as they were on offer at the local Poundstretchers. I thought they were jolly good: all seeds germinated and potting on was a doddle as the seedlings stayed put. The resulting plants were very sturdy, even having been started off on a windowsill. Love the idea of starting your seed sowing on your birthday; mine’s late in March so perhaps I can copy this idea! You’ve reminded me that I want gaura and cosmos in the garden this year, I hope they’ll catch up as I don’t want to start sowing just yet.

    1. Hi Caro, since I never usually start cosmos off this early, I’m sure you will be fine, though I do hope for flowers a little earlier than September, which was when I kept having to wait for ‘Purity’ to strut her stuff. Encouraging that you had success with Jiffy7s, I think I shall be very happy with them once I have cracked the watering aspect.

  4. Now your conservatory looks the sort of room I’d give my eye teeth for Janet – a perfect halfway point between indoors and outdoors :) Great too if there is no need to worry about the odd spill. Hope that you have fun experimenting with your new propagator – it looks most impressive. I have used Jiffy 7s in the past but found that watering was a guessing game although the plants were not checked when moved on.

    1. Hi Anna, I know, it is the perfect staging post for anyone who loves being outdoors but lives somewhere that appears to be permanently wet! And I don’t have to feel guilty about the occasional spillage, which is good, since I am far from the tidiest of gardeners…

  5. A great space for doing your own thing without worrying too much about making a mess – a sort of cross between a potting shed, utility room cum garden room. Just what a gardening girl needs.

    1. Hi Elaine, that is exactly it, plus a lot of “boot room” – we have a large boots collection… I am a very lucky gardening girl, though I do need to remember to bring plenty of compost in BEFORE it starts to pour with yet rain again…

  6. A company called Burpee sells coir seed pellets dirt cheap over here. I use them instead of peat and they work really well. Your echinacea and verbena will self sow once they’re in the garden. You’ll have enough verbena to share with friends. I just started my seeds, too. I’m looking forward to seeing how well your propagator works. :)

    1. Hi, that is good to know, I will check out cheap sources of the pellets here then, they are certainly very easy to work with, at least for seed large enough to station sow. I am going to do a side-by-side comparison, peat with coir pellets, just out of curiousity. Happy sowing!

  7. Looks perfect to me. I was just thinking yesterday how I’d like to spend a few hours in a conservatory. I think I saw an article about a simple one in a magazine, and I thought how pleasant that would be. Looks like you have a great start on the growing season!

    1. It’s funny, I would never have advocated that we spend money creating one if we hadn’t inherited one, but now, I wouldn’t be without it, it is perfect for us.

  8. Looks a great set-up, Janet. I indulged in propagators from 2 wests and Elliot last year, I already had one heat tray but without a thermostat the controlled heat makes a huge difference. I think we also have to admit that what we spend on gardening is money spent on a beloved hobby, if you counted the cost of everything we would find that our vegetables were not so cheap as we think, but then we don’t have to drive to the shops to buy them so there is a difficult to quantify saving there. Anyway what I’ really saying is enjoy the propagators and don’ feel guilty for buying it. It will give you years of service. I also use my one without the thermostat for helping bread rise, so it is used a lot of the year. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, I love the idea of using a propagator to help bread rise! I worked out that just the bed that runs alongside the fence in our front garden is over 10m long. I like deep beds, so if I go for 2m, that’s 20m2. At around 3 perennials per square meter, that is a lot of plants, so I think the propagator will prove to be a great investment in the end, helping me indulge my passion without breaking the bank. It lessens the guilt! And you are right about the cost of home grown veg, even when you factor in things like not having to drive to buy them, I tend to look on it as a combination of healthy exercise and a way to eat veg that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, like freshly podded peas or large mounds of mange-tout. And at least I know where it has come from – I don’t know if you have read about the “beef lasagne is actually made of horse meat” scandal…

  9. I was very interested to read about your experiments with seed growing this year. A conservatory area is so useful, although, like you, I did initially think about mine as an area to relax in (I dreamt about easy chairs and lush pot plants). But it never happened – and mine has also been given over to gardening.

