NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Legend has it the Emperor Nero plucked serenely on his harp while watching Rome burn. It isn't too far-fetched to imagine him snacking on a few cucumber slices at the time, delivered fresh from his hobby greenhouse.
Nero is credited with being among the first in those pre-glass days with a controlled environment for protecting plants grown out of season -- probably to feed his cucumber cravings.
Still, it took several centuries for the concept to catch on. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that Europeans developed a taste for citrus fruits, prompting the construction of sun-enriched structures called ''orangeries.''
These mica-clad buildings were created primarily to serve the whims of royalty during gardening's down season. Most were heated with fresh, steaming piles of livestock dung, according to Barbara Wich, in a recent issue of Hobby Greenhouse magazine.
We've come a long way since then. Space Age materials like double-wall polycarbonate glazing are common components in today's greenhouse kits. And you don't have to be a member of the landed gentry to afford scientifically well-connected heating, watering and ventilating systems.
Styles vary. While a few of the estimated three million hobby houses in North America can't be differentiated from their commercial cousins, most are smaller and many are likely to be attached to another structure.
Hobby greenhouse gardeners ''grow anything that you can grow indoors, from tropicals to vegetables to perennials and annuals, and most start seeds for their outdoor gardens in late winter or early spring, depending upon their location,'' says Janice Hale of the Hobby Greenhouse Association at Bedford, Mass.
''Some members also use their greenhouses as hobby businesses -- no doubt to support their habit of acquiring fancy plants to grow under glass,'' she says.
Structures can be as simple as a sheet of recycled plastic staked out over a table of seedlings to a Victorian-style conservatory, with sound system and lounge chairs arranged around a potting bench.
But you have to decide first what it is you want your greenhouse to do for you.
Planning simply to over-winter some potted plants? Easily done in a cool or frost-free greenhouse under nighttime temperatures maintained at 40- to 45 degrees.
Care to cultivate some kitchen herbs for the upcoming holiday season? Then run a slightly warmer greenhouse, with nighttime temperatures holding at around 55 degrees. Use grow lights to help boost enrichment from the less intense winter sun.
Hoping to hybridize some tropical plants while there's still snow on the ground? Then you'll probably opt for something resembling a sweatshop -- a greenhouse heated to 65 degrees or so at night and humidified to a dripping mist. You'll have to make it a jungle in there for at least several hours a day.
Whatever you decide, plan well ahead.
''The Number One response from the new greenhouse owner is, 'I should have gotten a larger one (kit),''' says Karen Hunter, retail and customer service manager for Charley's Greenhouse & Garden Supply in Mount Vernon, Wash. ''If people are going to use the greenhouse, it gets small rather quickly.
''Also, the larger the greenhouse, the easier it is to maintain a constant environment,'' Hunter says. ''Small spaces heat up and cool down quickly.''
Few places in the world can't support a greenhouse operation.
Some years ago, my partner built a freestanding structure from wood and Visqueen and used it through winter for propagating orchids, cultivating culinary crops and forcing flower bulbs. That was while living in Kotzebue, Alaska, about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle.
No matter what your address, the key to a good greenhouse microclimate is the real estate mantra of location, location, location.
Site your greenhouse where it will get the maximum amount of direct winter sunlight at least six hours a day. An east-west axis captures the most November-to-February daylight.
Installing fans in your hobby greenhouse is a smart investment. Ventilation helps control temperatures, replenishes plant-enriching carbon dioxide and removes moisture, which discourages mold.
Wherever found, the four-season activity seems to be growing.
''We have found that interest in hobby greenhouses has risen in light of bio-genetically engineered food, the high cost of organic food and the tragic events of 9-11,'' Hunter says. ''People are staying home and family is their priority.''
A few more cucumber slices, anyone?
On the Net:
Hobby Greenhouse Association: http://www.hobbygreenhouse.org
More about hobby greenhouses: http://hgic.clemson.edu; http://www.charleysgreenhouse.com; http://www.idahofreedom.com
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Dean Fosdick retired in May after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net
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