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Hydroponics – History and Background

Did you know that growing without soil is – ahem – as old as dirt? In fact, the ancient Egyptians grew plants hydroponically as early as 1460 B.C., about 800 years before they finished building the last of the great pyramids. Other early adopters include the Inca and Aztec Indian tribes and Babylonians, who practiced hydroponic gardening long before Dr. Gerike, a plant professor at the University of California, Davis dreamed up the word ‘hydroponics.’ Many countries, including China, Holland, Germany, and Australia have used hydroponics to produce crops with truly remarkable results.

Modern hydroponics traces its roots back to English scientist John Woodward. Woodward had a burning urge to discover what actually provided the nutrients for plants. So he began growing spearmint in distilled water, adding soil bit by bit each day to see how the plants would fare. As he added the soil, the plants became haler and hardier, which led him to conclude that plants grow better in less pure water sources. From these early experiments, many new wonderings and discoveries led to our modern science of hydroponics.

Today, most methods of hydroponic growing come from the ideas of Dr. Gerike who invented the name. He took his moniker from the Greek words “hydro” and “ponos,” meaning water and labor – thus ‘working water.’ Dr. Gerike became famous for producing tomato plants taller than a two-storey building through his method of soilless gardening. Who wouldn’t want to follow in those footsteps?

Throughout the 1900s and beyond, scientists and horticulturists experimented with different methods of soilless growing. One significant motivator included fighting desert expansion and finding ways to grow produce in non-arable areas of the globe. Scientists with the space program at NASA began thinking about how to feed astronauts on long duration missions to the moon or Mars. Hydroponics offered a promising solution that could provide elements of a fresh, healthy diet. It could also aid in cleaning the air inside a spacecraft through dispensing removal of the toxic carbon dioxide that astronauts naturally create in the breathing process. Their research continues to this day.

By the 1970’s, enthusiastic farmers, hobbyists and marijuana growers had jumped onto the hydroponics bandwagon. They correctly surmised that hydroponics technology might increase yields over traditional soil-based methods. The promise of producing food in dry areas or those with scrabbly soil fueled their passion. In addition, an emergent market of people crying for the reduced use of pesticides and cleaner air, water, and soil provided a great rationale for further exploration.

Though interest had proliferated prior to the 1970s, prohibitive costs and immature, complicated technologies held back commercial hydroponics in the United States. The advent of high tech plastics and friendlier operability changed all that. New, energy saving poly greenhouse covers, PVC pipe used in feed systems, and nutrient injector pumps and reservoir tanks made vast expansion of hydroponics ideas and use possible. Small and large hydroponic farms began to crop up toward the end of the decade that proved soilless growing could not only produce great, healthy yields, but handsome profits. In tandem, ecologically minded scientists began to develop control systems that would create ideal growing environments as well as good food.

Now hydroponics is far from obscure. Today, all over the world, nurseries start vegetables, fruit, flowers and tree seedlings using the technique. Their greenhouses generate millions of plant seedlings annually that later get transported to larger growing areas or transplanted into soil for more permanent growth. Hydroponics reaches an array of culinary gurus: Food experts, chefs, and those looking to create out-of-the-ordinary offerings for the curious and culinary minded. Recently, Sebastian Buerba the Quantum Chef, featured on BBC news and in, purchased hydroponic equipment to grow exotic, colorful micro-greens to titillate his gastronomic readership.

In addition, the pool of knowledge about soil less growing has mushroomed wildly. Educators find that hydroponics provides unique opportunities to engage students. Hobbyist gardeners have turned their passion into a means of support, as they expand production in backyard greenhouses to supply hungry restaurants and juice bars. Indeed, today even average Joe and Jane purchase hydroponics systems to grow delicious and healthful produce for their families.

Commercial growers have begun switching to hydroponic cultivation in greater and greater numbers as societies begin to understand the complexities of population explosion and the need for a cleaner world. Other factors fueling the fast growing field of commercial hydroponics include:

  1. Higher quality crops and yields
  2. Reduced worry over soil-borne diseases and pests
  3. Rapid harvests

Not to mention…which grower wouldn’t appreciate spending less time and profits on weed killing? These factors explain why the popularity of hydroponics has reached such explosive levels. Experimentation and research in the area of indoor and outdoor soilless growing continues at a feverish pace.

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