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History of Greenhouses

History of Greenhouses

It’s official! Winter has finally come. Though we’re set to get longer days from here on out, the cold weather is here to stay a while. While we may have to wait a few months to take part in our favorite outdoor activities, there are some seasonally appropriate ventures to engage in. Ski season is upon us. Plenty of good movies are being released (assuming theaters remain open). Indoor basketball perhaps? Or, forget what the weather report says and go garden your own microclimate! That’s right, just because its winter doesn’t mean you get to stop gardening. Unless, of course, you want to… But if you do, your greenhouse is calling your name. Yes, that little building you put in your backyard to possibly grow things all year round, or maybe plants that thrive in a different climate. It’s a pretty novel idea to think if we build ourselves houses to protect from the elements, we could build one for some plants so we have fresh food in the winter. But have you ever wondered who first came up with the idea? Did you know the first President of the United States, George Washington, owned one strictly to grow pineapples for when he had guests? Well, if you want to know more, stick with me. There is a storied history surrounding the greenhouses we know and love today.

 First things first, who created the first greenhouse and why? Well, supposedly the advent of the greenhouse, or at least the prototype greenhouse, dates back to the times of the Romans. During his reign, roughly 14-37 AD, Tiberius Caesar Augustus was said to have become obsessed with eating at least one “cucumber” per day. Now, I used the quotations around the aforementioned vegetable because what he was actually eating is a topic of debate. Many people believe that instead of eating the modern cucumber as we know it, it is more likely that Tiberius was eating the snake gourd. The two share a similar Latin route, thus creating a confusion among scholars and translators who have explored this topic. In any case, what he was eating isn’t important, but the frequency with which he ate them which brings us back to greenhouses. It’s said his physician instructed him to eat one very single day. However, these “cucumbers” did not grow year round in Rome, which presented itself as a bit of a problem. One does not simply explain to an emperor that their life saving food item, which they are to consume daily, is not available because of the climate. So, the emperors’ gardeners had to get creative.

 Of course, the rudimentary greenhouses these Roman gardeners created are a far cry from what we know and love today. Most notably, these greenhouses were mobile. Yes, you read that correct, greenhouses on wheels. Legend has it that these greenhouses were essentially gardens created in wheelbarrows that were moved into the sun during the day then returned inside heated homes during the night to save the plants from frost. Glass was not widely available at this time, so instead the plants were covered by an oiled cloth which was thought to insulate the garden during the night. These prototype greenhouses were rather small in stature, so they were limited in production, thankfully they were only needed to grow “cucumbers” for one man.

The next recorded history of greenhouses, at least ones more like the modern rendition, didn’t appear until around the 1450’s in Korea. Long considered to be a golden era in Korean history, the Joseon Dynasty was well known for its exploits and advancements in the field of gardening. In a historical text, Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, there is a detailed description of a building created for the purpose of growing flowers and medicinal plants so they could be offered to the royal family year round. This building was, of course, the first heated greenhouse! This greenhouse employed an unique technique that was found in buildings all around the Korean peninsula. Ambient floor heating was a method that allowed for buildings to be heated without losing space to a bulky heating unit located inside the building. Instead, the heat was released from beneath the floorboards allowing it to emanate into the rest of the building more efficiently. The walls of this structure were covered in oil coated paper on three of the walls which was meant to increase sunlight reflectivity inside the building. The larger side of the slanted roof was entirely covered in oil coated paper to ensure both the penetration of sunlight into the building but also allowed the building to ‘breath’ so to speak. This oiled paper, while potentially flimsy in inclement weather, was a marvel of the time as fresh oxygen and sunlight could enter the building but also kept the heat from exiting the building too quickly.