    1. Hi Wendy, sounds as if we are on the same wavelength! Though I may squeeze in a couple of deckchairs once the weather warms up and the conservatory is too hot for growing seedlings…

  10. Fantastic set up, you will certainly be able to grow all sorts of lovely plants in your new space. At the moment our frost free conservatory is full of pots of tulips, keeping them away from the mice and squirrels! Soon these will go outside and the space can then be used for seeds. I don’t want to start seeds off too soon, another couple of weeks will be soon enough here, but when I do, there might not be anywhere left for us to sit!

    1. Hi Pauline, I am having a lot of fun working out how best to use it. I fear it could easily become overly full, so probably just as well that we don’t appear to have a mouse or squirrel issue!

  11. Hi Janet – I was interested to read that you don’t normally sow this early as it is the same for me this year so it will be good to compare notes. I am so pleased that you love your in-between area for what it is – it seems to happily serve so many functions, and when the weather is as it has been it is such an asset to perform all these various tasks without going outside (unless you run out of compost, that is!). Pleased that you mentioned an early sowing of cosmos, as that’s something I could be doing too – thanks :)

    1. Hi Cathy, I left my first sowings in the propagator too long, so am trying again with my cabbages and cosmos ‘purity’. Good luck with you early sowing, will be good to swap notes later on.

      1. Yes, and I do realise that sowing and germination are only a small part of the process – they will still take a lot of nurturing, but at least I have made a start!

  12. What an incredibly useful space! I bet the estate agent didn’t come up with a description that captured the use you have put it too. It looks like the perfect halfway house for sowing seeds this early in the year, as well as being the ultimate gardeners hobby space. I will be interested to see how your experiments go. I am holding off until I can begin in my unheated greenhouse, but with yet more snow in the forecast I am not in a hurry. And the light is so poor. I really envy you that lamp!

    1. Hi Judith, you are right there, in fact the house details were really badly written. They described the downstairs bedroom with en suite wet room as the “sweet”, and this had been on the details for the two years the property had been on the market! We have kept the name as it makes us laugh… The lamp is wonderful, I think everything would fail without it, and it only cost me £9 for the bulb and I was all set. Very lucky.

  13. Our conservatory is fairly small so only tomatoes, cucumbers and chilli peppers get to enjoy its shelter.
    I must say that any attempt at growing citrus or tender climbing plants has resulted in way too many garden pests making the conservatory their home, especially aphids and red spider mites. Quite unbelievable how much sticky residue can suddenly appear on every surface. I have learned my lesson and now restrict the plants I bring in.
    Looks like you have lots of space and you must find the sink very handy.

    1. Eugh, yes, that would put me off too, all those critters and the stickiness. OK, strictly seedlings only I think! And yes, the sink is invaluable, though next rainy day I need to crawl under there and work out why it drains so slowly. Double eugh.

  14. I am interested to find you sowing so early. I have a heated greenhouse now (although frost free would be a more honest term). I have had such a poor experience since moving here of trying to sow early that I have sort of given up anything but tomatoes which just come inside and share the kitchen for quite a while. But I really need more in the cutting garden from an earlier point in the season. Mmmmm

    1. Hi Elizabeth, it is new for me, sowing so early. I think the only thing that might save all seedlings from terminal legginess is the growlamp, but watch this space… I have now got lots of foil-backed card around the shelving with the growlamp to try and encourage straight growth, plus make the most of the occasional sunshine, but like you I would love to have annuals flowering earlier than I normally manage for cutting.

  15. Greetings from Portland, Oregon,
    What a pleasure to discover your site! I love the conservatory and your detailed photos. Here in our equally rainy part of the world (the Pacific Northwest), I will wait another month to begin any starts in my greenhouse. I’ve learned the hard way watching promising seedlings drown in our long, cool springs. I am, however, able to keep a few Meyer lemon trees in a “cool” greenhouse, only covering them when we drop below freezing for a night or two. It’s one of the joys of life; going into the greenhouse on a chilly spring day, finding one ray of sun to sit in and breathing in deep the smell of lemon blossoms. Happy gardening and thank you for a great post. Susan (www.life-change-compost.com)

    1. Hi Susan, I remember Oregon, beautiful but very damp, from a visit many years ago on a business trip! Glad you found me, and thank you for leaving a comment. I am pinning my hopes on the fact that it is generally quite mild here compared to where I used to live, though it is the light levels that most concern me.

