Hydroponics: A History

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Hydroponics: A History

Hydroponics today might be called ‘innovative,’ but the discovery that plants could grow—and even thrive—without soil was made long ago by ancient desert civilizations. How do you grow food in such harsh environments, with poor soil and barely any water? It’s not easy, but people had to eat! It sounds counter-intuitive that growing crops in water would be the most efficient use of water, but plants grown using hydroponics really do use less water to grow than plants grown in the soil. Most of the water used on soil-grown crops gets absorbed into the soil itself and never reaches the plants. Plants grown in water get to soak up all the water around their roots so very little goes to waste!

 Ancient Babylonians and Egyptians both left evidence behind of hydroponic practices. Both peoples made their homes in the desert and both groups used innovative gardening techniques to grow enough food to support their civilizations. More than 2000 years ago, Babylonians discovered that when they filled bowls with water and added minerals to the water, the bowls could grow vegetables and flowers. Using this methodology, they created the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World! Ancient Egyptians lived during the same time period as the Babylonians—and Hydroponics was so important to the Egyptians that many of their writings contain ways for growing different kinds of plants in water.

In most other areas, where rain is plentiful and growing crops in soil is a feasible option, hydroponics didn’t appear until around the Nineteenth century when German scientists began to delve into hydroponic theory. These awesome scientists, Wilhelm Knop and Julius von Sachs, spread the word about their hydroponic passions to the rest of the world—but for several years, the art and science of growing plants in water remained mostly limited to the scientific community.

Then, during World War II, when the US government had to figure out ways to feed and supply their desert-stationed troops, hydroponics came into the spotlight again. Even though the Pacific islands on which these troops were stationed had adequate light and mild weather, they could not support crop production because they had insufficient amounts of fresh water and a severe lack of soil-based minerals. Hydroponics allowed these troops to grow fruits and vegetables despite the poor soil conditions. 

Since the end of World War II, hydroponics has enjoyed an innovative marriage to botanist genetics as we continue to create more adaptive, bountiful plants. Plant scientists use genetics to isolate strains of plants that are healthy and hearty enough to grow under poor conditions. Today, countries all over the world are making use of this knowledge as it develops to feed their people!

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