 From there, we don’t see the next linage of greenhouses emerging until the 17th century in Europe. Specifically in the Netherlands and UK, greenhouses became popular as a means of growing tropical plants that had medicinal purposes. Chelsea Physic Garden was created in 1681 is considered the first stove heated greenhouse in recorded history. This greenhouse, as previously stated, was created to grow tropical plants that had medicinal properties that were brought back from different explorations of the British empire. This greenhouse was, unlike its predecessors, outfitted with glass. As time went on, glass production methods became both better and cheaper. With this, more glass was made in less time, allowing for more greenhouses to be built. However, greenhouses were still very much a luxury item, only being built by governmental entities, universities and the incredibly wealthy. While greenhouses are still today considered to be a luxury item, the advent of the “European” greenhouse did greatly increase their popularity. The scale and scope of greenhouse began to take off from there, the greenhouse at the Palace of Versailles is to this day, a stunning example of the possibilities of greenhouses.

 Greenhouse technology made its way to the new world when Andrew Faneuil built one in Boston in 1737. Once again, this greenhouse was mainly used to grow medicines as the climate in Boston, if you weren’t aware, is less than tropical. Greenhouses remained a bit of a status symbol for individual owners. They were used to grow a specific plant, often being named after said plant. Orangeries were used to grow, you guessed it, oranges. Pineries, which were used to grow pineapples, were often a status symbol and generally not tended by the owner but rather those in their employ. As previously stated, one of the more famous pineries in the United States was owned by George Washington. His home in Mt. Vernon may have been suitable to grow pineapples during the warmer months, but Mr. Washington wanted to make sure his guests could eat pineapple all year round. Thus, he had a pinery built on premises so that the tropical fruit was never out of reach.

 Despite the practicality of greenhouses, the spread of and improvements upon seemed to be few and far between. The Korean rendition came some 1400 plus years following the Roman mobile gardens and the European version didn’t arrive until around 300 years after that. The next significant date in our timeline following Mr. Washingtons pinery was the arrival of the greenhouse in Japan. The first Japanese greenhouse was built in the 1880’s by a British herb merchant. Japan, having always been a strongly defended island nation, seemed to be late to the adoption of outside technology. None the less, when greenhouses finally arrived, they became an important piece of technology to help ensure the ability to farm year round.

Fast forward from there to the year 1973 and our very own Charley Yaw saw a niche market whose needs were not being met. Having started creating portable buildings, Charley was asked if he could build a small scale greenhouse in a customer’s back yard. Never one to back away from a challenge, Charley took his tools and created a, what is now known as, hobby greenhouse. In 1975 Charley and his wife Carol put out a 16 page catalog advertising their hobby greenhouses. Money was tight to start as they could only mail them to 400 customers. However, overwhelming response led the couple to put out catalogs on a yearly basis. Demand continued to grow causing Charley to expand his supply far and wide, sourcing greenhouses from Canada, China, Germany, England and Denmark. As the market expanded, Charley’s grew right along with it, becoming the #1 supplier in the United States. Come 1997 and Charley’s continued to adapt, launching their first website. Today we continue to supply a range of top quality greenhouses and gardening products online as well as in person, serving the Pacific Northwest operating out of beautiful Mt. Vernon, Washington. Home of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival every spring. Ever evolving, Charley’s is always adapting and trying to better service our customers and spread the joy of greenhouse gardening. Which leads to me, having recently graduated from Western Washington University with a Bachelor’s in Business and Sustainability I am now an E-commerce/Marketing Analyst with Charley’s Greenhouse and Garden. It is my goal to help the business grow and adapt with the world around us without sacrificing the standard of excellence Charley has built up over the years. I hope you all reading have been enjoying my blogs, don’t get me wrong I love writing, but I am doing this for you! Hoping to help share the interesting history and never ending joys of gardening and greenhouses.

Here’s me, wishing all of you (what few have made it this far) a very happy and healthy New Year! 2022 is full of potential, good or bad is still up for debate. We’ve seen some dark times over the past few years, but I have faith that brighter days are ahead of us. Thanks for reading!


-Brian Bill

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