The History of Greenhouses

The first DIY Greenhouses were created centuries ago when the Romans developed what we would call the “modern lifestyle” and were not willing to go without fresh vegetables just because they are out of season. Seeking a solution to this, the looked to grow plants indoors and thus invented the first greenhouses.

For the Love of Cucumbers

The idea for greenhouses, and the need for year round crops despite their normal growing season started with the Roman emperor Tiberius, who insisted on having fresh cucumbers at all times. Wanting to please their emperor his faithful servants (and probably a few slaves) invented a cart inside which cucumbers grew outside in the sun during the day, and was wheeled indoors at night. At first the carts were protected by an oiled cloth, and later by a sheet of transparent crystal called selenite.

The first true greenhouse, called ‘the botanical garden’, was also built in Italy, in the 13th century, to protect many exotic tropical plants explorers brought home from the explorations abroad. Early greenhouse gardeners learned to adjust their methods to the suns natural movements and used southern exposure to ensure the most sunlight and warmth reached their plants.

The idea of a protected space where plants and trees could grow regardless of the climate and the time of the year was so attractive that it quickly spread all over Europe, first to the Netherlands and then to England and France.

The early greenhouses were private playgrounds of the rich and were used to grow their favorite fruits and flowers. In France for example, the royal family loved oranges and grew small evergreen orange trees in the gardens of Versailles. The trees were moved during the winter from the gardens to the heated structures made of stonewalls and wooden frame, with the solid roof. Such structures were called ‘orangeries.’

The Invention of Glass Roofs

In the 15th century Italian glass makers from Murano, near Venice, came up with a transparent glass, which was soon used to create glass roofs for the orangeries and other early greenhouse structures. This invention changed the history of greenhouses, which were soon after that named ‘glasshouses’ or ‘conservatories.’

European gardeners and inventors continued experimenting throughout the 17th century with the problem of maintaining constant heat and ventilation of greenhouses, working to develop angled glass walls and heating flues. Indeed many of the same problems those early gardeners faced are the same ones you must consider when designing your own greenhouse.

Until the 19th century, greenhouses, or conservatories, as they were then called, were a matter of prestige for the rich and powerful and were often built for the ladies of the house, so that she might enjoy her roses and orchids. Many famous castles had large, elaborate conservatories full of exotic plants and trees.

Public Greenhouses

In the 19th century public conservatories became popular places in which to study plant life and botany. Rich industrialists built many famous botanical tropical gardens during this era. One of the most famous conservatories was The Crystal Palace, built in 1851 in Hyde Park in London, England, to house the Great Exhibition. This enormous (1,848 feet long by 456 feet wide) cast-iron and glass structure was made of 900,000 square feet of glass and had full-size mature elm trees growing inside it. The Crystal Palace was an exercise in designing a greenhouse that was strong, durable and simple and fast to build.

Other famous public conservatories built in Europe in the 19th century included the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, the Winter Gardens in the Champs Elysees in Paris as well as the Palm House at the Berlin Botanic Gardens.

The first public greenhouse in ‘New World’ was built in Boston around 1737 by the rich trader Andrew Faneuil, who used it to grow fruit. George Washington even built his own DIY Greenhouse constructing a conservatory at Mt. Vernon to grow pineapples. He called it ‘the Pinery.’

Towards the end of the 19th century greenhouses became fairly common and many gardeners were experimented with design, heating, ventilation and construction materials. Many used furnaces to heat the greenhouses. Some built theirs in the earth pits, to take advantage of earth’s natural insulation. Throughout all of the experimenting these gardeners continued to use southern exposure of the glass windows to warm up the greenhouses by the passive solar power just as their predecessors had done.

Greenhouses Today

The last century has seen many technological advances that have been used to construct more efficient and cheaper greenhouses, which in turn has made them available to the ordinary gardeners. The invention of large sheets of polyethylene revolutionized the greenhouse construction and today more than 90 percent of greenhouses are built using poly sheets. Aluminum and plastic hoops were invented at about the same time. Hoop houses, made of aluminum extrusions, galvanized steel tubing, or even just PVC water pipes, became a simple and cheap way of constructing greenhouses.

Today’s greenhouses are far cry from the Roman cucumber carts. They are becoming extremely automated, allowing people to save the time on everyday watering and other chores. Greenhouses have automatic misters to control temperature and humidity, automatic vents that open and close depending on the temperature, automatic watering systems that provide water and fertilizers when needed, automatic fans and heaters. Many new materials, like fiberglass, acrylic and polycarbonate panels are also used to make greenhouses more efficient and cheaper.

Only the passion for gardening has not changed through centuries. Just like in Roman times, today’s greenhouse gardeners spend every available moment taking care of their precious seedlings, flowers and fruits, always experimenting and trying better ways to improve on Mother Nature. Your own DIY Greenhouse owes a lot to those simple cucumber carts.

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