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Hydroponics in History Part 1: Ancient Hydroponics

Let’s take a break, for a moment, from the more information-heavy blogs, shall we? I want to take a look at the history of the way we grow things around here. How did hydroponic systems develop? Who started this whole thing? Check it out: hydroponic gardening has been around a lot longer than you think!

The science of hydroponics started about three hundred years ago, when people began to experiment with plants’ abilities to absorb water-soluble nutrients and to thrive in soilless conditions. By the mid 1800’s, there was a whole sector of scientists trying out hydroponic methods, called “solution culture”, back then. Wikipedia says that hydroponic experiments were first documented in 1627, with the book Sylva Sylvarum by Francis Bacon. But Wikipedia does not know all! There has been other, much earlier evidence of water gardening. We will be reviewing the history of soilless gardening in three parts, going chronologically. Begin Part One:

Ancient Hydroponics:

There is lots of evidence that growing plants in water dates back to much, much earlier than just a few hundred years ago. The Egyptians, Inca Indian tribes, the Aztecs, and the ancient Babylonians all practiced hydroponic gardening, without ever calling it such. There are mentions of cultivating plants directly in water in Egyptian records dating back to the time of the New Kingdom and the “Woman-King,” Pharoah Hatshepsut around 1460 BCE. Various experiments were undertaken by Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.), while several writings of Dioscorides on botany dating from the first century A.D., are still in existence. So people were well aware of what sort of nutrients were needed to produce crops and flowers and the role that water could play in that process.



The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and one of the first recorded examples of water gardening. It was built on the banks of the Euphrates River circa 600 B.C. Stories, from Greek poets and historians of the day, tell of lofty rock walls containing the royal gardens of King Nebuchadnezzar II. They were deprived of water, in that parched land (in present-day Iraq), so they had to rig a system to get the water from the Euphrates to the top of the Hanging Gardens. They constructed a water pulley (also known as a chain pump) to gather the water from the river and pooled it on top of the garden. Historians believe the chain pump was set up with two large wheels on top of each other with a chain hung to connect them. Buckets were attached to the chain and the whole system rotated to bring water from the river up to the gardens. There, it is said that the wonder never ceased: waterfalls, fountains and pools overflowing with fresh water, in which grew many types of exotic trees, flowers and grasses. A tropical paradise of luxury in the middle of the desert.



However, the Aztecs were true hydroponic pioneers who grew crops on rafts woven out of reeds and roots, on the edge of lakes. When they were driven off of their land, in the 11th and 12th centuries, they settled on the shores of Lake Tenochtitlan (and others) in Mexico, where it was too marshy to grow the traditional way. So, they developed an ingenious, revolutionary way to grow crops in the water! The lake shores were stocked with mineral-rich deposits that were used to nourish the food they grew on the water. The floating rafts that they constructed where often attached together to form entire floating fields- the size of islands- on which they grew everything they needed to sustain themselves. Plant roots grew through the rafts, made of natural fibers, and dangled into the water, sucking in everything they needed from the nutritious lake water. Aztec decedents still cultivate some of these floating gardens near Mexico City today, in a long-standing tradition.

Have you heard of other ancient water gardening techniques? Leave a comment and let us know! Stay tuned for parts two and three of this blog series on Hydroponics in History, as we explore how this artform became the scientific, precise growing method we know today!



Comment from Pavel
Time July 22, 2011 at 3:44 am

The Babylonians seem to have been absolute experts in hydroponics. This seems a paradox to me as with quite a bit in this modern world of ours, where we are all using technology and measuring our nutrients to absolute miniscule levels. How pedantic do we actually need to be? What did the Babylonians use as nutrients for their gardens? Did they have better success with one- or two-part nutrients??

Comment from ViridisVixen
Time July 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm

These are great questions, Pavel. The truth is that no one really knows exactly how the Hanging Gardens worked because it was so long ago. Most of the records of it are in Greek poetry, which didn’t mention anything about one or two-part nutrients, unfortunately. :) So, we can only make educated guesses. My best guess is that the river water itself was rich in nutrients. Rivers get silt deposits and “fertilizer” from fish, birds and other organisms living there so that was probably enough to feed the plants. We’ll never really know their success rate either. Some of the reasons that we are precise in our modern hydroponic methods is because we want a very specific result, whether it be high yield, perfect foliage or more abundant flowers. The Babylonians probably didn’t need to be so exact. I hope that answers your questions. Feel free to write back!

Comment from Mary
Time July 28, 2011 at 10:56 am

Cool info, thanks! I wonder how much the Romans used the aqueducts for irrigation. I will be standing by for history lesson 2 & 3! :)

Comment from ViridisVixen
Time July 28, 2011 at 10:59 am

Thanks, Mary! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Parts 2 and 3 are underway, though they may take a bit of time. Lots of fact-checking to do. :) In the meantime, we have some other posts on deck. Stay tuned! VV

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