History of Hydroponics

There have been attempts for thousands of years to culture plants through artificial techniques which have similarities to modern hydroponics.  These early attempts were not strictly hydroponics but certainly had many of the characteristics of hydroponics.

The hanging gardens of Babylon are regarded as one of the earliest attempts at cultivating plants in an artificial situation.

The Aztec Indians in South America cultivated crops on rafts.  They would cover a raft with soil from a lake bed then float the raft on the lake and plant crops on it. The plant's roots would grow through the raft into the water below.

In 1699, John Woodward published "Some Thoughts and Experiments Concerning Vegetation" which was an account of the growth of plants in various types of water.  Woodward found that he got improved growth when small amounts of garden soil were added to the water. In 1722, Priestly found that plants were able to increase the amount of oxygen in the air when he grew them in an atmosphere which was rich in carbon dioxide.

By the middle of the 1880's, Jean Boussingault was studying the growth of plants in sand, quartz, and charcoal, and he added solutions of known chemicals.  Around the same time, a German scientist called Liebig demonstrated the value of the nutrient solution whilst studying the nutrition requirements of plants.

Nevertheless, it was Julius von Sachs and his pupils in the 1860's who were the ones who really laid the foundations for modern hydroponics by preparing solutions from mineral salts and thus freeing plants of the necessity of soil. Over the last half of the 19th century, the preparation and use of nutrient solutions by scientists in laboratory situations became a standard practice.

The first commercial hydroponic unit was set up in 1939 by Gericke in the USA.  He grew tomatoes in water culture but encountered problems of poor aeration and iron deficiency. In 1936 and 1937 research was undertaken at universities in the USA, which led to the development of practical systems to overcome the problems previously encountered by Gericke and others.

From 1939 to 45 the American forces on Wake Island in the Pacific grew vegetables successfully by hydroponics.

In 1944 the US Army decided to used hydroponics to supply food for servicemen stationed on remote bases. Over the next few decades many hydroponic farms were established by the US military.

During the 1950s commercial hydroponic farms were established mainly in the southern United States at first but later throughout many parts of the world.

Over the 1960's and 70's, across many developed countries; amateur gardeners began to show a growing interest in hydroponics. There was an increase in books and articles being written on hydroponics, businesses selling hydroponic supplies to amateur gardeners and courses being taught on the subject. In 1973, John Mason began running regular classes  (always booked out) on hydroponics through Council of Adult Education in Melbourne.

Throughout the 1970's there was a sharp increase in world interest in hydroponics for the production of vegetables, cut flowers, and strawberries. The Nutrient Film Technique and Rockwool culture developed over this period.

Across the 1980's hydroponics became a well-established part of the cut flower and vegetable growing industries in the UK and the Netherlands. Its significance has rapidly increased in more than a dozen other countries.

Since the 21st century began, hydroponics has become firmly established throughout the developed world as a horticultural sector. It is a technique used by both amateur and commercial growers, both on a small scale and a large scale.

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Commercial Trends

Over time, many people have started and failed with hydroponic business ventures; but many others have found long term success. The common reasons for failure have been misplaced expectations and failure of attending to detail.

Hydroponics has in the past been surrounded by a lot of hype and exaggeration from some of it's advocates. Products have been developed and sold as something simple and easy to use. All the advantages may have been highlighted and the disadvantages obscured. There is no doubting the fact that hydroponics is a different way of growing plants, which can be more productive, less labour intensive and often very profitable. It does however require more initial investment and a greater level of knowledge and expertise.

Many vegetable growers attempted to convert their operations to hydroponics, inspired by tales of increased production. Unfortunately, many of these people failed to do their homework and embarked upon schemes without having a real understanding of the differences between soil and hydroponic culture. The result was many failures and the development of an attitude that hydroponics does not really work.

In Australia in 1981, CSR Ltd established a factory to produce horticultural grade Rockwool for hydroponic production. CSR did their homework, promoted their product well and supported it with excellent technical information. As a result, Growool ® became widely accepted and today is used extensively in the Australian cut flower industry. Nevertheless, Australian vegetable growers have continued to be slow in adopting hydroponics, perhaps due to bad experiences from the 1970's.

At the beginning of the 1990's commercial crops of vegetables, herbs, berry fruit and cut flowers were grown extensively in hydroponic culture in many countries. The most popular technique worldwide would be Rockwool culture, though NFT (Nutrient Film Technique), perlite and gravel bed culture are all very significant in commercial hydroponics.

With the advent of vertical and roof gardening, and increasing emphasis on biophilic landscaping, hydroponics has found further value throughout the 2010's. Additionally, aquaponics has developed a popularity over that period; further stimulating hydroponic activity.