Greenhouse history takes an intriguing turn with the notable contribution of John Evelyn, a figure often credited for his part in transforming horticulture.

May Woods and Arete Swartz Warren, in their 1988 book “A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries and Conservatories,” shed light on Evelyn’s involvement in the evolution of the greenhouse, a role that is both pivotal and contextually intriguing.

While the Oxford English Dictionary credits Evelyn for being the first to use the term ‘conservatory‘ in the 1664 edition of his work “Kalendarium Hortense,” the first edition extensively discussing greenhouse mechanics emerged in 1691. This edition featured a fully illustrated proposal for a greenhouse, accompanied by Evelyn’s acknowledgment of the use of ordinary iron stoves to moderate the greenhouse’s temperature.

Evelyn, however, was not the originator of the greenhouse concept. His diaries mention encounters with conservatories at Cardinal Richelieu’s residence in Rueil in 1644 and Lord Arlington’s estate at Euston in 1677. Evelyn differentiates the conservatory from the greenhouse at Euston, showcasing the early diversity in these structures.

The introduction of stoves was not Evelyn’s invention either, we can see that from a letter to Lord Sandwich in 1668. In this letter, he discusses the challenges posed by stoves. Even the concept of underfloor heating in greenhouses predates Evelyn’s 1691 edition, as he describes visiting Chelsea in 1685 to witness John Watts’ work, who had implemented subterranean heating using a stove. and of course the Romans used underfloor heating (hypercausts) in their villas, so the concept wasn’t new!

Evelyn’s distinctive contribution was in modifying the heating method to introduce fresh air without causing sudden temperature changes. His 1691 proposal laid the groundwork for a more efficient greenhouse, addressing issues like heat control and ventilation. Sir Dudley Cullum, an antiquary living in Suffolk, corresponded with Evelyn, expressing a desire to perfect the greenhouse heating method.

Cullum’s letter to Evelyn, dated January 5, 1693, unveils a collaborative effort to enhance greenhouse heating. He suggested wider ground pipes and a collateral channel to distribute surplus vapour evenly. Evelyn’s response, though complex, emphasized the importance of introducing fresh air along with warmth, marking a significant step toward creating a more advanced greenhouse.

In retrospect, these letters not only showcase the collaborative nature of inventions but also provide insights into the practicalities of creating an efficient greenhouse. John Evelyn’s contributions, far from mere invention, lie in refining and perfecting the mechanisms that would later revolutionise greenhouse technology, allowing for the expansion of horticulture in the landscape gardens of the eighteenth century and on into the advanced computerised systems used of food production today.

The stove image below post dates Evelyn and is from circa 1837.The principles are however similar.

greenhouse history owes a lot to John Evelyn. This image is of 1837 stoves

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