The Purpose of a Greenhouse for the Perfect Garden

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Greenhouses have evolved throughout the course of history. At it’s most basic level, greenhouses were created with the idea in mind that gardening could be done throughout the year and not always have to be restricted by the weather and climate of a region. Some greenhouses primarily aim to serve a utilitarian purpose – that is, they are not meant to look pretty, but they get the job done right. Others, like the Palace of Versailles greenhouse in France, is a stunning 500 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 700 feet high piece of stunning architecture. Whether you are looking to significantly invest into having the perfect aesthetic piece to compliment an outdoor garden, or would prefer creating a very cost effective mini-greenhouse by repurposing old salad containers, or just need a simple 101 course of the purpose of a greenhouse: look no further.

History of the Greenhouse

History serves as a window to the past. In some instances, history can be very bleak to reflect on, as is an obvious case when considering the impact and devastation caused by war and hate for one another. At other times, history enables us to learn about elements of our cultural that have dissipated with time. Even more unique is to peer into human history to find things that are quite similar to what we see today. In the case of greenhouses, they are incredible to reflect upon given their utility and charm.

The greenhouse structures have ranged from small, ornate miniature greenhouses created out of repurposed materials to immense architectural wonders. They have undergone much research and experimentation, and have seemingly moved forward with modern science as a better understanding of the natural world enabled these architects to better harness their power.

The fundamental idea of eating fruits and vegetables grown in these controlled environments has existed since at least the time of the Roman Empire. It has been noted that the Roman emperor Tiberius would eat daily a cucumber grown in a controlled environment much like a greenhouse. By the 13th centuries, greenhouses started to pop up in Italy to meet a specific utilitarian purpose: that is, they existed to cultivate exotic plants brought back by Italian explorers from the tropics. It would seem that every century started to mark the arrival of these early greenhouses in new regions of the world. They gradually expanded throughout Europe, reaching the Netherlands (Holland) and England during the 17th century.

The French Botanist Charles Lucien Bonaparte is considered to be the first individual in history to build a practical and modern greenhouse in Holland during the 1800s to grow medicinal plants. Greenhouses at this time were typically only accessible to the very wealthy who would often construct their own to meet a specific purpose, such as protecting oranges from freezing cold temperatures. However, as greenhouses started to have a more scientific appeal, they began to expand to universities which furthered the use and understanding of their function. Not only this, but it made greenhouses available to a larger group of people than ever before. 

As tends to be human nature, greenhouses during the latter part of the 17th century began to catapult into a "golden age of the greenhouse." Scientific understanding of their function began to come paired with architectural and artistic fantasies of those tasked with designing them. The Palace of Versailles, a symbolic representation of absolute monarchy, was constructed as a massive and beautiful greenhouse. Other large greenhouses of similar nature can be found such as the Kew Gardens and The Crystal Palace in England.

The concept and scale of greenhouses have been translated into unique projects around the world. Other popular greenhouses include the New York Crystal Palace, the Eden Project, and a greenhouse in Pennsylvania at The Rodale Institute.

It seems to be human nature that we love to see the things we love on a massive scale. The greenhouse has evolved from a simple concept to these massive undertakings of science and art. Of course, much like Apple's iPod which started as a moderately sized product and evolved to be a rather large one that many would question how they would even carry it around, the future seems to always hold a desire to return to a compact and small-scale version. For Apple's iPod, this is the iPod Shuffle - a simple, 2" product, stripped of some functionality for convenience to the user. For the greenhouse, I (like many others) have explored the use of mini-greenhouses that suit a specific, portable need. For all the scale and grandeur of the largest greenhouses in the world, they certainly cannot be transported.

How Do Greenhouses Work?

Photo courtesy Indiana.org

Photo courtesy Indiana.org

At it's most basic level, greenhouses work by collecting light and converting it into heat. Of course, this is typically a result of capturing sunlight, though there are alternative, artificial light sources that have been created to replicate the sun in certain scenarios. As noted in the history section, this simple concept has been ruthlessly explored, researched, and refined in an attempt to make better functioning greenhouses. One of the key elements here is the dispersal of the thermal energy generated by the capture of light.

This "solar collection" is comparable to sitting in a car with the windows rolled up during the summer months. The area inside of the car contains heat, often at levels more significant than what is outdoors. For most plant-life, this ambient heat creates an ideal living condition to thrive.

Of course, as all regions of the Earth have pros and cons when it comes to the growth of vegetation, greenhouses also serve another utility: the safe harbor of plant-life from the elements such as wind, rain, snow, freezing, drought, too much heat, pests, etc. Greenhouses function as man's attempt to create a utopian equivalent for plant life. By removing many of the harmful factors that are known to impede plant growth (or completely destroy it), and capturing or simulating the beneficial parts of this natural process, we are able to produce high quality plant life to be used for a variety of purposes. As the human population has been seeing a significant surge, having this means to harness more plant-based foods is vital to the survival of our species.

How the thermal energy is released and dispersed throughout the greenhouse has likely been one of the largest components of scientific study. The regulation of the heat (in the form of thermal energy) is important. Simple things in the environment help to regulate this naturally such as the soil and water. In fact, during the night time (which is typically cooler) and winter months, soil and water naturally release heat stored within their material bodies to continue to heat the greenhouse environment. Temperatures can continue to be moderated by elements with thermal mass, such as iron (which is present in some soils).

More complex greenhouses will also include other artificial systems to help regulate the climate. Fans, irrigation systems, fogging and misting fans are just a few to consider.

