Hydroponics: Past, Present, Future 2-1

                           Hydroponics: Past, Present, Future

When you are first introduced to hydroponics, you may assume that is a new concept. That assumption is incorrect. Although hydroponics has become very high-tech, it is at least as old as the pyramids.

The First Hydroponic Gardens... 600 BC
Plants have grown in our lakes and oceans from the beginning of time but, as a farming practice, many believe it started in the ancient city of Babylon. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are believed to be the first successful attempts to grow plants hydroponically.

Along the Nile, hieroglyphic records dating back several hundred years BC describe the growing of plants in water, without soil.

Before the time of Aristotle, Theophrastus (327-287 BC) undertook various experiments in crop nutrition. Botanical studies by Dioscorides date back to the first century A.D.

The Floating Gardens of the Aztecs
In the 11th century, The Aztecs of Central America, a nomadic tribe that was driven onto the marshy shore of Lake Tenochtitlan in the central valley of what is now Mexico, practiced hydroponic growing methods out of necessity. Without land to grow plants, they were forced to learn other ways of producing crops. Being a very ingenuous people, they built rafts out of rushes and reeds, lashing the stalks together with roots. They dredged up soil from the shallow bottom of the lake and piled it onto the rafts.

Floating Rafts of the Aztecs

Soil was taken from the bottom of Lake Tenochtitlan and placed on the rafts which were made of reeds, rushes and weeds. The soil was rich in organic debris which provided nutrients to the plants. Plants were placed on top of the soil. The plant roots grew through the soil and down into the water be- low. Some of the Chinampas were as long as 200 feet, growing vegetables, flowers.

Because the soil came from the bottom of the lake, it was rich in organic debris that held nutrients necessary for plant growth. Vegetables, flowers and even trees were grown on these floating rafts, called Chinampas. The plant roots would grow through the mats and down into the water.

The Chinampas were sometimes joined together to form floating islands as large as 200 feet long. Some Chinampas had a resident gardener who harvested and sold the vegetables and
flowers on the raft.

As the Aztec village became huge, so did their floating gardens.
During the invasion of the Aztec villages by the Spaniards in the 16th century. these floating gardens were witnessed and documented. Such an innovative, yet productive plant growing system must have shocked the invaders.

U se of the Chinampas, or floating gardens, continued into the 19th century and some remnants can still be seen in Mexico today.

Other Examples of Hydroponics in History
Another example of hydroponics was described by Marco Polo in his famous journals. As he traveled through China (c1275 -c1292), he wrote of the floating gardens of the Chinese.

1600's: Early Scientific Experiments in Hydroponics:
In 1600, Belgian Jan van Helmont derived that plants obtain substances for growth from water by planting as lb willow shoot in a tube containing 200 pounds of dried soil. After 5 years of regular watering with rainwater, he found the willow shoot increased in weight by 160 lbs, but the soil lost less than 2 ounces. What he did not realize was that plants also require carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air.

In 1699, plants were grown in water containing various amounts of soil by John Woodward. a fellow of the Royal Society of England. Mr. Woodward found that the greatest growth occurred in the water which contained the most soil. He concluded that plant growth was a result of certain substances and minerals in the water, derived from the soil. This mixture of water and soil was the first man-made hydroponic nutrient solution.

European plant physiologists established many things in the decades that followed Woodward's research. They proved that water is absorbed by plant roots, that it passes through the plants stem system and that it escapes into the air through pores in the leaves. They also showed that plant roots take up minerals from either soil or water and that leaves draw carbon dioxide from the air. They also demonstrated that plant roots take up oxygen.

The determination of precisely what it was that the plants were taking up was delayed until the modern theory of chemistry made great advances in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In 1792 English scientist Joseph Priestly discovered that plants placed in a chamber filled with carbon dioxide will gradually absorb the carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Two years later, Jean Ingen-Housz demonstrated that plants in a chamber filled with carbon dioxide could replace the gas with oxygen within several hours if the chamber was placed in sunlight. It was a fact that the plant was responsible for this transformation. eluding to the first concept of photosynthesis.

