The History of Hydroponics
Many gardening writers have suggested that the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were actually a primitive type of vertical hydroponic system. Although the location (and indeed existence) of the hanging gardens has never been established, the history of hydroponics goes back a long, long way.
Chinese farmers have been flooding their rice paddies for 6000 years, and wall paintings in Egypt dating back 4000 years depict the earliest known case of container-grown plants.
From 1150AD, the Aztecs were experimenting with deep water cultures, in the form of 'Chinampas'. These artificial beds were made from mud, lake sediment and vegetable scraps, and were built in lakes to allow their crops of maize, beans and squash to have constant access to water.
Hydroponics as we understand it today however, began in the 17th century, with the publication of The Willow Tree Experiment, by Jan Baptist Van Helmont, who discovered that plants get their nutrients from water.
Although the rest of the book is slightly nutty, the experiment sparked further investigations into soilless culture, and by the end of the 19th century, two German scientists had invented a basic nutrient formula, based on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
The famous 'Hoagland Solution', developed in 1938, was the first to include small amounts of magnesium, sulphur and iron and is used in many hydroponic solutions to this day.
The popularity of hydroponics, skyrocketed in the 1970's, with traditional farmers, green-thumbed hobbyists and even commercial operations jumping on the bandwagon. Attracted not only by higher yields, faster growth and less pesticide use; hydroponic systems also allowed food to be grown in areas with dreadful soil.
The final catalyst for the hydroponic explosion was the widespread adoption of high-tech plastics and the simplification of systems through inventions such as greenhouse covers, PVC pipe and nutrient injector pumps. These advances made hydroponic systems cheaper for home gardeners, and more efficient and profitable for commercial farmers.
The possibilities for the future of hydroponics are truly fascinating. Since 2004, NASA has been experimenting with the notion of hydroponic gardening, and last year, they launched 'Veggie', a program to actually grow lettuce on the International Space Station!
The lettuce is being planted on small root pillows, inside a chamber that collapses into an IKEA-looking flat-pack for transportation. The NASA Veggie team hope to explore the possibilities for feeding astronauts on long missions, as well as removing carbon dioxide build up from inside the spacecraft.
Other experiments plan to test hydroponic gardening methods in reduced gravity, lowered air pressure and they are even contemplating how to protect plants from the radiation on planets like Mars.
Yes, you heard correctly, Mars!
NASA is discussing hydroponics as a way to feed astronauts on a manned mission to Mars, targeted for the mid 2030's.
Stay tuned to Aqua Gardening's articles where we'll discuss where Hydroponics and Aquaponics is headed in the near future.