The way I see it is simple: greenhouses are as simple as you want them to be, and as complex as the most skilled architects can create. For most considering the addition of a greenhouse on their property, they can be constructed from a small amount of materials without too much difficulty. Those without the space or motivation to build a "large" greenhouse, but that want to try their hand at having a greenhouse anyways could consider building a mini-greenhouse. This is perfect for city and apartment living, and a great teaching tool for the home and classroom as well!

What is the Greenhouse Effect and How Does it Relate to Greenhouses?

A common question that arises when discussing greenhouses is simply: what is the greenhouse effect?

It is a misconception that The Greenhouse Effect actually has much to do with the function of an actual greenhouse. While there are similar properties - that is, the notion that sunlight is able to travel unimpeded through the greenhouse covering (which is often glass) and atmosphere, and the sunlight is converted into heat - this is where the similarities come to an end. With the atmospheric "Greenhouse Effect," the earth warms because heat is re-radiated back towards earth by greenhouse gases. In the man-made greenhouse, the warming inside is only a result of thermal (heat) energy being unable to escape.

The Plant-Smart Living Lean-To Greenhouse

A winter walkthrough of the Plant-Smart Living Greenhouse - VIDEO

One reason why the history and purpose of greenhouses interest me so much is because I have utilized them as a part of my expanded backyard garden. I have 40+ years of general contracting experience, and tasked myself a few years ago with assembling a Lean-To Greenhouse on my property as an experiment and expansion of my outdoor, exposed garden beds. While there is a certain beauty that I love pertaining to the raised garden beds and working outside, having a space where I can minimize exposure to the elements and grow specific plant-life that may be difficult otherwise is excellent. My 8' x 16' Lean-To Greenhouse (assembled for about $100) has been an invaluable asset to my garden. It has been especially useful during the fall and winter months when growing vegetables (such as cabbage and Gypsy variety broccoli) in Pennsylvania is not the easiest due to the weather.

For myself, the greenhouse is an extension of my garden. And my garden is an extension of my desire to live a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle. It would seem that my desire to construct this on my property was simply the natural consequence of wanting to live a healthier, vegan-friendly life. I have found that this lifestyle has revitalized my desire to live, and through gardening and working on these projects in my yard, I have come to find a state of real happiness that is hard to ignore. If you would like to see how a whole food, plant-based diet has impacted my life, be sure to check out my post: From Fat and Sick to Healthy and Trim here on Plant-Smart Living.

Related Video: How My Lean-To Greenhouse Supports My Whole Foods, Plant-Based Lifestyle!

The Mini-Greenhouse Phenomenon

Farmer Fred's No-Cost Miniature Greenhouse!

Farmer Fred's No-Cost Miniature Greenhouse!

It sometimes feels like time is a circle. What I mean by this is that many inventions, such as the greenhouse, start small and are significantly scaled up by those who have the means to do so, such as the wealthy and corporations. The greenhouse as a concept started with very rustic, utilitarian intentions, but was scaled to magnificent proportions over time. Now, in the 21st century, we are starting to see new products and instructionals arrive on the market with the intention of making the modern greenhouse accessible to everyone who wants one.

With Plant-Smart Living, I threw my farmer's hat into the ring with my No-Cost Mini-Greenhouse How To Project that makes it possible for literally everyone to put together a greenhouse. Other, somewhat larger and more complex greenhouses are available at a variety of retailers, of which the one of the largest selections is certainly available through Amazon. Some family friends used an inexpensive 4-Tiered Mini Greenhouse to great success when they were limited to cement patio space. It goes to show that anyone can become a gardener if they want to, it is not just limited to those with spacious backyards anymore! This is a wonderful thing!

The Rise of the Local Greenhouse - Ott's Greenhouse & Nursery

When you think of a greenhouse, a few things may come to mind. The first may be a simple and rustic, bare-bones, type of greenhouse. The next may be the grandiose masterclass greenhouses found through Europe (and the rest of the world). But it may be possible that you've encountered greenhouses on a local level where you live. As much as I enjoy my homemade greenhouses, I do not have enough space or resources to put together a greenhouse at the same scale as a business. Of course, this makes sense given that companies and individuals grow food and flowers for very different purposes. I generate food for my family and friends, but a local greenhouse that sells plants are producing for many, many people.

As I am always looking to be more in tune with my local community, it's hard to ignore a great case of the local greenhouse and nurseries throughout the world that give us a living, breathing and accessible example of greenhouses and their function. In the video above, I take you on a tour of a local greenhouse and nursery - Ott's Exotic Plants Greenhouse in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania - to give you a taste of what you can expect from a quality green house establishment.

Do you have a local greenhouse you enjoy visiting? I'd love to hear about your favorite greenhouse to visit!

The Greenhouse is a Unification of Man and Nature

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Few things have been created that have brought man and nature closer together than the greenhouse. The more I think about it, the more I realize it is a marvel of the modern world. While most artificial creations have negatively impacted the environment, greenhouses in and of themselves do not impose upon the environments they look to replicate as no pollution or other negative effects are generated. Like nature in a broad sense, a greenhouse can also be as simple or complex as you want it to be. While every living thing is carefully made down to the fine details, and can be examined under a microscope (so to speak), they can also be viewed simply for what they are as well.

Whether a thing of aesthetic beauty or a thing is bare utility, greenhouses paint landscapes beautifully. The more you visit with Plant-Smart Living, the more you will likely take notice of my greenhouse experiments. As you travel the world, be it locally or outside of your country, be sure to take notice of the the beautiful structures created to meet the simple purpose of trapping and storing heat so that plant-life can better thrive.

The purpose of a greenhouse is fundamentally simple, but the sky is only limited by your imagination.

Have you learned anything or been inspired to try making your own greenhouse? Let me know in the comments below!

For more about Farmer Fred, be sure to check out the About page!