1800's -1920's: Great Scientific Breakthroughs
Between the early 1800's and the 1920's, phenomenal discoveries and developments were achieved in laboratory studies of plant physiology and plant nutrition. In 1925. the greenhouse industry expressed interested in the newly acquired knowledge in "Nutriculture," as it was called at that time. Between 1925- 1935, extensive development took place in converting the laboratory techniques of nutriculture to large-scale crop production.

1930's: Dr. William F Gericke
In the late 1920's and early 1930's, Dr. William F. Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley, focused his research on growing practical crops for large scale commercial applications. During this time, he coined the term, "hydroponics", which was derived from the Greek words, hydro (meaning water) and ponos (meaning labor) literally "water-working." His work and research is considered the basis for all forms of hydroponic growing even though it was primarily limited to water culture without the use of a growing medium.

Dr. Gericke was photographed with tomato plants that exceeded 25 ft. in length. These photographs appeared in newspapers throughout the country and created both excitement and skepticism in the general public. Promoters and equipment manufacturers proceeded to cash in on the media-hype by selling useless equipment and materials promoted to grow goliath plants.

In reality, Dr. Gericke's newly developed hydroponic growing system was far too scientific and complex for most potential commercial growers.

1940's: Hydroponic Technology Used in W W II to Feed Troops
During the late 1940's, a more practical hydroponic method was developed by Robert B. and Alice P. Withrow, working at Purdue University. Their system alternately flooded and drained a container holding gravel and the 
plant roots. This provided the plants with the optimum amount of both nutrient solution and air.

During World War II the shipping of fresh vegetables overseas was not practical and remote islands where troops were stationed were not a place where they could be grown in the soil. Hydroponic technology was tested as a viable source for fresh vegetables during this time.

In 1945, the US Air Force built one of the first large hydroponic farms on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, followed by additional hydroponic farms on the islands of  Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific, using crushed volcanic rock as the growing medium and, on Wake Island west of Hawaii, using gravel as the growing medium. These hydroponic farms helped fill the need for a supply of fresh vegetables for troops stationed in these areas.

During this time, large hydroponic facilities were established in Habbaniya, Iraq and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, to support troops stationed in those areas near large oil reserves.

The American Army and Royal Air Force built hydroponic units at various military bases to help feed troops. In 1952, the US Army's special hydroponics branch grew over 8,000,000 lbs. of fresh produce for military demand. Also established at this time was one of the world's largest hydroponic farms in Chofu, Japan, consisting of 22 hectares.

Following the success of hydroponics in W W II, several large commercial hydroponic farms were built in the US, most of which were in Florida. Due to poor construction and management, many of these farms were unsuccessful.

1945-1960's: Use of Hydroponic Culture Expands
Because no soil was needed and, with proper management optimum results could be had, the excitement over hydroponics continued and its use expanded throughout the world, specifically in Holland, Spain, France, England Germany, Sweden, the USSR and Israel. Areas with little rainfall, poor or no soil and difficult access were ideal for hydroponic culture.

Between 1945- 1960's both individuals and garden equipment manufacturers were designing hydroponic units for home use. Some were quite efficient while others failed due to poor growing media, unsuitable construction materials, poor construction and improper environmental control.

Even with many failures, the idea of creating the ultimate growing system intrigued many and research and design continued in the field of hydroponic culture.

1970-80's: New Technology Brings Hydroponic Production into Mainstream 
In the mid 1970' s another media blitz about the miracles achieved with hydroponic technology hit the United States. Again, hydroponics was considered a get rich quick scheme and many hopeful investors lost big money on failed hydroponic farms. 

Even though the potential of hydroponic culture is incredible, commercial hydroponics in the US was held back until hydroponic systems that were economical to build and relatively easy to operate, became available in the marketplace. With the advent of high-tech plastics and simpler system design, this came about in the late 1970's. The energy saving poly greenhouse covers, the PVC (or similar) pipe used in the feed systems, the nutrient injector pumps and reservoir tanks are all made of types of plastic that weren't available prior to the 1970' s.

As both small and large hydroponic farms were established in the late 1970's, it was proven that, with proper management, hydroponic culture could produce premium produce and be a profitable venture. As hydroponics attracted more growers, complete plant nutrient formulas and hydroponic greenhouse systems were being marketed. Environmental control systems were being developed to help to growers provide the ideal plant environment in addition to the ideal plant diet.