The History of Greenhouses and Their Role Nowadays

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Today as we think about modern agriculture, the ideas of genetically modified organisms combined with organic and conventional growing methods, it is hard to believe that at one time things were much simpler. Just as corn and soybeans have developed to sustain the worlds growing populations, greenhouses have evolved to meet the needs of research, growing ornamental crops, and supplying niche markets. The diverse evolution of greenhouse technology that began developing in the 16th century follows the trends associated with the evolution of horticultural practices.

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In reference to Webster’s Dictionary, a greenhouse is a structure enclosed by glass and used for the cultivation and protection of tender plants. As we break down this definition of the modern-day greenhouse, it is important to note the change that they have made over century’s time. Greenhouses are built using steel, aluminum, or wood and can be enclosed in materials ranging from glass or fiberglass to plastic. The strength of the metal or wood frame supports the glass roof and walls. Due to the clear surface that covers a greenhouse, sunlight is easily able to pass through the building and warm the air as well as the interior plants. Retaining absorbed heat and reallocating it within the greenhouse allows for efficiency as well as optimal growing conditions for plants. These growing conditions allow flowers, vegetables and fruits in late winter and early spring to reach maturity so that they can be transplanted into warmer weather later in the season. Greenhouses protect crops and allow growers and researchers to learn more as they grow an ideal environment.

Origins of Greenhouses

As we think of modern technology in greenhouses we sometimes find it hard to grasp the idea of that technology being used in ancient times. Although they may not have had automatic lighting and shading systems, greenhouses date back to at least Roman times. According to the New World Encyclopedia, Roman emperor Tiberius was diagnosed with a medical condition that required him to eat cucumbers each day. His gardeners used methods similar to greenhouses to grow a cucumber crop year-round. Since that time, the evolution associated with greenhouses and the horticultural world has been influenced by the geography and culture of the areas in which they develop. When researching the timeline and development of greenhouses, it is interesting to uncover the coincidence of tax repeal on window glass compared to the time of greenhouse evolution. As discussed in lecture 30, glass that was previously manufactured as a precious good and began being produced in a large quantity and made widely available. This allowed greenhouses to become more common and practical across the world.

Victorian Golden Age

Victorian culture, however, used greenhouses for less of an agricultural purpose like food production and more as a way to connect with nature. The architecture associated with these greenhouses combined with the orchids, palms, and ferns grown efficiently in a controlled environment made for an ideal place for city dwellers to mingle. The Palm House at Schonbrunn Palace Park in Vienna is a good example of the Victorian structure these greenhouses carried. The Palm House is composed of 45,000 sheets of glass and displays an immaculate amount of detail. At this time, because of the expensive detail included in the architecture, greenhouses were only owned by the wealthy who hired botanists to care for them.


Greenhouses were widely known and used in Italy as well. Italy was home to many great explorers who traveled the globe learning about mercantile trade, undeveloped and discovered land and researching the species of plants and animals that consumed the ecosystems of those continents. Marco Polo is an example of one of these great explorers and writers who brought back great chronicles of his experience that benefited the horticultural world. Italy being the home to these great explorers allowed them to have a great demand for the use of greenhouses. Explorers would return from the tropics with exotic plants and insert them into the controlled environment that a greenhouse forms. Controlling the temperature was important to sustaining the life and research on these plants. During early research this control was a struggle for botanists to regulate. However, with time and research, botanists were able to sustain an environment similar to those of the native plants.


It is said that the first greenhouse to be built in America was for George Washington. Similar to Emperor Tiberius, Washington wanted to serve his guests pineapple, a fruit that is not native to that region. From there, greenhouses evolved to play a large part in plantations and their 18th-century involvement in slavery. Archeological work in the Wye Orangery greenhouse, the only remaining American 18th-century greenhouse, has uncovered information about greenhouses that had never been recorded. Artifacts were found that prove that not only did slaves work and tend to the crops in the greenhouses, but they were also used as a source of shelter for the African American slaves. There have been religious artifacts found beneath the doorstep and other information uncovered that allows us to conclude that some of the early agricultural and medicinal trials in the Americas were completed in slavery. As greenhouses continued to develop in America, the style, as well as the size, began to change. Having the means to build a greenhouse remained mostly to those who were wealthy and those involved in research. The style also differed much from the classic Victorian greenhouse to be a more earthly utilitarian quality.

Development of Greenhouses

Once again, we consider the growth and changes associated with greenhouses. The development of greenhouses across the world over time has impacted the structure of the specific greenhouses, the purpose of them, as well as the industry need for them. While the greenhouses of our far out past have been maintained and are seen more as a privilege and a symbol of wealth, greenhouses have developed across the world to meet different needs. Changes in ventilation, lighting, air quality, and heating and cooling are all key factors that play a role in modern greenhouse development.


