Glass greenhouses are one of my favorite aspects of the European countryside. If you've visited France, Ireland, or England, you've likely seen the charming glass greenhouses throughout villages. There's something very "secret garden" about them.
As we were working on the design plans for our own “Modern European" home here in the United States, I wanted to capture a little of that charm by adding a glass greenhouse to the property. And while our greenhouse isn't finished quite yet, I can hardly wait to fill it with all the plants once the tile flooring, lighting, and plumbing fixtures are installed. If you plan to engage your green thumb with a year-round garden, here's what you should consider when adding a glass greenhouse.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
All About Greenhouses
What is a greenhouse anyway? What makes a greenhouse work? The short, simple answer is that a greenhouse is a structure built to grow and house plants. Thanks to glass panels or windows throughout the greenhouse, light is concentrated, forming a hot, humid space where plants can thrive.
Often, larger glass greenhouses feature some form of temperature control, whether from specialized windows and glass, ventilation, electricity, or even solar panels. Greenhouses come in all shapes and sizes, though. So small-scale gardeners can still enjoy the beauty, creative inspiration, and other benefits of a mini-greenhouse, even on a porch or a balcony.
Image via Hartley Botanic
The sun on the windows of a glass greenhouse, combined with water from the soil and plants, creates a mini-weather system. Greenhouses keep the humidity in, allowing plants to enjoy the benefits of a more tropical, temperate climate when the weather outside is chilly (even if there’s snow).
Should you have your heart set on adding a greenhouse to your property, my advice would be to choose natural construction whenever possible—opt for glass over polyethylene panels and use stone, terra cotta, wood, and other natural building materials. Just like people, plants thrive in natural environments, and the natural components will weather better over time.
What should you put in your greenhouse? Whatever you love. If you’re culinarily minded, you could grow herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, and other fresh vegetables. If you’re a plant lover, you can specialize in growing more delicate flowers like orchids or use your greenhouse to prepare your plants earlier in the growing season and then transfer them outside when the weather warms.
Deciding on Your Greenhouse
We focused on making our greenhouse part of our landscape, so we worked with Hartley Botanic, a bespoke glass greenhouse design service. They specialize in Victorian-style handcrafted greenhouses that are larger-scale builds but available in a range of sizes.
Depending on where you live and the amount of space on your property, you may want to explore smaller greenhouse options too. Look for local builders who are familiar with the requirements of your area. More rural spots may allow you to add a small greenhouse, like a shed, without permits. Some folks use horticultural glass panels to build a small structure; others opt for upcycled glass windows to DIY. At the same time, larger-scale endeavors and those closer to urban areas may need to pull building permits and meet zoning requirements.
As for DIY glass greenhouses, lean-tos, and small widow-mounted greenhouses, you should still ensure that you're researching and following any permit requirements for your area. There are many small greenhouse kits you can purchase online. If you're handy, you can assemble a small greenhouse from a kit for your porch, patio, or balcony.
Starting with a small greenhouse is an excellent choice because you can make sure it's something you really enjoy and want to keep up. Greenhouses are beautiful, but the larger they are, the more maintenance they require. You'll want to be sure you're ready to maintain another structure on your property and budget for the necessary maintenance.
In North America, you’ll want to place your greenhouse in a south or southeastern-facing spot in your yard. Depending on the size and type of the structure, you may want to put it away from trees or in a place that's sheltered from storms. Even with strong, tempered glass, a glass greenhouse is vulnerable to heavy snow, hail, and other environmental hazards.
Exploring Greenhouse Structures
So, what type of greenhouse is best for your home, aesthetic, and space? It totally depends on the situation. You’ll also want to consider how much gardening you plan to do with the greenhouse. For example, if you plan to grow your own food or bouquets of flowers, you’ll need more space than a small hobby-type house.
Here are the different types of greenhouses to help you decide which is best for your home.
A Free-Standing Glass Greenhouse
If you choose a large, free-standing glass greenhouse, it's generally best to work with an expert on the build. An architect or greenhouse designer can help ensure that you get the design right and that it blends seamlessly with your property style. You'll also have the peace of mind that your greenhouse is structurally sound, well-built, and adding value to your property.
