January 15, 2013 - 6:15 pm - Posted in News


A Weekly Column about Plants, Gardens, & Yards

Margaret Murphy • ISU Extension Horticulture Educator • Lyon-O’Brien-Osceola-Sioux Counties


History of the Modern ‘Glass House’

By: Christina Lloyd, ISU Extension and Outreach Agriculture and Natural Resource Intern


Gardeners and producers have been using modern greenhouses to grow vegetables, fruit, household plants and flowers out of season for many years, and because technological advances have made it a science, greenhouses have become one of the fundamental tools in growing decorative plants and produce early or out of season. For this particular reason producers have been able to meet the demand for these types of plants while also being able to make a significant impact on their ability to feed the growing population.

Today’s greenhouses can range in size and shape from the backyard hobby greenhouse to the large full production commercial greenhouse. In most cases, the houses are made of either plastic or glass, are powered by electricity and serve similar purposes. However, this wasn’t always the case. Greenhouse origin, much like most of modern agriculture, can be traced back to 8,000 to 4,000 BC, when the foundational agricultural concepts and ideas of what would eventually necessitate the use of the greenhouse and other forms of agriculture began to form. It was at this time when people began to move away from early nomadic traditions and into early agriculture. This eventually lead to Plato’s idea of protected cultivation around 427 and 347 BC and then into the first physical manifestation of a greenhouse between 42 BC and 37 AD under the rule of Tiberius the emperor of Italy.

This first form of a greenhouse was called a ‘Specularium’ and was commissioned by Tiberius for the use of growing cucumbers. Because the invention of glass wasn’t until after this time the structure was glazed with thousands of translucent sheets of mica instead. This was in itself a very long and meticulous process. Nevertheless, this set the ground work for more modern greenhouses that were to follow. Many of which were built in the 13th century to house tropical plants brought back from early travels and explorations. These houses were often named botanical gardens.

The concept of the greenhouse spread rapidly throughout Europe and in 1599 a French botanist, Jules Charles, created the first practical glass greenhouse.  These houses were used mainly to house trees and as such were called ‘Orangeries’. This glass design spread rapidly and with the advancements in technology the greenhouse continued to develop on into the 17th and 18th centuries. Hitting their ‘golden era’ in London during the Victorian era as the wealthy began to compete against one another for the best greenhouse.

Obviously greenhouse development didn’t stop in Victorian England but has continued until today. When the green house was first created there wasn’t a lighting system however over time we have developed it enough to provide all natural light as well as artificial light. In addition, greenhouse heating systems have gone from the use of dung furrows, coal pans, stoves, ovens and boilers to mostly electric and solar powered heating that does a better job of heat distribution. Also greenhouses didn’t have a ventilation system beyond a shutter or window before modernization, however, now greenhouses can be electrically ventilated. All of this has allowed the use of the greenhouse to transform from a means of shelter, hibernation and acceleration and forcing to a means of year round culturing, which has allowed for the increased application and use of the greenhouse to almost all plant life.

Today you can find many different styles of greenhouse some more complicated than others and some more elaborate; however, it all comes down to its use whether for small personal use like a window greenhouse or for large commercial purposes, they all function in the same general way. For more information on greenhouses and how you can create your own and for any questions, please feel free to contact me at my email clloyd@iastate.edu, by phone at (712) 737-4230 or through your local County Extension office. Additional information was provided by Kansas State University KSU Gardens webpage article History of Greenhouses (accessed January 2013), the Extension Online Campus article History of Greenhouses (accessed January 2013), and the White Cottage Greenhouses article History of Greenhouses (2012). For additional information, the Cooperative Extension Service University of Maryland’s article Planning a Home Greenhouse and Colorado State University’s power point presentation Greenhouse Structures are two really good sources for learning more about the types of greenhouse structures and the considerations that you should make in creating your own.

Contact information: Margaret Murphy • 712 754-3648 (Office) • 605 521-7893 (Cell) • mmurphy@iastate.edu

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