The history of hydroponics goes back a few thousands of years. This is something that tends to surprise many people because it seems like the technology is relatively new.
However, it has taken centuries and a slow but steady development to get to where hydroponics is today.
And while the this technique of growing plants in water, nutrients and a growing medium sounds like something that’s straight out of science fiction movies, it is already being applied in large scale operations by many crop growers in North America.
Origins of Hydroponics
The origins of hydroponics are quite different from what we know them today. However, the concept of growing plants without having to rely on soil traces its roots back to 600 B.C. in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which is known today as Iran.
This is so far the earliest recording of the use of hydroponics. And it shows that modern hydroponics actually traces its origins back thousands of years.
As you would guess, the ancient hydroponics created by the Babylonians only worked near a body of water. In this case, it was the famed Euphrates River, which was one of two life bloods of the region. The other being the Tigris. The two rivers supported life because the area’s climate was very dry with very little rainfall.
This early form of hydroponics worked on a system of chains that was pulled in order to water the plants in the garden.
Similarly, there are documentations “floating gardens” used by the Aztec Indians in Mexico as early as 1100 B.C. These gardens in the water were called ‘chinampas’. And, there were actually rafts floating in the water anchored to the bottom of the lake.
Plants were grown on the rafts on top of soil which sat over reeds and vegetation. The reeds and vegetation provided drainage for the soil.
This setup allowed them to grow different kinds of vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, corn and squash.
In the 13th century, renowned explorer Marco Polo also wrote about the floating gardens he witnessed in China. It was something he had never seen before. However, because the floating gardens have been used by the Chinese for years before that, we can’t tell when they started using them or how to came about to inventing them.
History of Hydroponics – The 17th Century
The next major step in the history of hydroponics happened in the 1600s. This was when a Belgian chemist named Jean Baptista van Helmont found that plants obtained their minerals and nutrients, which he called substances, from water.
His findings were followed at the end of the 1600s by John Woodward who discovered that plants grew most in water which contained the most amount of soil.
It wasn’t until 1804 when the next development occurred. This was made by Nicolas De Saussure who theorized that plants were made up of elements absorbed from the air, soil and water.
It took nearly 50 years before Jean-Baptiste Boussingault proved this theory. To do so, he used only chemical nutrients, water and an insoluble artificial media to grow plants, showing that no soil was needed.
By 1861, Julius von Sachs, and Wilhelm Knop, both German botanists, created the first standard formula for nutrient solutions that can be used to grow plants in water. At the time, it was known as “nutriculture”, but we know it better today as water culture.
This method submerged the plants’ roots in water solution which contained nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Thus, allowing plants to obtain the essential nutrients they needed to survive and grow optimally.
While their setup was only implemented in a laboratory setting, it is what gave us the foundation of hydroponics, which is still being used today.
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To get to the hydroponics that we know today, there were are few more important developments in the 1900s.
Here, the development of the greenhouse industry played a big role in the continuing growth of hydroponics. This was due to the added focus on soil research including fertility, structure and pests.
But, it was not until 1937 when the word “hydroponics” was first used.
The term came from Dr. William Frederick Gericke who was a plant nutritionist at the University of California, Berkeley. He was able to prove his belief that plants can be grown in water and soil with the help of nutrient solution.
To do so, he grew 25 foot tall tomato vines in his backyard without using soil. Instead, he did so with water and nutrients.
This discovery was what propelled the University of California to put more efforts into researching this soilless plant growing method.
Soon after, Dennis R. Hoagland came up with a formulation that contained all the essential nutrients needed for plant growth. Just as importantly, this nutrient formula worked for many different species of plants.
Together with Daniel Aaron, Hoagland wrote the text “The Water Culture Method for Growing Plants without Soil” which is still considered the most important hydroponics publication to date.
As interest in hydroponics increased, its eventual commercialization occurred. In 1976, General Hydroponics, one of the leading suppliers of hydroponic nutrient solutions today, was founded by Lawrence Brooks.
In 1982, the well known EPCOT Center in Disney World, Florida opened an area where rides passed through an area that it calls “gardens of tomorrow”. Incidentally, the plants grown in this section were done via hydroponics.
Similarly, NASA is heavily invested in hydroponics with its interest of growing plants in relation of space, space travel and life outside Earth.
As of 2020, the hydroponics market is worth $9.5 billion market. It is expected to grow to as much as $17.9 billion by 2025. This is thanks to the continuing advances in technology as well as increase acceptance of the method.
As the moment, a large part of the tomato and lettuce production in U.S. and Canada are being grown hydroponically.
The reduced water consumption in hydroponics along with the rising cost of land will make it become a more viable substitute for farming. However, there’s still the challenge of profit.
Hydroponic operations need to be able to product positive income results to make it a practical option. This is something not all hydroponic farming opening are able to achieve at the moment.
Benefits of Hydroponics
The reason why hydroponics has continued to grow in popularity is because the world continues to change. The cost of land as well as the changes in the environment are all making traditional soil farming more difficult. And, as hydroponic technology improves, it continues to become a more practical option.
These are some of the main benefits of hydroponics.
- Don’t Need Soil – This is both a pro and a con. One of the biggest benefits of hydroponics is that you don’t need soil. This allows you to create a garden or grow crops even without a backyard. And, with real estate getting more expensive this may become a more viable option in the future. Additionally, you’re not dependent on the kind of soil you end up with. Even when you buy a plot with a backyard, you don’t always know what kind of soil you end up with. And, if it is suitable for growing plants or vegetables. However, on the downside, soil gives you more leeway for making mistakes. If you make those same mistakes in hydroponics, it can easily ruin your entire crop causing you to lose money.
- Uses Less Water Than Soil Gardening – despite relying on water, hydroponics actually uses less water than soil gardening. That’s because it can reuse or recirculate the water. In contrast, once the soil absorbs water, you can’t get it back. Since plants only use a small portion of the water, majority can be recycled back into the reservoir and be reused again.
- Oxygen Balance – watering is the biggest challenge for most growers when it comes soil gardening. You need to give the plant’s roots enough moisture but not too much that it cuts off oxygenation. That’s not a problem with hydroponics as the reservoir constantly has oxygen which allows the roots to get the right balance of air and water.
- More Control Over the Growing Environment – because you’re able to control the amount of water, what’s in the water, oxygenation and the nutrient content, you can adjust the living conditions of the plant as needed. In contrast, soil prevents you from having complete control. Pests, diseases and other issues can easily happen. Plus, the soil can get compacted which poses another problem.
What Happens Next? The Future of Hydroponics
Nobody knows that the future holds. But, we do know that the technology of hydroponics continues to develop. And, the market for hydroponically produced crops is growing at a very healthy rate of double digits a year.
Because of urban development and the need for large parcels of land for agriculture, there will likely come a point where hydroponics will make much more sense for many growers. The question comes down to whether operating hydroponic farms can be profitable relative to traditional farming.