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Growing Without Soil: The History and Benefits of Hydroponics


Growing Without Soil: The History and Benefits of Hydroponics


Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without the use of soil. The word comes from the Greek word for water, "hydro," and the Greek word for working, "ponos." Although hydroponic growing has a long, rich history, many people are unaware of precisely what it is and how it works. This is unfortunate because this method of growing can be very useful for people who wish to have gardens but are unable to due to space restrictions or poor environmental conditions. In short, hydroponics involves providing plants with nutrition and hydration through the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich water, but there is much more to know about the growing technique. Read on to get the full story on the origins and future of hydroponics.

The Origins of Hydroponic Growing

Historians and anthropologists believe that the first hydroponics systems originated in Ancient Rome during the 1st century in the Common Era. It was there that Emperor Tiberius I ordered the growing of plants around his palace. Particularly, the emperor wanted cucumbers to be grown all year round, regardless of the growing seasons. To meet the demands of the emperor, a system was developed in which cucumber plants were grown under what was described as a "transparent stone" in ancient text. Modern historians believe this stone to have been the mineral mica. Evidence also suggests that hydroponic growing techniques were used throughout Ancient Egypt, Babylonia and China as well as by the Aztecs in Mesoamerica.

The Rediscovery of Ancient Techniques

As one traces the history of hydroponics back through ancient times, a gap in the history quickly becomes apparent. It seems that once the Middle Ages occurred, people largely forgot about hydroponic growing. Farming became strictly an outdoor activity with even fewer plants grown in soil indoors. It wasn't until the 17th century that anyone began to investigate hydroponic growing from a scientific standpoint. The first scientist to take interest in hydroponics was John Woodward, a British naturalist and botanist. It is known that Woodward had a passion for prehistoric and ancient history, and it's likely that he began his experiments using some of the writings about hydroponics that survived from ancient times. In 1699, he succeeded in growing mint plants in a system without soil, and his work would go on to become the foundation of modern hydroponics.

Hydroponic Investigation Continues

After Woodward's work, another gap in the history of hydroponics occurs, ending in the 19th century. This is when two German scientists, Julius von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop, began their own set of experiments growing plants without soil. From 1859 to 1865, the men worked on their system, which involved growing nutrients in a solution. Their writings became the standard laboratory procedures for hydroponic growing for the decades that followed. Research into hydroponics began in the United States in 1925, when scientists began actively pursuing methods of growing that could allow for large scale agricultural production to be done without any soil. Landmark breakthroughs in hydroponic science were made by the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and California Agricultural Experiment Station  during the 20s, 30s and 40s. In 1943, William Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley began to promote the use of nutrient solutions for growing. His influence led to the rapid expansion of hydroponic research and experimental farms, and he is credited for developing the name "hydroponics."

Hydroponics in Modern Times

From World War II through the present time, hydroponic research has had major ebbs and flows. During the war, soldiers used hydroponic gardens to produce food in harsh climates throughout the Pacific, and after the war, Purdue University began publishing articles about hydroponic growing for home growers and small-scale farmers. During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, hydroponic gardens were built in many foreboding and otherwise unusable areas of the world, including in the desert regions of California, Iran and in the area now known as the United Arab Emirates. With the fuel crisis of the 70s, hydroponic growing fell by the wayside for a time. In 1982, the Disney Company made headlines by creating a large-scale hydroponic system in the Kraft-sponsored exhibit The Land at their EPCOT theme park in Orlando. NASA has continued to research hydroponics over the years and is reportedly developing a system that will allow for hydroponic farming on Mars.

The Basics of a Hydroponic System

To understand how hydroponics works, you first need to understand how plants get nutrients with traditional growing. Typically, water from precipitation runs through the soil, causing salts that are present in the dirt to dissolve. The salts are broken into nutrients, which are absorbed through the roots along with the water. The plants then utilize the nutrients to power various chemical processes. Many times when people talk about "poor soil," what they are saying is that the ground does not contain the right types of salts to provide the nutrients needed for plant life to thrive. The soil could also have too many salts present, as too many nutrients can also be harmful for plants.

