The History of Greenhouses

Do you think that greenhouses are a relatively new idea?  You probably haven’t thought much about it one way or the other.  If you didn’t like history in high school, (or even if you did) read on and you will be able to regale your friends with your knowledge of greenhouses from the time of the Romans until today.Tiberius' cucumbers

The Romans loved their vegetables and wanted them available throughout the year.  Their veggie of choice was something that resembled our modern day cucumber.  It was long – up to 36 inches (91 cm). It was slender like a cucumber and looked like a cucumber inside but was actually of the melon family.

No one had yet come up with the idea for a greenhouse as we know it today, but they used wheeled carts to plant so they could be easily moved.  During the day they were placed outdoors in the sun.  At night they were brought indoors for the warmth.

The early ancestor of our modern greenhouse was built in Italy in the fourteenth century.  They were built specially for exotic plants that explorers brought back from their travels to the tropics.  The concept of a greenhouse spread quickly and was soon picked up by the Netherlands and England. With the archaic heating sources in those days that it was very difficult to regulate the temperature in those early structures.  Labor was cheap though, and with much attention, the wealthy were able to harvest fruits and vegetables during the colder seasons.

The French called their greenhouses orangeries since they used them primarily to protect orange trees from freezing.  This also translated into huge structures because of the size and number of trees they cultivated.  The Orangerie at VersaillesThe greenhouse at the Palace of Versailles is a perfect example of an early greenhouse.  Built in the 17th century, the sheer size and elaborateness shows their love and care they gave their trees.  Later, pineapples became popular and pineries were built as well, using the same principals.

It was the Victorian age in England that ushered in the golden era of the greenhouse. By the end of the mid nineteenth century glass was plentiful and the prohibitive taxes in were repealed. The wealthy began competing with each other to build the most elaborate greenhouse, primarily just to grow citrus fruits and rare flowers. Little thought was given to using the greenhouse for a complete range of food production. Kew Gardens in England is a prime example.  There is a replica in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park called the Conservatory of Flowers.

The earliest greenhouse known to be built in the United States was constructed in 1737 by Andrew Faneuil, a wealthy Boston merchant. Like his European  predecessors, Faneuil used it primarily to grow fruit. The concept spread slowly, since almost all greenhouses were built for the wealthy. George Washington, perhaps the richest man in America, craved pineapples and ordered a pinery built at Mt. Vernon so he could serve pineapples to his guests.

By 1825, greenhouses were becoming increasingly common but were still too expensive for most people to own. The major changes began in the 1960’s when wide sheets of polyethylene film became easily available. Together with aluminum, galvanize steel tubing and later PVC water pipe, construction costs were greatly reduced.  As costs decreased more homeowners became interested in owning their own structure.

As time has gone on, technology and lower costs have enabled anyone to have their own greenhouse. They are also becoming more automated, reducing the time and care owners much spend tending them. Whether 50 to 60 feet long, or a simple tiny canvas shelter perched by the back door, today anyone can own their own little piece of heaven.

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