It was Circa 30 AD in Rome. Royal physicians have asked the ailing Emperor Tiberius to eat cucumber every day. And thus began the construction of Specularium by the royal gardeners to grow medicinal plants, herbs and cucumber among them. Painstakingly built with translucent sheets of mica that allowed sunlight inside, the gardeners maintained roaring fires outside the walls of Specularium to heat the inside.
They used to plant cucumbers in wheeled carts, which were left out in the sun and then taken inside for the night. They were stored under frames (called as cucumber houses), which were glazed by oiled cloth known as specularia or with sheets of selenite.
This is how the Greenhouse was born.
Growing plants, vegetables and fruits under controlled environment is not a new phenomenon it is as old as the Roman Empire.
History of Greenhouses
It is quite amazing that what this handful of Roman gardeners did, thousands of years ago became a reference point for people in the 16th century. Roman Historian, Pliny the Elder meticulously noted down the many fascinating details about how the Roman Gardeners built the Specularium to provide the Emperor with a delicacy that he cherished in his diet every day.
The concept of growing plants within the Specularium or Conservatory as the British liked to call was truly born in Italy. In the 13th century, the first true greenhouse was built in Italy and it was called ‘the botanical garden’. They built their Specularium in a manner that exploited the natural movement of the sun and ensured enough sunlight and warmth was provided for the plants that thrive inside.
For many in Europe, growing plants within a Conservatory became a hobby and a passion. Thomas Hill, the author of Britain’s first popular gardening book in English, emulated Roman’s cucumber experiment and gave advice to his readers about how to protect the seedlings with the help of a greenhouse until the weather turns warm.
In France, owning a Greenhouse became a status symbol among the royalty and the noblemen. The royal family loved to grow oranges in Versailles and they had a thousand small evergreen orange trees in the grounds of the palace which was moved to heated structures made from stone walls and wood with a solid roof to conserve them for the summer.
The modern Greenhouse was however built by French Botanist Charles Lucien Bonaparte (Yes. He was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) in 1800 at Leiden, Holland where he grew medicinal tropical plants.
The invention of glass revolutionised the concept of Greenhouse farming. In the 15th-century Italian glass makers in Venice created transparent glass and when it was used to build glass roofs they found that the structures retained the warmth of the sun. They were perfect building materials for Conservatories and the problem of maintaining the inside temperature was solved. From then on, Conservatories were called as ‘glasshouses’.
With the advent of glass, experiments with greenhouse conservatives became the order of the day in Britain. By the 19th century, owning a Greenhouse Conservatory in one’s manor was a point of prestige and a popular pastime for the Victorian ladies.
Greenhouse Farming Today
Greenhouses today have come a long way from what the Romans had envisaged. Technology plays a large role in today greenhouses where light, water, temperature and climate are controlled within the enclosure.
We have known the advantages of greenhouse for many centuries now. Greenhouses help to grow food, plants, vegetables and fruits in places where the climate and natural habitat are not conducive. Growing plants are partly art and partly science and this technology will aid us now more than ever because our climate is changing.
There are many obvious advantages to greenhouse farming in today’s world. You can preserve the plants within the controlled environment and the adverse effects of unpredictable weather cannot touch them within. Plants within the Greenhouse are protected against cold, wind, precipitation and extreme temperature, radiation and pollution. Today, we can grow any plant within a greenhouse by controlling the climate conditions.
The obvious advantages of greenhouses are 10% – 12% increase in the yield thanks to the helpful environmental controls. Greenhouse farming typically increases the growing season and helps to expand the variety of the produce. Like everything else, there are also many obvious disadvantages to controlled farming. The lack of pollination is one of the biggest disadvantages of Greenhouse farming. Many might argue that the upfront costs of building a greenhouse are large but the sustainable viability of this venture outweighs the initial investment.
Growing Plants out of nowhere
Heard of Port Augusta? It is about three hours from Adelaide, Australia and that’s where a group of gardening enthusiasts experimented and found a possible solution to world’s food problems.
Port Augusta is not your idyllic utopian village by any stretch of the imagination. It is a seaport with a warm desert climate with hot and dry summers and mild temperature during the winter. To complete the picture, it is also an area infested by poisonous snakes, kangaroos, emus etc. In other words, this isn’t where one is likely to invest in to build a farm, right?
A group of gardening enthusiasts didn’t think so. Led by a German-born Banker, this group started a venture called Sundrop Farms and started growing commercial plants, vegetables, fruits and crops all year long.