In a hydroponic system, plants do not rely on soil to obtain their nutrients. Instead, the water already contains all of the nutrients that a plant needs to thrive. The water goes directly to the roots, where it becomes quickly absorbed and transported through the plant just the way it would if the plant were placed in the ground. In some cases, the roots may be planted in an inert growing material like coconut husks or stone, but this is done only to provide something to which the roots can anchor.

Plants do require more to grow than just nutrients, but hydroponic growing environments are designed to create the optimal conditions for growth. Energy for photosynthesis is either provided by sunlight in an outdoor system or by artificial electric lights. Proper air circulation is also necessary in a hydroponic system, as plants must be able to take in carbon dioxide for the purposes of respiration. In addition, keeping the air circulating helps to prevent the growth of mold and the colonization of bacteria and other microbes that can harm plants. To ensure that air continues to circulate, indoor hydroponic environments typically include exhaust fans and vents. Filters may also be used to remove mold and bacteria from the air inside of the system and to keep the air smelling fresh.

Benefits of Hydroponic Growing

There are many reasons why hydroponic growing is not only a viable growing solution but also a very beneficial one. Some of the positives that come with hydroponic growing include:

  • Plants are drought-resistant because water is supplied through recirculating systems rather than through traditional irrigation methods
  • Studies show that hydroponic gardening actually produces larger harvests of crops than soil agriculture
  • Soil quality is not a limiting factor for growing, so plants can thrive in the desert and tundra regions where farming is otherwise impossible.
  • Crops can be grown year round instead of in a single ideal season.
  • The optimal conditions in growing environments help plants grow more quickly.
  • Outdoor and indoor garden environments can be moved with ease.
  • Crops can grow in a smaller space, reducing the cost of harvesting.
  • Harmful pesticides are not necessary.
  • Many leafy plants grown hydroponically remain alive even during transportation, resulting in fresher lettuce and other vegetables.
  • Plant diseases that are spread through the soil are not a problem in a hydroponic system.
  • Weeds are very uncommon in hydroponic growing, reducing the amount of maintenance required.
  • Recirculating systems conserve water, using less than traditional irrigation and watering.
  • Hydroponics is 20 percent less expensive than traditional soil-based home growing.
  • A hydroponic system can be set up in areas where there is only a small amount of available space.
  • Fertilization is easier to perform in a controlled system.
  • Plants receive balanced nutrition, as the solutions are enriched with nutrients instead of being filled with random salts dissolved from the soil.
  • Growing mediums are generally reusable, reducing costs and waste.
  • Hydroponic systems can run on electricity or with solar panels, providing options for green-minded growers.
  • All that is required for daily maintenance of a hydroponic system is monitoring nutrient solution levels.
  • Home systems are generally simple to set up.
  • Growing plants without soil is fun and educational, perfect for families and classrooms.

Planting in a Hydroponic Growing Environment

So how do you start a plant from a seed or seedling in a hydroponic grow tent or another type of environment? Here is the basic way:

  • Start seedlings in either a root cube or with their roots exposed. You can use any type of inert growing material to support the plant. Some options include perlite quartz sand, cellulose coarse vermiculite, or rockwool.
  • To begin with seeds, water them and then wrap them in a damp paper towel. Keep the towel damp until you notice signs of germination. Use a nutrient solution with diluted hydrogen peroxide to nourish the seeds and help them grow into seedlings.
  • Once seedlings are ready for planting, wash the medium off of the plants and then add them to the grow channel.

Where Is Hydroponics Headed?

More and more people are beginning to demand organic and non-genetically modified produce in place of traditional fruits and vegetables. To meet these demands, it is likely that growers will being using hydroponics more and more for large-scale agricultural production. Hydroponics could one day become one of the primary sources for fresh fruits and veggies and could help to meet the demand for food in areas where food shortage occur frequently due to hostile climates. Hydroponics will also continue to grow in popularity among home growers who want to raise their own sustainable crops.

Once you have an understanding of the basics of hydroponics, you're ready to start your first growing environment. You can find all of the essentials that you need to get started from the grow tent to the filter to the lighting ballast to the exhaust fan here at iHidroUSA. If you need help selecting the ideal pieces for your system, please don't hesitate to contact us for help.