History of Hydroponics

The story of the discovery and development of gardening without soil is quite a fascinating one. It all began nearly three centuries ago when John Woodward, a Fellow of the Royal Society of England, started experiments to try to find out how plants obtained their food supplies. Using water cultures, Woodward attempted to determine whether it was the water or the solid particles of soil that nourished crops. Handicapped by lack of proper equipment, however, he could make little progress nor could other scientists who followed him, until the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, when research methods were revolutionised by advances made in the field of chemistry. These enabled compounds to be split up into their constituent parts, so that at last it became possible to draw up a tentative list of the nutrients used by plants.

In 1804, Nicolas de Saussure published some results of investigations he had made that showed how plants needed mineral substances to achieve satisfactory growth. Later, Jean Boussingault, a French scientist, was able to raise crops in pots full of sand and charcoal to which chemical solutions of known composition were added.

During the years 1859-65, Julius Von Sachs, Professor of Botany at the University of Wiirzburg, in Germany, conducted further trials which made possible the development of a laboratory type of soil-less culture. By adding balanced proportions of fertilizer chemicals to water, Von Sachs found that he could grow plants in the absence of any earth or manures under carefully controlled conditions. Soon, many scientists studying plant nutrition in various countries began to employ this novel technique in their laboratories for experimental purposes. By 1920, it had been accepted universally for such work. 

It was not until about ten years later, however, in 1929-30, that an American professor, Dr William F. Gericke, of the University of California, attempted to transform laboratory-style soil-less cultivation into practical crop growing without soil. Reasoning that if it could become possible to produce plants where ordinary earth or manures could not be used, or where soil gardening would be out of the question, something of real and lasting value to humanity would have been achieved, Gericke set up out-of-door growing units, taking advantage of the sunny Californian climate. His trials were brilliantly successful, so much so that his soil-less culturedtomato crops attained heights of over twenty-five feet and picking of the fruits had to be done with the aid of ladders. Naming the new garden science * hydroponics', he then went on to raise a wide variety of other vegetables, as well as flowers, grains, root crops and fruits.