Canadian Hydroponics Supply Blog

Understanding the Background of Hydroponic Gardening

background of hydroponic

To understand the background of hydroponic gardening, one has to go back in time to the days of ancient civilizations. We’re talking about the days of the Babylonians, the ancient Egyptian and Chinese dynasties. The first thing to learn here is, what we now call hydroponic gardening had previous names.

One of the earliest proven water-based hydroponics is China’s floating gardens, which consisted of floating rafts fashioned from reeds as described by Marco Polo the 13th century Venetian traveler, in his famous book of travels.

These raft-based gardens were famous for the cultivation of “Chinese cabbage”. The earliest records of such gardens are traced back to the 4th century. Polo’s story is not too difficult to believe or imagine, as to this day, rice farming uses almost the same technology used centuries ago by the Chinese.

Anyone who knows anything about rice farming knows that rice grows better in water than soil. Today, hydroponics is the term to describe the several ways in which plants such as rice.

These methods, also known generally as soilless gardening, include raising plants in vessels of water and any one of a number of soilless mediums – including gravel, rocks, vermiculite, bricks, cinder locks and even styrofoam. 

More Interesting Facts About Hydroponic Gardening

Wilhelm Knop (1868) can “rightfully be called the true father of water culture, as his experiments lay the foundation for what we now know today as hydroponics”.

The first known mention of the term hydroponics was in 1937, by UC Berkeley professor, Dr. William F. Gericke, who initially gained fame for growing a 25-foot-high tomato vine in a mineral nutrient solution. Dr. Gericke effectively transformed his nutriculture laboratory into a commercial crop production operation.

Initially, Dr. Gericke called it “aquaculture”, but soon changed it to “hydroponics”. 

The term “hydroponic”, literally means “water” (hydro) and “working” (ponos), or working water, in Greek. Professor Gericke was a champion of hydroponics, promoting it through his 1940 book “The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening”, which he published after leaving his academic position.

His guide also listed a basic formula “involving the macro- and micronutrient salts for hydroponically-grown plants”.

The US Press and Hydroponic Gardening

Newspapers throughout the US carried pictures of the professor standing on a stepladder to gather in his crop. Unfortunately, the professor was ahead of his times, and although his system was spectacular, it was a little premature for commercial applications

However, when the U.S. Air Force in 1945 started practicing hydroponic gardening on a large scale, in order to provide fresh vegetables to its personnel, this gave new impetus to the farming practice. 

Both the American Army and the Royal Air Force opened hydroponic units at their military bases. Allied Soldiers and Airmen ate tons and tons of hydroponic vegetables during World War II. After WWII, the military command continued to use hydroponics.

For example, The United States Army had a special hydroponics branch. In in 1952 alone–its peak year for military demand–grew over 8,000,000 lbs. of fresh produce, hydroponically.

In the 1950s, the commercial use of hydroponics scaled to such countries as England, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the USSR. By the 1990’s NASA started studying and testing different techniques of hydroponics as a more efficient method of growing plants in space.

In 1999 Advanced Nutrients opened and began to manufacture nutrients for the burgeoning cannabis market. “Currently, plans are being drawn for using the techniques of soilless culture on space flights and even on the moon, or beyond”. 

What is Hydroponic Gardening?

Hydroponic gardening, as you have learned, is the process of growing plants without the use of soil. However, plants cannot grow in water alone. Plants need to grow in water containing soluble minerals. But how do you know what soluble minerals to add to the water? 

Let’s take a look at the history of the chemistry behind the nutrients needed for hydroponic gardening. 

In 1804, Nicolas De Saussure proposed and published results of his investigations that plants are composed of mineral and chemical elements obtained from water, soil and air.

By 1842, nine elements constituted a list of essential to plant growth. French scientist Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1851) verified them.

“By feeding plants with water solutions of various combinations of soil elements” grown in pure sand, charcoal (an inert medium not soil) and quartz, to which were added solutions of known chemical composition, he came to the conclusion that water “was essential for plant growth in providing hydrogen and that plant dry matter consisted of hydrogen plus carbon and oxygen which came from the air”.

He also stated that plants contained nitrogen and other mineral elements, and that they derived all of their nutrient requirements from the soil elements he used.

He was then able to identify all the mineral elements, and the quantity needed to optimize plant growth. By itself, it was a major breakthrough.

Water-soluble Nutrients

The next step was to eliminate the media in which plants grew to grow them in a water solution. In 1860, Julius von Sachs, published the first standard formula for a water-soluble nutrient solution. 

This marked the end of the long search for the source of the nutrients vital to all plants. This was the origin of “Nutriculture” and similar techniques are still used today in laboratory studies of plant physiology and plant nutrition.

These early investigations in plant nutrition demonstrated that normal plant growth can be achieved by immersing the roots of a plant in a water solution containing:

  • Salts of nitrogen (N),
  • Phosphorus (P),
  • Potassium (K),
  • Calcium (Ca),
  • Sulfur (S), and
  • Magnesium (Mg),

These nutrients are the macroelements or macronutrients (elements required in relatively large amounts) for plant growth. This sole discovery added a milestone in the background of hydroponic crops.

With further refinements in laboratory techniques and chemistry, scientists discovered seven aditonal elements. Plants require them plants in relatively small quantities. This is the reason why they receive the name of the microelements or trace elements. These include:

  • Iron (Fe),
  • Chlorine (Cl),
  • Manganese (Mn),
  • Boron (B),
  • Zinc (Zn),
  • Copper (Cu), and
  • Molybdenum (Mo).

Until 1936, raising plants in a water and nutrient solution was an exclusive practice for laboratories.


Hydroponic Gardening has been around for as long as mankind can remember. The background of hydroponic is as ancient as human kind. Also, different societies experimented with soilless gardening due to climate conditions, geographical locations and wartime events.

However, it earned its current name in 1937 when UC Berkely Professor Gericke, on the advice of his assistant, changed its original name, aquaculture to hydroponics due to aquaculture being already applied to the culture of aquatic organisms

Recent surveys have indicated that there are over 1,000,000 household soilless culture units operating in the United States for the production of food alone. Other countries have also joined the hydroponics craze including Australia, Canada, Holland, Russia, France, South Africa, Japan and Germany. 

Hydroponic gardening may seem very technical, and to some extent it is, but like everything else, practice makes perfect. The recent Covid19 pandemic and other climate changes, have caused a wave of interest in hydroponic gardening.

Hopefully, by understanding the background of hydroponic gardening, it will give you a better appreciation. This is a highly effective method of cultivating plants without soil. This is why we encourage you to take your first step towards growing your own hydroponic garden. 

Did you find this article interesting? If so, share it with your friends and family. Also leave us a comment in the box below on your understanding of the background of hydroponic gardening. 

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