Your Greenhouse is 2,000 Years Old

If you are like many people trying to grow tomatoes in pots on the patio, the windy conditions we’ve been having hasn’t helped the growth rate of even the hardiest tomato varieties.

Carrying the plants into the confines of a warm house for the night is a chore, but it will help your plants revive from the relentless wind.

When you feel that the drudgery of bringing plants into the house at night seems to be too much of a bother, consider that this procedure has been practised since the Roman times.

Roman? Yes, Roman. It seems that Tiberius, also known as Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, had a particular fondness of eating an Armenian cucumber daily. (Armenian cucumbers are more closely related to the melon family but are still called a cucumber, at least in Tiberius’s time.)

To supply the Emperor, who ruled from 14 to 37AD, with the daily intake of his beloved cucumber, the Roman gardeners came up with the concept of what we now call “container gardening”.

The cucumbers were planted in carts so they could be moved to sunny locations during the day thus ensuring the continued supply of this vegetable year round.

During the night, the carts were wheeled inside to be kept warm. In the winter months, the plants were kept in houses glazed with oil cloth which allowed enough sunlight to go through yet kept the plants warm: the forerunner of our greenhouses.

The fact that cucumber/melon would need additional protection from the elements is very interesting. We’re talking about growing in Italy, near the Mediterranean where I assumed you could just about grow anything in the summer.

It wasn’t until explorers brought back exotic plants from the Americas in about the 13th century that more elaborate greenhouse-style buildings were constructed to house and grow these tropical plants.

The buildings were called “giardini botanici” (botanical gardens). The concept of indoor gardens soon swept to the Netherlands and England.

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French botanist, built the first practical greenhouse in Leiden Holland in order to grow medicinal tropical plants.

Development of various styles and designs of greenhouses flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, as technology produced better greenhouse materials such as stronger glass and construction methods.

Greenhouses were reserved for the rich and as fascination with the plant sciences developed, universities added greenhouses along with the study of botany.

The French referred to their early greenhouses as “orangeries” because they were used to keep their orange trees from freezing, and as other fruits became popular, like the pineapple, they too had special greenhouses constructed to keep them safe and warm.

In the 19th century, larger and larger greenhouses were built, notably Kew Gardens in England which was a good example of a Victorian greenhouse.

Other countries followed with Munich’s Glaspalast (Glass Palace) and the biggest and most elaborate, the Royal Greenhouse of Laeken, built between 1874 and 1895 for King Leopold II of Belgium.

One of the features of this huge greenhouse is the dome-shaped roof which originally served as a royal chapel. This whole complex is so huge that it covers 2.5 hectacres (270,000 sq. ft.). The whole structure still stands and can be visited during April and May when most flowers are in bloom.

Other notable greenhouses that can still be visited are the greenhouses at the Palace of Versailles, the conservatory at Kew Gardens in England, the Crystal Palace in London, England, the Crystal Palace in New York, and the Glaspalast in Munich, Germany.

Whether you’re growing your plants in pots, and carrying them indoors during windy or cool days, or you have a greenhouse, it is comforting to know that greenhouse gardening has a rich history.

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