One of the earliest examples of hydroponics was introduced in 1699 by a member of the Royal Society of England. 

John Woodward grew plants in water with various types of soil to create a nutrient-filled water solution. He proved that plants obtain substances and minerals from enriched soil instead of directly from the water. 

The first hydroponics systems involving soilless growing media were developed in the middle of the 19th century. Scientists grew plants in media comprised of sand, quartz, and charcoal while using a nutrient solution to nourish the root system.

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Hydroponics Technically Predates Traditional Agriculture

Hydroponics involves growing plants in a nutrient solution. Technically, the earliest forms of plant life on the planet involved hydroponics, as the first plants appeared in the ocean.

Hydroponics Technically Predates Traditional Agriculture

As a method of plant cultivation, hydroponic growing may be traced back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The hanging gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

The plants were supported on stone columns while water traveled down sloping channels to saturate the plant’s roots. 

Archeologists have also uncovered Egyptian hieroglyphics showcasing the growth of plants without soil along the Nile River. 

The Aztecs may have also used a form of hydroponics to grow their floating gardens. The floating garden was comprised of rafts covered with soil. The roots would grow through the soil and the rafts into the water below. 

Scientists Search for the Nutrients Needed for Plant Growth

The hanging gardens of Babylon and the floating Aztec gardens are early examples of plants growing in water. Yet, both examples involve the use of water from natural sources, including rivers and streams. 

The rivers and streams likely contained many of the nutrients needed to sustain plant life. Simply placing a plant in a container of water doesn’t work. 

Plants need specific mineral nutrients to thrive, which makes it difficult for scientists to successfully grow plants without soil. 

In 1792, English scientist Joseph Priestley determined that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Scientists later discovered that plants contain nitrogen and other minerals obtained from the soil. 

By the 1850s, scientists could grow plants in sand and other inert media using a water solution containing the required minerals. In 1860, Julius von Sachs published the first standard formula for an effective nutrient solution.

The nutrient solution developed by Julius von Sachs could be dissolved in water and successfully feed a plant grown in soilless media. This marked the birth of “Nutriculture,” which is the study of the essential nutrients required for normal plant growth. 

What Elements Do Plants Need to Survive?

Most nutrient solutions include a mixture of macronutrients, including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Calcium (Ca), sulfur (S), and magnesium (Mg) are also part of the essential macronutrients needed for plant growth.

By the late 1800s, scientists had discovered additional microelements needed for healthy plants. Plants need iron (Fe), boron (B), copper (Cu), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), and zinc (Zn) in limited quantities. 

The nutrients are added to a water culture. The soilless culture in a hydroponic garden feeds the plants.

Did You Know? Hydroponics means “water-working.” It comes from two Greek words – hydro (water) and ponos (labor). Dr. William F. Gericke of the University of California coined the term in the late 1920s.

The First Hydroponics for Commercial Applications

Dr. William F. Gericke was one of the first individuals to test hydroponics for large-scale commercial growing. He used a water solution culture in large reservoirs for growing food, including root crops, beets, radishes, carrots, and potatoes.

The use of hydroponics continued to increase throughout the 1940s, especially after World War II. 

The US Air Force built a large hydroponic farm on an island in the Pacific Ocean to supply fresh vegetables to troops. 

Unfortunately, most of the hydroponics methods were primarily used for commercial applications, such as large-scale food production. The systems remained too complex for household indoor farming.

Modern Hydroponic Systems for Home Gardening

Aeroponics, nutrient film technique (NFT), and deep-water culture (DWC) are three of the most used forms of modern hydroponics for home growers. 

Most hobby growers use the DWC method for hydroponic plants. It involves the use of net pots filled with soilless growing medium, such as coconut coir or rockwool. The media holds the base of the plant and helps attract microbial activity, which increases nutrient uptake.

The roots grow through the net pots and reach the water reservoir below. A pump keeps the water circulating to reduce the risk of mold growth. However, it’s not the most efficient system.

The rectangular water reservoir wastes nutrients. The NFT method includes similar features but offers a more efficient nutrient delivery system.

NFT was developed in 1965 by Allen Cooper. Instead of allowing the roots to rest in a rectangular water reservoir, the roots grow in a narrow channel. 

The channel is elevated at one end. A shallow stream of water travels through the channel, supplying the roots with a nutrient-rich solution. As the water travels out of the channel, the roots receive oxygen. NFT also makes it easier to set up vertical farming, which involves stacking more than one hydroponics system.

Aeroponics is another modern form of hydroponics commonly used in homes. Aeroponics was originally developed in the 1940s, but the term was coined in 1957.

F.W. Went created an air-growing process called aeroponics that involved suspending the roots in the air. Instead of a flow of water, the roots receive nutrients from a misting system.

The first commercially manufactured aeroponic growing system was the Genesis Machine, which was released in 1983. The latest aeroponic systems are user-friendly, cost-effective, and available in complete kits that come with everything needed to start growing.

Summary

The history of hydroponics likely goes back to the beginning of human agricultural activities. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon demonstrated that you could grow plants outside of the soil. However, it would take close to 2,000 years for hobbyists to recreate the hanging gardens in their own homes.

Modern hydroponics mostly evolved during the second half of the 20th century. After World War II, there was increased interest in commercial hydroponic farming. Research into commercial hydroponics led to the development of more techniques, including many of the hydroponic methods used today.

The nutrient film technique (NFT), deep-water culture system, and aeroponic system remain a few of the most used hydroponics techniques.