Hailed as nothing less than an agricultural feat, this group of people achieved something remarkable because they used naturally available resources such as heat, electricity, water and soil nutrients and reduced the need for finite resources.
Here is how they did it…
They mounted motorised parbolic mirrors that followed the sun and helped to focus the heat on a pipe that contained sealed-in oil supply. The oil tanks heated the seawater that is pumped up in tank bringing it up to 160 C and the steam from this hot sea water worked the turbines providing electricity. The hot sea water is then used to heat the greenhouse during the cold desert nights while the rest is routed to a desalination plant that produced 10,000 litres of fresh water every day and was used to water the plants. The temperature in the greenhouse is kept humid and cool by trickling water on the honeycombed cardboard evaporative pads that are used to build the greenhouse. Air is then driven through fans and the wind to evaporate this water resulting in a humid temperature inside.
Sustainable agriculture is just not refraining the use of pesticides or fertilisers, it is much more than that. It goes back right not the roots and to the seeds. These days, it takes a lot to do farming, especially commercial without resorting to the modern techniques of sprinkling just about everything with chemicals and fertilisers. Very few people realise the fact that they are damming the soil too with this poison and anything that grows there in future contains chemicals. That’s why Sundrop Farms is an oddity in the agricultural market. Right from selecting naturally bred seeds instead of genetically modified ones to plant their crops. They use desalinated water from the sea to water their crops and rain water as well and then reuse it again and again. Nutrient-rich coconut husk is used instead of soil to grow the plants and weeds are pulled by hand.
The result is that you have the most perfect and naturally grown vegetables and fruits that taste out of the world. An ancient farmer could step into these farms be right at home here because this is how they used to work centuries ago!
Low-Cost Greenhouse Technology
For a very long time, even in the modern era greenhouses have been more or else available only for avid naturalists, hobby gardeners, and commercial companies. Today, however, there are many low-cost Greenhouse options available for farmers to explore and at an apt time too because the world wide unpredictable weather is forcing food cultivators to look for options that are controllable.
Today, Nigerian farmers are turning towards Greenhouse technology to increase food production and also to supplement their income. They are also building net houses, a localised version of a greenhouse where they erect frames or inflated structures and cover it with transparent or translucent materials that would allow them to grow crops in a partially controlled environment. Also known as net farming, this method is fast becoming popular among Nigerian farmers as it enables them to grow exotic fruits, vegetables and plants. According to scientists, the yield from net farming is 5 – 8 times higher than that of regular farming.
Farming in the Arctic
A seemingly impossible feat but farmer Sten Pederson is growing strawberries just miles away from our planet’s largest ice bodies in Greenland! There is a huge demand for locally grown food in these areas and naturally, the food exports are frighteningly expensive. The vulnerability of food supply chain to these areas is great due to detrimental weather hence the need for local cultivation was high.
Greenhouse cultivation was the obviously the answer.
At Innuvik, one of Canada’s Northwest Territories people converted an old hockey arena into a multi-level greenhouse and have been successfully cultivating vegetables – tomato, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, kale, radishes and carrots for their town.
Future of Greenhouse Farming
With the climate change happening rapidly around the world, Greenhouse farming is about to get not only important but also essential to supplement the world’s food shortage.
Recently Affinor Growers (RSSFF), Canadian Farming Technology Company has designed and patented vertical greenhouse technology. Vertical farming will enable farmers to grow food without the use of pesticides and the resultant crop would be nutrient rich and free from chemical contamination. Controlled vertical farming will aid communities in the remote climate challenged places to grow their own under a controlled environment.
Let’s look at yet another example of Greenhouse Farming that’s absolutely low cost. Deriving its name from Amaraya Indian language, a ‘Walpini’ is an underground greenhouse covered by a transparent plastic cover that soaks in the warmth of the sun while absorbing the earth’s thermal energy. Within this Walpini, fruits, vegetables can be grown all year long! What’s even more remarkable is the fact that this method of growing food underground has been used in Central and South America for many decades now and now it is being used in Bolivia and Netherlands. What’s even more impressive about this method of greenhouse farming is the fact that it doesn’t cost much to build one.
I recently saw the movie Interstellar and that really got me thinking about Greenhouses. In the movie, in the not so distant future, all the other jobs in the world hold no meaning because food shortage is great. Everyone is a farmer, trying to grow crops for their family and children. Education is centred around the science of farming and the rest are shelved aside as unimportant.
I hope to God this doesn’t come to pass but in the meanwhile, we might just learn a bit more about Greenhouse farming, just in case.