Free-standing greenhouses come in many shapes as well as sizes. You can opt for a rounded hoop house, a classic gothic-style or gabled greenhouse, or a simple A-frame. Most greenhouses fair better with a rounded or angled roof to protect the glass from any snow, rain, hail, or other heavy weather hazards.
A standalone greenhouse may feature a stone or concrete foundation, tile flooring, pea gravel, or dirt. Keep in mind that dirt flooring will make it more challenging to avoid mud, plant-harming fungi, mold, and pests. Therefore, it's best to choose a quality substrate for your floor.
As for the walls and frame of your greenhouse, it's a good idea to invest and choose wisely. Most long-term structures are built from galvanized steel or aluminum with tempered glass panels inset throughout the walls. Shorter-term structures might be constructed of wood or PVC with acrylic, polycarbonate, or fiberglass panels. Some use horticultural glass or greenhouse tempered glass panels. The higher quality and more specialized the materials, the longer-lasting and lower maintenance your greenhouse will be.
An Attached Greenhouse
If you'd prefer a greenhouse built against your home or connected to your window or patio, you have a few options. Lean-to-type greenhouses are a nice feature off a patio, sunroom, or porch. A lean-to-type greenhouse is a great option for those with smaller yards or limited space. Even-span greenhouses also connect to houses, garages, or sheds and can be an attractive option.
Image via Inigo
A smaller, window-mounted greenhouse is a nice option for those looking for a low commitment. While these greenhouses might only hold a few plants, they can be a great way to get started and test your enjoyment of the plant-care process before you fully invest.
Small shelf-type or dollhouse-style greenhouses are another low-commitment options. Many of these mini greenhouses are available to purchase as kits. Some feature very attractive designs and natural materials, making them a nice choice for those without significant time and space resources to allocate toward a larger greenhouse. Small houses look charming on a patio or porch or as part of a garden bed.
Image via BELDI Country Club
Does a Greenhouse Need Water and Electricity?
Water and electricity are essential considerations if you're adding a glass greenhouse to your property. Should you wire your greenhouse with electricity? It depends on the size, proximity to your property, personal preference, and of course, city regulations and building codes. The nice aspect of electricity is that you can better control light (even decorative lighting) and temperature in your greenhouse.
There’s also the option of solar panels and solar lights in your greenhouse. While these can work well and help make your greenhouse more eco-friendly, they may also require upkeep and an up-front investment. It's also important to consider your climate—in wintery months, you may be unable to rely solely on solar power.
Image via Hartley Botanic
The other benefit of electricity or solar power in your greenhouse is that power will allow you to control the temperature. Although glass greenhouses can become very warm when the sun is out, even in the winter, the temperature can dramatically shift when the sun goes down. Unfortunately, this can put your tropical plants, seedlings, and infant sprouts at risk. During the summer, a glass greenhouse can become extremely hot, which can also present a significant hazard. Again, temperature control will help keep the environment consistent.
As for the question of water access, you will definitely need a method for watering your plants. You could rely on a garden hose, depending on the proximity of your greenhouse to your home, but it’s very convenient and easy to have access to water in your greenhouse.
Temperature Control and the Surprising Benefit of Larger Greenhouses
Airflow and ventilation are crucial for the health of your plants. Most greenhouses operate better with a fan and venting to circulate the air throughout the space. Including a ventilation and airflow system will help keep the temperature in your greenhouse consistent.
Image via Hartley Botanic
People often assume that a smaller greenhouse is easier to maintain, but keeping a small greenhouse's temperature consistent is actually more challenging. A larger house will allow for better airflow. If you visit your local garden center, you'll likely notice that their greenhouses are long and narrow, allowing the house to get plenty of sun.
If you’re the type of person who gains joy and satisfaction from plants, a greenhouse is a wonderful way to create a sanctuary space on your property. If you're building a new home, a glass greenhouse is definitely a great addition. If you're considering it, you may want to start with a smaller house or visit some local greenhouses for inspiration.
So tell me, do you dream of having a glass greenhouse? Let me know in the comments!