Greenhouses – Then and Now
Greenhouses have come a long way since the first one was built in 30
A.D. for the Roman emperor Tiberius. Being an emperor, Tiberius wanted
what he wanted, when he wanted it. Because of his cravings for cucumbers
out of season, the greenhouse was born.
Glass had not been invented so the "Specularium" was
painstakingly fabricated from tiny translucent sheets of mica.
Panels are now offered in a choice of various thicknesses of
glass, polycarbonate or plastic. Some are clear, some opaque.
Small squares or large sheets.
It wasn't until 1599 that the first practical greenhouse was built. It
was designed by Jules Charles, a French botanist. Built in Holland and
used primarily to grow medicinal tropical plants, the idea caught on and
greenhouses began spreading throughout Europe.
In the early 1600's the French were introduced to a new fruit, the
orange and promptly fell in love. They immediately began building
orangeries to protect the trees from frost. Picture a structure large
enough to house 340 full grown orange trees, as was one in Germany. The
roofs were huge. They had to be painstakingly put up during cold weather
and removed during the warm season, employing the hands of many workers.
Push-buttons have replaced people.
Experimenting with angled glass walls and heating flues to improve the
efficiency of greenhouses went on throughout the 17th century. As
greenhouses became more efficient, they grew larger and more elaborate.
The palace of Versailles is a perfect example of the elaborate efforts
of the royalty to build bigger and more spectacular orangeries. Almost
the length of two football fields, it had a southern exposure for light
By the mid nineteenth century glass was plentiful and the wealthy began
competing with each other to see who could build the most elaborate
structure. Greenhouses still primarily housed only citrus trees and rare
The first greenhouse on record in the United States was built around
1737 by Andrew Faneuil, a wealthy Boston merchant. Like his
European predecessors, Faneuil used it primarily to grow fruit. George
Washington, perhaps the richest man in America at that time, was then
prompted to build a pinery built at Mt. Vernon because of his craving
Because of the expense of building and maintaining a greenhouse, the
concept spread slowly. Finally, by 1825, greenhouses were becoming
Many of the greenhouses were heated by furnace warmed air.
Small electric or gas heaters.
THEN & NOW:
Some pit greenhouses built into the earth are heated by south
facing windows only.
Indeed the modern concept of the greenhouse is simple and practical. No
longer is it the private domain of the moneyed class but something
anyone interested in gardening can have for relatively little cost.
Today a greenhouse can go virtually anywhere there is space; it can be
attached greenhouse, freestanding and placed in a backyard or
perched on a deck, roof or balcony.
In addition greenhouses are becoming more automated, reducing the time,
care and cost required.
Long gone are the days of mica windows and manual labor to remove panels
greenhouse frame today can be made from aluminum, fiberglass,
pressure treated wood or pvc pipe. Side panels of acrylic,
polycarbonate, tempered glass or even plastic make today's
garden green houses manageable for everyone.