See R. Bridwell, Hydroponic Gardening (rev. ed. 1990); R. E. Nicholls, Beginning Hydroponics (1990).
Hydroponics (from the Greek words hydro (water) and ponos (labour) is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, without soil. Terrestrial plants may be grown with their roots in the mineral nutrient solution only or in an inert medium, such as perlite, gravel, or mineral wool.
Plant physiology researchers discovered in the 19th century that plants absorb essential mineral nutrients as inorganic ions in water. In natural conditions, soil acts as a mineral nutrient reservoir but the soil itself is not essential to plant growth. When the mineral nutrients in the soil dissolve in water, plant roots are able to absorb them. When the required mineral nutrients are introduced into a plant's water supply artificially, soil is no longer required for the plant to thrive. Almost any terrestrial plant will grow with hydroponics, but some will do better than others. It is also very easy to do; the activity is often undertaken by very young children with such plants as watercress. Hydroponics is also a standard technique in biology research and teaching.
Ancient peoples such as the Babylonians and Aztecs used growing techniques where nutrients were obtained from sources other than soil. The mineral nutrient solutions used today for hydroponics were not developed until the 1800s.
The earliest published work on growing terrestrial plants without soil was the 1627 book, Sylva Sylvarum by Sir Francis Bacon, printed a year after his death. Water culture became a popular research technique after that. In 1699, John Woodward published his water culture experiments with spearmint. He found that plants in less pure water sources grew better than plants in distilled water. Mineral nutrient solutions for soilless culture of plants were first perfected in the 1860s by the German botanists, Julius von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop. Growth of terrestrial plants without soil in mineral nutrient solutions was called solution culture. It quickly became a standard research and teaching technique and is still widely used today. Solution culture is now considered a type of hydroponics where there is no inert medium.
In 1929, Professor William Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley began publicly promoting that solution culture be used for agricultural crop production. He first termed it aquaculture but later found that aquaculture was already applied to culture of aquatic organisms. Gericke created a sensation by growing tomato and other plants to a remarkable size in his back yard in mineral nutrient solutions rather than soil. By analogy with the ancient Greek term for agriculture, geoponics, the science of cultivating the earth, Gericke introduced the term hydroponics in 1937 (although he asserts that the term was suggested by Dr. W. A. Setchell, of the University of California) for the culture of plants in water (from the Greek hydros, "water", and ponos, "labor").
Reports of Gericke's work and his claims that hydroponics would revolutionize plant agriculture prompted a huge number of requests for further information. Gericke refused to reveal his secrets claiming he had done the work at home on his own time. This refusal eventually resulted in his leaving the University of California. In 1940, he wrote the book, Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening.
Two other plant nutritionists at the University of California were asked to research Gericke's claims. Dennis R. Hoagland and Daniel I. Arnon wrote a classic 1938 agricultural bulletin, The Water Culture Method for Growing Plants Without Soil, debunking the exaggerated claims made about hydroponics. Hoagland and Arnon found that hydroponic crop yields were no better than crop yields with good quality soils. Crop yields were ultimately limited by factors other than mineral nutrients, especially light. This research, however, overlooked the fact that hydroponics has other advantages including the fact that the roots of the plant have constant access to oxygen and that the plants have access to as much or as little water as they need. This is important as one of the most common errors when growing is over- and under- watering; and hydroponics prevents this from occurring as large amounts of water can be made available to the plant and any water not used, drained away, recirculated, or actively aerated, eliminating anoxic conditions which drown root systems in soil. In soil, a grower needs to be very experienced to know exactly how much water to feed the plant. Too much and the plant will not be able to access oxygen; too little and the plant will lose the ability to transport nutrients, which are typically moved into the roots while in solution.
These two researchers developed several formulas for mineral nutrient solutions, known as Hoagland solutions. Modified Hoagland solutions are still used today.
One of the early successes of hydroponics occurred on Wake Island, a rocky atoll in the Pacific Ocean used as a refueling stop for Pan American Airlines. Hydroponics was used there in the 1930s to grow vegetables for the passengers. Hydroponics was a necessity on Wake Island because there was no soil, and it was prohibitively expensive to airlift in fresh vegetables.
