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What is Hydroponics?

In 1929, A university of California professor invented hydroponics.

Dr William Frederick Gericke (1882 - 1970), plant nutritionist, University of California.

In 1929, Dr. Gericke announced to the world that he had created a new technology he called hydroponics.

He used two greek words to make up the name, "Hydros" for water and "ponos" for work. So the name means, "water working".

To Gericke, the technology was growing plants without soil, using a water culture which supplied all the plants food through their water supply.

What he had invented was a new technology that put plants into a substrate, something to support the plants roots, and then added minerals to the plant's water supply below the substrate.

Figure 1. An early Gericke hydroponic system grew plants in substrate over a water supply that contained minerals for plant food.

Dr. Gericke became famous for his amazing plants grown in hydroponics. Several magazine and newspaper reports were published about his work.

In one report, in the Baltimire Sun newspaper, it was claimed that he had 25 foot tall tomatoes growing in a space of five foot by five foot. The total amount grown of tomatoes in this space was over 300 pounds.

Figure 2. Dr. Gericke, standing on a ladder, harvests one of his tall tomato plants grown in hydroponics. Mrs. Gericke stands below with some of the harvest.

Today it is common for a commercial tomato plant in hydroponics to grow 40 feet long and produce 32 pounds of tomato. A tomato grown in soil usually produces only seven pounds of tomato.

Figure 3. Dr. Gericke shows the results of a potato crop in his system. He established that potatoes can grow 1/4 pound a day in hydroponic culture, about seven times faster than in soil.

In his book "The Complete Guide to Soilless Culture", produced in 1940, Gericke pointed out, "The fuel of the future, after our stocks of coal and oil have been depleated, may well be made from carbohydrates produced by the hydroponic method."

As Gericke first started, he needed to find some sort of materials that could replace the soil plants grew in.

Gericke knew that the soil usually gives the plants roots a place to hang on to, to keep them able to grow upright. Things that worked for this were sand, sawdust, pebbles, corn stalks and other agricultural wastes. He called these materials "substrates".

He also discovered that a substrate could neither be too wet or too dry. It needed to keep the plants roots moist, but not drowned.

Figure 4. Gericke grew corn and potatoes in the same space, and got a larger crop of corn and potatoes than would have been for just one crop.

Gericke also realized that he could plant crops closer together than they are in soil, because the plant food in the water was much greater than it would have been in soil. He also knew he could add nutrients and water as the plants grew, keeping them alive much longer. A tomato grown in hydroponic culture often lives for about 11 months, instead of the few months that tomatoes usually live in soil.

Figure 5. Plants also grew much taller in hydroponics. Gericke grew tobacco plants that reached 15 foot tall.

Today, Gericke is considered the father of hydroponics and his book is considered one of the finest every written on hydroponics. Many of his methods have now been improved as nearly a century of work has advanced the science.

Today, nearly most modern greenhouses grow their plants using hydroponics. The value of the industry is estimated to be 1.33 billion in 2020.

Today hydroponics is used to help families fight hunger. A project called Micro-Gardens helps families learn how to grow with Hydroponics.

Class on Introducing Hydroponic Gardens.

Revised: 1 May 2021
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