Light provides the energy necessary for plants to produce food through photosynthesis. Even though the amount of light inside your greenhouse usually depends on the amount of natural sunlight available, it's helpful to understand a bit about plants' light needs.

Greenhouse Climates

The following greenhouse characterizations are based on the temperature that can be maintained inside the greenhouse. They range from the least to the most expensive to build and maintain. Refer to this information when reviewing what you want to grow in your greenhouse.

Greenhouse Conditions

Greenhouse environments require some control and monitoring

While a greenhouse can provide a delightful environment where living things thrive, it is an artificial environment in which you attempt to control as many factors as possible for the benefit of your plant denizens. It helps to recall what actually makes plants grow. Plants convert light into energy (sugar) during photosynthesis. This process requires light, carbon dioxide, temperatures between 45°F and 85°F, and water.


The material that covers a greenhouse and through which the sunlight passes is called glazing. There are many types available, each with advantages and disadvantages. These include glass, acrylic, polycarbonate panels, polyethylene films, and fiberglass. If you're building, buying, or reconstructing a greenhouse, you'll want to talk with experts and manufacturers about the pros, cons, and costs of various materials.


Whether your greenhouse is attached or freestanding, it's important to choose a location (site) that will give you the most sunlight when it's in use, during fall and spring for most schools.

Figuring Costs

The cost of building or buying a greenhouse varies tremendously. It could range from several hundred dollars for an unheated polyethylene greenhouse to $3,500 or more for a year-round, automated, heated structure. Northern climate growers should consider the cost of heating, while schools in southern climates need to be more concerned with ventilating and cooling.

Growing Wildlife Habitats

"There is such a push to teach kids about biodiversity and interdependence through studying rainforests that are thousands of miles away, but it's much more powerful and effective to first explore these same concepts up close in our own backyards," says Waco, TX, educator Mary Nied Phillips.

In an effort to increase biodiversity on their urban school grounds, Mary's primary students turned a grassy courtyard into a thriving "wildscape."

Grass Feeds the World

Students' eyes might roll when you ask, Who eats grass for breakfast? Seize the opportunity to challenge them to bring in empty boxes, wrappers, or containers of things they ate for breakfast that week.

Ask, What part of the plant do you think we eat when we eat grasses? Offer a hint by passing around some familiar items that come from grasses: popcorn and rice. Ask, What plant parts have you observed that also look like these? Explain that while animals can digest the leaves and stems of grasses, humans worldwide depend on grass seeds for survival.

Field of Greens

Exploring Grasses

"Several years ago, as part of a math unit on grids and measurement, my fourth graders grew grasses right at their desks in mini-greenhouses made from recycled plastic containers," reports Cox's Creek, KY, teacher Fred Siler. As students observed, measured growth, and cared for grasses up close (then moved the plants to the GrowLab for more light), they discussed the roles and importance of grasses to humans and wildlife.

Solar vs. Supplemental Heat

There is a distinction between greenhouses that are heated largely by the sun and those that receive supplemental heat. In all but the deep South of the United States, the sun is never directly overhead, but moves across the southern sky from east to west. Its arc is higher in the summer and lower in the winter.

Solar greenhouses are meant to maximize light and heat, and to heat with the same light used to grow.

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Last updated on 12/16/2014
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