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The History Of Hydroponics

You might think that hydroponics is a relatively new method for growing plants – you’d be wrong! Plants first grew in oceans and lakes before moving onto land, so the concept of plants growing without soil and getting their nutrients from water is as old as creation.

Gardeners have been growing plants in hydroponic gardens for at least 2600 years, possibly beginning with the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon built around 600 BC in Babylonia or Mesopotamia and situated along the Euphrates River. It’s believed that these gardens were watered using a chain pull system which carried water up from the river and allowed it to trickle down to each step or landing of the garden.  

Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back to several hundred years BC show plants being grown in water along the Nile without soil.

Research has found that the Greek scientists Theophrastus (327-287 BC) undertook various experiments involving hydroponics and Dioscorides carried out botanical studies dating back to the first century AD

In the 10th and 11th centuries the Aztec people created floating gardens in Lake Tenochtitan in Mexico. To create these floating gardens they took soil from the bottom of the lake – soil which was rich in nutrients. The soil was placed on the top of rafts (made from rushes and reeds) and plants planted into the soil. The plants would send their roots through the soil, through the raft and into the nutrient-rich water of the lake. These rafts, which never sank, were sometimes joined together to form floating ‘islands, as big as 200ft long!

Marco Polo witnessed similar ‘floating gardens’ where rice was grown, whilst visiting China in the late 13th century

In 1600 Belgium Jan van Helmont planted a one-pound willow shoot into a pipe containing 200 pounds of dried soil. In 1605 the willow weighed 160 pounds and the soil still weighed 200 pounds. This was a result of the willow absorbing nutrients through water and air – up until this date scientists weren’t aware of this fact.

In the 1620s Sir Francis Bacon, a British scientist, philosopher and politician did research on soil-less gardening. His work, ‘Sylva Sylvarum’ published in 1627, started a wave of research into hydroponics.

In 1699 the British scientist John Woodward (a fellow of the Royal Society of England) mixed together water and soil to use as a root media – he was one of the first people to understand that plants absorb nutrients from soil and water – many credit Woodward as the first person to make a hydroponic plant food. This research was carried out so early that he was not able to identify specific growing elements – he was only able to conclude that growth was as  a result of certain substances and minerals.

In 1804 it was established by Nicolas De Saussure that plants are composed of mineral and chemical elements which plants obtained from water, soil and air. By 1842 a list of nine elements believed to be essential to plant growth had been identified.

Throughout the 1850’s French scientist Jean Baptiste Boussingault carried out experiments with inert growing media. He was able to conclude that water was essential for plant growth by providing hydrogen and that dry plant matter consisted of hydrogen together with carbon and oxygen which plants derived from the air. His research also states that plants contain nitrogen and other mineral elements and he was able to identify these mineral elements and to what proportions they were necessary for optimum plant growth. Boussingault’s research was a major breakthrough for what would later be termed ‘hydroponics’.

In 1860 German scientist Julius von Sachs, professor of Botany at the University of Wurzburg (1832-1897) published the first standard formula for a nutrient solution that could be dissolved in water and in which plants could be grown successfully.  This was the origin of ‘nutriculture’. This early work was able to demonstrate that normal plant growth could be achieved by immersing the roots of a plant in a water solution containing nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, calcium and magnesium. 

By the early 1900s scientists such as Tollens (1882), Tottingham (1914), Shive (1915), Hoagland (1919), Deutschmann (1932), Trelease (1933), Arnon (1938) and Robbins (1946) had analysed the minerals and other materials which are necessary for plant growth and had devised formulas for liquid nutrients that could be used instead of soil – many of which are still used today in laboratory research on plant nutrition and physiology. 
However, prior to 1925 most of the work done with soilless growing was restricted to the laboratory. It wasn’t until 1925 that the greenhouse industry started to express an interest in soilless growing. Between 1925 to 1930s extensive work was carried out to use this soilless growing for large scale crop production. 

In 1924 Dr William F Gericke of the University of California created the word ‘hydroponics’ to describe crops growing in non-soil media and nutrient–enriched water indoors and outdoors. Prior to this date hydroponics was referred to us ‘nutriculture’, ‘chemiculture’ or ‘aquaculture’. Gericke grew vegetables hydroponically – in fact during his experiments he managed to grow tomatoes to heights of 25ft – photographs of Gericke standing on a step ladder to gather his crops appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Gericke’s work is considered to be the basis for all forms of hydroponic growing – even though the system he employed was at that time too sensitive and required too much monitoring to be used in commercial applications. 

GARDENING GOSSIP

Although Gericke is credited with giving hydroponics its name, his work is clouded by scandal. Although his work was carried out whilst he was employed at Berkeley, he claimed that his work on hydroponics was carried out in his own time. He refused to share any of his work or research and left the university before publishing his famous work ‘Complete Guide to Soil-Less Gardening’. It was Hoagland and Arnon (below) whom Berkeley asked to replicate his research. 

In 1938 Berkeley scientists Dennis Hoagland and Daniel Arnon published ‘The Water Culture Method for Growing Plants without Soil’. This is widely considered to be one of the most important texts ever published about hydroponics – with several of the mineral nutrient solutions (known as Hoagland solution) they developed still being used today. 

During the late 1940s Robert and Alice Withrow, working at the Purdue University Indiana, developed a more practical hydroponic method compared to that of Gericke. They used an inert gravel as the rooting medium held within a large container. By alternately flooding and draining the gravel with a nutrient solution, the roots of the plants gained both air and nutrients. This method became known as the gravel method of hydroponics – also termed ‘nutriculture’. 

During World War II (1939-1945) this ‘gravel method’ was used in order to grow thousands of tonnes of food for soldiers in remote locations where conventional growing was impossible. 

In 1945 the U.S. Air Force employed large scale hydroponics in order to supply its personnel with fresh crops. One of the first large scale hydroponic farms was established on the Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. This island was used as a rest and fuel stop with a large number of personnel living there to service the planes. Unfortunately the island was completely barren – making it the perfect location for hydroponics to be used. Using the ‘gravel method’ (earlier described) this method was so successful it was also used on other islands, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa. 

From this time onwards the military have continued to use hydroponics to feed their troops – during 1952 the U.S. Army had a special hydroponics branch which was able to produce over 8,000,000 lbs of fresh produce. 

Throughout the 1950’s the commercial use of hydroponics expanded throughout countries including England, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain and USSR.

By the 1960’s hydroponics had become a major industry worldwide, being popular in parts of America, Australia, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, the Middle East, Russia and South Africa.

In 1982 ‘The Land Pavilion’ at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT centre opened and prominently features a variety of hydroponic techniques.
In recent years NASA has carried out extensive research for their ‘Controlled Ecological Life Support System’ or ‘CELSS’. Hydroponics intended to take place on Mars are using LED lighting to grow in different colour spectrum with much less heat. 

Whilst the commercial use of hydroponics has increased, during the same period gardeners have started to use hydroponic systems to produce flowers and vegetables in their own homes and this has continued to increase in popularity.  

Nowadays hydroponics is becoming increasingly important as global warming, desertification, oil and water shortages are becoming increasingly significant. And hydroponics is now being favoured more by amateur gardeners and small scale growers as well as their commercial counterparts. Recent research has found that there are over 1,000,000 households in the U.S. use hydroponics to grow food alone. 

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