The greenhouse vs. the conservatory



I’ve always longed for a conservatory—maybe like this one (above). The one (recently rebuilt) Frank Lloyd Wright made for the Darwin Martin estate in Buffalo. You very rarely hear talk about conservatories these days, but the middle and upper middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were very fond of them. All trailing skirts, palm fronds, and clandestine flirtations.

Of course, often the idea of greenhouse and conservatory were combined; there were such things as “succession houses” where out-of-season fruits and flowers were raised. These would be the province of the staff gardener, where the actual conservatory (containing mainly such house plants as forced bulbs, orchids, and other tropicals) might receive the personal attention of the lady of the house.

In the world of twenty-first century gardening, one doesn’t hear much of conservatories. It’s all about lawns, perennials, annuals, and maintenance (high or low). Hardly anyone has this sort of middle area—not inside or outside—where you can just hang out, surrounded by greenery. I would, if I could, because this is exactly why I got into gardening. I like to hang out, surrounded by plants. One has to garden in order to achieve that, so I garden. But wouldn’t it be lovely to have a year-round area where one could hang out, surrounded by plants? The greenhouse is the closest most get to this these days, but a greenhouse is more about work, not recreation, and the products of a greenhouse generally end up in the garden, where a conservatory is a goal in of itself.


Traditional conservatory plants don’t get a lot of respect on this blog, so I won’t spend too much time discussing them, but you can see from the Martin House images which ones they are—the usual ferny, leafy tropicals, with orchids providing most of the floral display. This summer, after I’ve moved most of my “plant room” plants (jasmine, gardenia, banana, orange) outside, that’s what I’ll be left with. I’m thinking of buying a really comfortable chair so I can lounge/read in the plant room, maybe on a rainy day. It’s not a conservatory—too tiny for one thing—but it seems to call for something like that, where one can take advantage of the moist, plant-enhanced, air. Unlike the garden, what tasks there are in a conservatory are quickly finished, so you can enjoy it as a place more often. (In my garden, there’s generally something needing attention, even during a party, which is how my other blog got its name.)

This is probably why, of all the Ranters, I am the most favorably disposed toward indoor gardening. I like how the Victorians and Edwardians did it—there was always a place to hang out with plants.

Photos by Chastity Taber.

Addendum: There is a ton of information about the Darwin Martin complex on the web, so I didn’t reiterate it, but the conservatory and some other buildings belonging to the estate were demolished in the fifties (not a decade known for respect of great architecture). The reconstruction of these buildings was completed in 2007. Wright’s client was initially disappointed by the size of the conservatory, so he installed a 60-foot greenhouse (not designed by Wright, so it won’t be rebuilt) between the conservatory and the gardener’s cottage (which was not demolished), in order to supply plants and flowers for the complex. The first statue of Nike was a plaster cast of the original—the one in the Louvre. That statue fell apart during the long period of general neglect of the complex. This one was created through computer imaging of other plaster casts and is made of resin. It is the same size as the original—9’6”. (Michele, is this an acceptable resin object?)

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I banished all houseplants from my life about fifteen years ago. They seemed redundant living in the tropics and were just more work added to the year round chores in the garden. Before that, living in Colorado, I had a huge collection of potted plants I carried around from place to place.

    The first houseplant, there are bound to be more, has returned. A single pot with a crinum, a colocasia and hopefully germinating zamia seeds waits for the house they will go in.

  2. I just picked up a client with an intense greenhouse attached to his house, and part of the program is to get maximum use from it as an orangery of sorts. SO COOL! My poor wife- now I have one more thing added to my wishlist. I need more land!

  3. I had a glass windowed front porch the width of my small Saskatchewan house which was filled with a Norfolk pine, potted azaleas, and spring bulbs that wouldn’t grow outside in that climate. Through the winter and into our long delayed spring, we would sit out there and enjoy plants and sunshine. And yes I did start the tomato plants there too. Indoor spaces dedicated to plants are a lovely idea, and don’t need to be large and swanky to give an inordinate amount of pleasure. In our snowy northern winters I am a dedicated grower of winter indoor, preferably flowering, plants but now it has to be in my living room.

  4. I’ve never though of having or wanting a conservatory before, but the way you lay it out it sounds fan-freaking-tastic. This would really help my January-February blahs. I’m now taking donations.

  5. My parents have an enclosed sun porch on the front of their house. It is lined with indoor plants crowded together in a lovely mess on a variety of long benches, small tables, and rolling carts. Amidst all the greenery is white wicker furniture with colorful cushions. It is the result of a creative, plant-loving mother on a limited income. I still love the variety of funky old pots and 20+ year-old ferns.

  6. Elizabeth, now I’ve bought my first foam pot, I am clearly going to hell in a hand-basket, and would welcome a ten-foot resin Nike with open arms. Where can I buy her?

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