While February is the shortest month of the year, oddly enough it sometimes seems like it is also the longest what with winter holding on for its last full month. To get through this season’s last gasp, let’s celebrate greenhouses and their ability to extend the growing season despite Old Man Winter.

The frame of this greenhouse is softened with climbing vines. Serendipity, Dallas, Texas.  July 2014. Elsie Norman Dunklin, photographer. The Garden Club of America Collection. [TX128021]

Who knew that growing plants throughout the year in a controlled environment has been around since ancient Roman times? Early greenhouse-type structures dating back centuries appeared everywhere from Korea to Italy to Holland. These edifices were used for a number of purposes ranging from growing vegetables and citrus trees during the winter to coddling finicky medicinal plants and ‘exotic’ plants like tropicals and orchids. Improvements in glass technology during the Victorian era (1837-1901) saw a proliferation of greenhouses being erected in botanic gardens as well as for hobbyists. The ultimate greenhouse–The Crystal Palace–built to house London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, was large enough to encompass massive elm trees on the site that otherwise would have had to have been cut down. 

This midwest garden features a micro-greenhouse constructed of old windowpanes. Believe, Wathena, Kansas. July 2020. Stephanie Rotterman, photographer. The Garden Club of America Collection. [KS036015]
One exhibition at 1949’s International Flower Show in New York City showcased coldframes next to a toolshed. F. W. Cassebeer, photographer. The Garden Club of America Collection.  [NY208110]

Since inveterate gardeners can’t get enough of growing plants, any number of greenhouse types have been developed over the centuries, all incorporating two critical components: protection from the weather (primarily the cold and wind) and the means to let in light. Historic variants ranged from structures like hot houses, palm houses, and orangeries to miniature adaptations like Wardian cases and bell jars. More contemporary takeoffs include solariums, cold frames, hoop houses, terrariums, and the occasional geodesic dome. 

Spanning more than three acres, the ginormous Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, is the world’s largest controlled environment dedicated to understanding the impacts of climate change. c. 1990-2000. Ken Druse Garden Photography Collection. [DRU018097]

Smithsonian Gardens has many close connections to greenhouses, the perfect one being its Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, Maryland! This complex has fourteen greenhouses totaling 64,000 square feet that support SG’s different horticultural programs; four of them house the thousands of specimens that make up the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Many of the plants in the Smithsonian gardens start out in the other greenhouses. In addition, scores of tropical specimens overwinter here, waiting for the time they can be displayed in the Smithsonian gardens and landscapes near the National Mall during the frost-free months.