Incredibly, some form of hydroponics has been around for thousands of years. The fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon thrived due to some kind of early hydroponic system, and then there are the Chinese floating gardens that Marco wrote about in his journals. There are also reports of the Aztecs growing crops on rafts of reeds in their Chinampas (floating gardens).
In the 17th century a Belgian chemist named Jean Baptista van Helmont showed that plants took what they needed to grow from ‘substances’ in water. Those ‘substances’ are what we now call nutrients. He created an experiment where a willow tree grew to over 70kg in weight, but the soil that it was standing in stayed the same weight.
By 1699, John Woodward, an English scientist, was experimenting with growing plants in different ratios of water and soil. Interestingly, his work led him to believe that although there were definitely nutrients in the soil that the plants needed, the soil was mainly there to physically support the plants.
Hydroponics as we know it, really came with the research of Dr. William Frederick Gericke from the University of California. He initially called his method of using water rather than soil to grow plants ‘aquaculture’, but began to use the term ‘hydroponics’ for the first time in 1937. It comes from combining the Greek words for water, ‘hydro’ with the word for labour or work ‘ponos’ and Gericke adopted it because he worked with water, rather than soil. Gericke’s most famous success came in growing huge, 25 foot tall, tomato plants using only water and nutrients. Suddenly hydroponics had arrived.
Then in 1933, a Professor of Plant Nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley named Dennis Hoagland wrote about a nutrient solution for growing plants. He had spent World War 1 developing plant food from brown algae as the war had disrupted imports of regular fertilisers from the German Empire. The Hoagland solution is the cornerstone of the nutrient solutions used in hydroponics today. Through his work, Hoagland showed that a lack of just one vital element like zinc can cause disease in some plants.
With further research, his original solution was adapted to suit a broad range of plants. By the time World War 2 rolled around, the US Army was reportedly using hydroponics to grow food on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. Wake Island was an important refueling stop for the American Forces, but had no soil. With hydroponics, the lack of dirt wasn’t an issue.
Since then, hydroponic solutions and systems have been turned into big business. In 1976, Lawrence Brooks started ‘General Hydroponics’ and his company is still at the forefront of all things hydroponic.
With increased concern for the welfare of our planet, the requirement for this water and energy efficient method of growing crops will only grow. Indeed, there are projections that the hydroponic market will be worth US$16.6 billion by 2025.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon may be the stuff of legend, but hydroponics are still with us and look like they are just coming into their own.