The Origins of Hydroponic Farming
AGRICULTURAL NEWS - Hydroponics is not a new concept. It preceded the earliest tillage practices on farms, and plants have been grown in lakes and oceans from time immemorial.
The origins of today’s hydroponics can be dated back to the 15th century, when Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, deduced the following:
“To develop, plants need mineral elements that they absorb from the soil by means of water. Without water, the plants do not survive, even if the soil has the mineral elements they need.
Water is as if it were the soul of plants, as minerals are as if they were the soul of soil. If we could transmit to the soul of plants [the water], the strength of the soul of soil [the minerals], perhaps we would not need it [the soil] to make plants survive and multiply.
I believe that, in a future that does not belong to me, that [this] will be possible. So, it is advisable to add fertiliser and irrigate periodically the lands for us to get a healthy and productive plantation.”
The Early Years
Hydroponics, as we know it, developed slowly since the Middle Ages until water culture became a favourite research technique during the 17th century, after the posthumous publication of a book on the subject by the scientist and philosopher, Francis Bacon.
In 1699, researchers found that plants grew better in water that was less pure than in distilled water.
By 1842, a list of nine elements believed to be essential for plant growth had been compiled, and this resulted in the development of soilless cultivation techniques. Solution culture then quickly became a standard research and teaching technology and is still widely used today.
In the 19th century, scientists showed renewed interest in the nutrient requirements of plants. Complete nutrient solutions were developed over time, but it was only in the 1920s that Prof WF Gericke of the University of California in the US began to focus on commercial plant production using dissolved nutrient solutions instead of soil.
He coined the name ‘hydroponics’ by combining two Greek words, hydros (water) and ponos (work).
At the time, greenhouse growers replaced their greenhouse soil at frequent intervals, or maintained it by adding large quantities of commercial fertilisers.
To solve this difficulty, researchers replaced natural soil systems with either aerated nutrient solutions or artificial soil, called substrates, consisting of chemically inert aggregates, moistened with nutrient solutions.
The Later Years
Between 1925 and 1935, extensive development took place in modifying plant physiologists’ methods for large-scale crop production, but hydroponics was not widely accepted due to the high cost of constructing concrete growing beds.
During the Second World War, the US army started using hydroponics to produce food for troops stationed on islands in the South Atlantic and the Pacific, due to the prohibitive cost of transportation.
After the war, interest in hydroponics boomed when gravel culture hydroponics was used to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. However, these systems had shortcomings and many were eventually abandoned.