The adoption of greenhouses across the world came rather easily in the competition to learn more, grow more, and develop more. Amongst the growing demand for sufficient and productive food sources, greenhouse growing has nearly become an essential practice to be adopted across the world. Worldwide there are an estimated 9 million acres of greenhouses. A staggering amount when thinking of the researched information, economic benefit, and employment those acres are creating.

Modern Greenhouses

In modern-day greenhouses, it’s all about control. According to the World Ag Network, there are two main qualities that our modern-day greenhouses contain, those being a watchful eye and sufficient resource management. This watchful eye comes both from human interaction and the incorporation technology. Daily inspections of greenhouse practices are important but with thousands of square footage to cover, it is too risky to rely on the naked eye. Computer-based monitoring systems with digital representations have eliminated much human error. Brown also states that there are sensors that monitor photosynthetic rates as well as monitor for disease and pests. More advanced technologies over the past several years have allowed us to shift from simply monitoring the environment that surrounds the plant to focusing more on the growth and development of the plant itself. These practices allow for simplicity in data collection as well as allowing us to maximize the resources that we are dedicating to the growth of an individual plant. This sense of resource management has grown as well with modern greenhouses. Using LED lighting has benefited the industry significantly. For more than 50 years, growers have been fitting greenhouses with artificial lights to fill the gaps left by cloudy conditions or shorter winter days. This lighting system is even seen here on the campus of Purdue University in the various greenhouses. Lighting systems allow for optimal photosynthesis and are also leading the way in developing effective urban greenhouses.

Future Developments

As greenhouse technology continues to develop, the idea of utilizing it more efficiently accompanies it. Developing urban agriculture and urban greenhouses seems to be a hot topic in 2018. Urban farming seeks to minimize the carbon footprint associated with mass production and distribution, by localizing produce supply. Utilizing greenhouses in this environment and pushing the envelope when it comes to production allows an opportunity for growth, as well as challenges for the agricultural industry and greenhouse management. Questions of how to produce, who to produce for, and how to maintain proper horticultural practices all affect the future development of the greenhouse industry.


Over the years, the benefits of greenhouses and their capabilities have also brought some challenges for growers to overcome. With greenhouses being an enclosed space, it creates a microclimate that is ideal for insects, parasites, fungi, viruses, and bacteria. The results of these biotic factors that will affect plant growth lead to increased application of pesticides. This can become an issue when producing specialty crops to be sold in a niche market like organic or non-GMO. Monoculture greenhouses, those that use only one type of cultivation promote the specialization of pathogens. This specialization can be detrimental, and it is recommended that botanists and horticulturalists keep areas sufficiently ventilated to combat the specialization of these pathogens. Aside from environmental challenges for plants to overcome in a greenhouse, there is also a significant amount of nutritional challenges that they must battle throughout their life cycle. Cultivation in the greenhouse wears away a larger amount of nutrients from the soil in which, moreover, is more difficult for the absorption of mineral elements. Because of this decreased mineral holding capacity of the soil, a higher amount of watering and fertilizing is required in a greenhouse. These factors all impact research as well as commercial genetic modification of crops to be grown outdoors. For example, when developing a new seed corn hybrid, testing within a greenhouse will have different results than growing in a traditional method. In this case, matching the unpredictable conditions outdoors and controlling the temperature, humidity, pests, diseases, and supply of water and nutrients are a challenge of greenhouse research.


Although there is no clear solution that leads to complete execution of all biotic agents that affect plants in greenhouses, there are several management practices that greenhouse employees can use to ensure safety and healthy plant growth. In the most advanced greenhouses, there are software systems that send alerts that monitor the environmental conditions of the greenhouse. Growers can record occurrences of pathogens and forecast the risks that are ahead. These wireless systems can then automatically adjust ventilation, soil moisture, and pH within the greenhouse to improve crop quality. A developing trend amongst horticultural programs that solve the issues of water and nutrient holding capacity in soil is simply removing soil from the equation completely. Hydroponics, soilless cultivation where nutrients are dissolved in water, alternatively uses sterile layers and the lack of land to decrease the spread of pathogens. Along with the more advanced technology, there is an array of simple practices that improve the health and viability of greenhouse environments. Frequent sanitation in season as well as at the end of each cropping cycle is of the utmost importance. “Plants carried over from previous crops may harbor plant pathogens. Soil disinfection as well as purchasing soil and seed from clean reliable sources are beneficial in disease prevention. However, the most important management practice is to constantly observe the happenings of a greenhouse. Ensuring that issues are controlled before the start and proper diagnosing of diseases present will allow for the best chance of maintaining an environment that promotes healthy plant growth.


In terms of the continual growth of the agricultural industry, the impact of greenhouses will play a pivotal role. Feeding the nine billion people projected to be on earth by the year 2050 is a feat that our industry takes on with pride. Just as the greenhouse has evolved from the times of Roman emperors, our greenhouse technology will continue to grow. Utilizing the current technology to produce specialty crops and maintain the researching abilities that we have to produce more or less, our world is going to reach maximum efficiency.

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