Dear Stella

Dear Stella

Dear Stella,

We recently renovated our home and decided to use our old windows and doors – they’re in the cottage pane style – to create a lovely greenhouse-cum-conservatory in the garden. I was wondering if you had any advice on what to do inside this exciting new space? It’s about 25m2 in size, with a bricked back wall and then windows and doors on three sides. The front-side has two sets of double doors that open up onto the garden. I hope you can visualize the whole set-up. Looking forward to some ideas! Many thanks, Rose B. (Parkhurst)

Dear Rose,

You’re aptly named, my dear, given your new greenhouse! Thank you for sharing your style dilemma with me, although it’s sounding more like an opportunity than a dilemma. And, what a lovely idea to use those windows and doors. I do enjoy repurposing old things – which is why I’ve recently trained my husband to do all the hoovering. 

My grandmother had a similar space to yours, and I have happy memories of playing there as a child and getting dirt under my fingernails. (Ah, the days before one had to worry about manicures.) But that’s about the extent of my experience of greenhouses-cum-conservatories – so I’ve enlisted the help of two friends-cum-experts, who are just the kind of pros to offer inspiration for something like this.

The first is the talented landscaper Martine De La Harpe, who was once a photographer and film director, and thus more than qualified to set the scene (and you’ll notice just how detailed her ‘shot list’ is, below). 

When I mentioned your dilemma, Martine’s first thought was that a lush conservatory is just the spot to stave off the harsh Highveld winters. In her mind’s eye, she imagined you settled in a comfy chair with a cappuccino. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the same, except with something cold and bubbly. Although I seem to have bit of a one-track mind’s eye when it comes to champagne. 

You will, in fact, notice that both my expert friends have suggested incorporating furniture, and particularly a seating area, into your greenhouse to enjoy the space to its fullest.

Martine notes that she’s partial to the relaxed style of Petersham Nurseries, but, for more (local) inspiration, she adores the pared-back elegance of the Greenhouse Restaurant at Babylonstoren. She’s rather generously shared her little black book of mostly Gauteng (and some national) suppliers with us here:

“Consider traditional or contemporary bistro or dining tables and chairs, from HOPE Garden Furniture; metal shelving racks, sandstone topped tables and water basins from Akzento, or contemporary powder-coated aluminium tables and chairs by Fermob. Search through the grassy field at Vasco Stone for aged concrete plinths, table bases, pots and sculpture. The spacious Plaisir du Jardin showroom boasts a wealth of all things stylish and French: Anduze urns, terracotta pots and the Fermob furniture mentioned earlier. Garden Bleu for metal shelves, hooks, obelisks, ornamental taps etc. Liebermann Pottery has a treasure trove of glazed pots from the East.” 

With all the hardware, accessories, furniture and French out the way, Martine also offered some advice regarding what to plant. She suggests you use larger pots to house ficus, citrus, fig trees or tree ferns and smaller planters for evergreen topiary, ferns, plectranthus, anthericum grass, orchids and philodendrons.

Marvellous Martine’s top planting tip is to choose a selection of plants that provides evergreen interest throughout the year and smaller flowering shrubs, perennials or annuals for colourful seasonal interest. 

Given the need to regulate the temperature, especially in the Highveld summer, Martine suggests you install blinds on some of the west or north-facing windows. You might also want to consider shade-cloth to cut off some of the sunlight, depending on where your greenhouse is positioned. Martine’s final go-to items include a tap and hosepipe for watering, and a basin and countertop for potting and flower arranging. 

But, as they used to say in those lengthy infomercials about lint removers, there’s more! I also found inspiration and advice from the delightful Tone Alexander. Tone runs an exciting garden design studio in Cape Town and has such incredible style.

Given my own style credentials, I often say that, when the pair of us are together, we make more of a two-Tone. Tone always laughs… or is that a grimace? It’s so hard to tell behind these facemasks. 

Tone’s philosophy is to bring something old into any space, whether indoors, outdoors or anywhere in between. He really loves vintage pieces of furniture and their “soul benefits”. Tone is certainly a big advocate of creating greenhouses that are not just for plants, but rather spaces that you can spend time and relax in.   

For his own greenhouse, he sourced all the doors and windows from Facebook Marketplace. On the floor, there are terrazzo tiles for the central inlay, while the rest is packed with mulch. He beams (I think) when he talks about the ever-evolving, eclectic space he’s created. Tone clearly loves spending time in it, both planting and enjoying the occasional gin and tonic (a man after my own liver). 

I do love Tone’s wall of shelves for both storage and display: it seems to be a vital ingredient to a successful greenhouse. His comfy armchair is also just perfect, whilst the bench doubles up as extra storage and seating space. 

Tone has gone a step further and installed a plug point. For hoovering, I assumed. But no, Tone uses it for his reading light at night as well as his kettle for large pots of tea whilst potting during the day. You can follow Tone’s own greenhouse journey on his Instagram page  

It seems, my lovely Rose, that the secret to a good greenhouse is to think of it less as an outdoor room, and more as an indoor space. Greenhouses are transitional, yes, and that makes them inherently interesting. But they should also feature some creature comforts among the snapdragons.  

Righty ho, my typing fingers are exhausted: this has been quite a detailed and lengthy reply. But I think it was worth it and I hope we’ve planted a seed of inspiration, which will grow into the Philodendron of Reality.

Yours, bathed in dappled sunlight amid the verdant topiary.



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