  16. What a delightful spot and I like that you recognized your need to have a spot that could get dirty. I sometimes feel like houses have become a bit too for show these days. It always scares me a bit when I see photos of peoples homes and they are so pristine. Makes me feel like I’m a terrible housekeeper and should learn to be more clean (but as a gardener clean is a word I know little of)

    1. Hi Marguerite, you are singing my song! When I was growing up there was a crowd of us kids who all used to play together. We were always in and out of one another’s houses, except Tony’s. The one time I did go inside, I was astounded – totally immaculate, soulless, and they still had the plastic wrappers on all the sofas and chairs to keep it all neat!! I am very definitely NOT that kind of person, and indeed our whole house has what I like to call a friendly slightly unruly feel, but which others would term untidy and not vacuumed and dusted as often as most would recommend. I’d rather spend my limited energy on gardening…

  17. I’m envious of that space. I think it’s perfect. Most of all I love the Belfast sink. I’d love one to wash pots and trays in. I don’t like using the kitchen sink so end up outside with a washing up bowl. Your propagator is enormous but I’ve already realised my greenhouse is too small for my ambitions. ;) Best to buy the biggest possible. I’m starting off some seeds today in my propagator. It would be nice to see some sun though, the light levels are so bad here because it’s so dull I do fear for the little plants I get to germinate.

    1. I know, time spent outdoors in the cold washing pots in cold water – yuck! The belfast sink is wonderful, and again, because it is scruffy rather than all posh and designer, it is comfy to use if that makes sense. As to greenhouse size, I love my 6′ x 6′ one dearly, and didn’t have room for a larger one in our old place, but they do seem to be one of those things where you are continually thinking up yet more uses and coming up against the size limitation. As you say, you do still have to be able to get inside! I bet if either of us had a large polytunnel we’d still run out of space. ‘Tis the nature of the beast…

  18. I love your conservatory! I am quite jealous, too. I have the hardest time just trying to find a spot for my muddy boots and basket of garden tools! I usually sow all my seeds outside, so to be able to start them off indoors would be a fun way to finish the winter season. Good luck with your seeds – they should do well with your “own mini sun”! :)

    1. I know, perfect isn’t it, though I do end up dumping things rather than putting them neatly away in the shed when it is raining, and then taking ages to get around to dealing with them when it stops raining… Thanks for the seedling good luck, they’ll need it, even with the mini sun – it is so cold and dull here at the moment I pity any seedling sticking its head up above compost level. Harsh world.

  19. Janet I have a growing station and the fluorescent lights I use are on a chain so I can move them up as the plants grow. I also have heat mats that are wonderful as I can spill water all over them. I found that the lights need to be close to the seedlings or they become leggy…I do have fun with my grow station and find I quickly run out of room…I will start sowing this weekend I hope…annual flowers…good luck with your seed starting.

    1. Oh, thank you Donna, my light is tied with cord but I could raise and lower it, I was worried about it being too close to the seedlings because it belts out quite a lot of heat too. Happy sowing – a time of hope!

  20. By the look of it I’d be happy in a space like rather than something ‘posh’.
    I start off very few seeds at home and can never really decide if I’m being lazy or sensible.
    As always a most enjoyable post to read, with plenty of good pictures. xx

    1. Hi Flighty, raising seeds at home is a surprisingly messy business, though these jiffy pellets make it easier, and it takes up loads of room! You get great results sowing direct, so why change? I mostly start the edibles off in the greenhouse to try and get them to slug-proof size before they go in the ground, it has been so wet and it gets so dispiriting losing everything as soon as it gets above soil level.

  21. I think every house should have such a place. What a wonderful spot to have where it doesn’t need to be neat and tidy. A wonderful spot to play in the dirt inside. What a large number of seedlings you have started. Wow. Spring is going to explode in your garden!

    1. I quite agree, every house should have somewhere like this! I’ve re-arranged it a little to fit more plants in and still be able to sit out there, which is wonderful when the sun is shining as the solar gain heats it up amazingly quickly. The first batch of seedlings are starting to put on their true leaves, and I am just filling the propagator up with the next lot. Time to clear out the greenhouse ready to receive them once the weather warms up a little!

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