In the 1960s, Allen Cooper of England developed the Nutrient Film Technique. The Land Pavilion at Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center opened in 1982 and prominently features a variety of hydroponic techniques. In recent decades, NASA has done extensive hydroponic research for their Controlled Ecological Life Support System or CELSS. Hydroponics intended to take place on Mars are using LED lighting to grow in different color spectrums with much less heat.
Billions of container plants are produced annually, including fruit, shade and ornamental trees, shrubs, forest seedlings, vegetable seedlings, bedding plants, herbaceous perennials and vines. Most container plants are produced in soilless media, representing soilless culture. However, most are not hydroponics because the soilless medium often provides some of the mineral nutrients via slow release fertilizers, cation exchange and decomposition of the organic medium itself. Most soilless media for container plants also contain organic materials such as peat or composted bark, which provide some nitrogen to the plant. Greenhouse growth of plants in peat bags is often termed hydroponics, but technically it is not because the medium provides some of the mineral nutrients. Peat has a high cation exchange capacity and must be amended with limestone to raise the pH value.
The same design characteristics apply to all conventional NFT systems. While slopes along channels of 1:100 have been recommended, in practice it is difficult to build a base for channels that is sufficiently true to enable nutrient films to flow without ponding in locally depressed areas. Consequently, it is recommended that slopes of 1:30 to 1:40 are used. This allows for minor irregularities in the surface but, even with these slopes, ponding and waterlogging may occur. The slope may be provided by the floor, or benches or racks may hold the channels and provide the required slope. Both methods are used and depend on local requirements, often determined by the site and crop requirements.
As a general guide, flow rates for each gully should be 1 liter per minute. At planting, rates may be half this and the upper limit of 2L/min appears about the maximum. Flow rates beyond these extremes are often associated with nutritional problems. Depressed growth rates of many crops have been observed when channels exceed 12 metres in length. On rapidly growing crops, tests have indicated that, while oxygen levels remain adequate, nitrogen may be depleted over the length of the gully. Consequently, channel length should not exceed 10-15 metres. In situations where this is not possible, the reductions in growth can be eliminated by placing another nutrient feed half way along the gully and reducing flow rates to 1L/min through each outlet.
Aeroponic techniques have proved very successful for propagation, but have yet to prove themselves on a commercial scale. Aeroponics is also widely used in laboratory studies of plant physiology. Aeroponic techniques have been given special attention from NASA since a mist is easier to handle than a liquid in a zero gravity environment.
Diahydro is a natural sedimentary rock medium that consists of the fossilized remains of diatoms. Diahydro is extremely high in Silica (87-94%), an essential component for the growth of plants and strengthening of cell walls.
Baked clay pellets, also known under the trademarks 'Hydroton' or LECA (light expanded clay aggregate), are suitable for hydroponic systems in which all nutrients are carefully controlled in water solution. The clay pellets are inert, pH neutral and do not contain any nutrient value.
The clay is formed into round pellets and fired in rotary kilns at 1200°C. This causes the clay to expand, like popcorn, and become porous. It is light in weight, and does not compact over time. Shape of individual pellet can be irregular or uniform depending on brand and manufacturing process. The manufacturers consider expanded clay to be an ecologically sustainable and re-usable growing medium because of its ability to be cleaned and sterilized, typically by washing in solutions of white vinegar, chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), and rinsing completely.
A less popular view is that clay pebbles are best not re-used even when they are cleaned, due to root growth which may enter the medium. Breaking open a clay pebble after a crop has been grown will reveal this growth.
Numerous 'recipes' for hydroponic solutions are available. Many use different combinations of chemicals to reach similar total final compositions. Commonly-used chemicals for the macronutrients include potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate, potassium phosphate, and magnesium sulfate. Various micronutrients are typically added to hydroponic solutions to supply essential elements; among them are Fe (iron), Mn (manganese), Cu (copper), Zn (zinc), B (boron), Cl (chlorine), and Ni (nickel). Chelating agents are sometimes used to keep Fe soluble. Many variations of the nutrient solutions used by Arnon and Hoagland (see above) have been styled 'modified Hoagland solutions' and are widely used.
Plants will change the composition of the nutrient solutions upon contact by depleting specific nutrients more rapidly than others, removing water from the solution, and altering the pH by excretion of either acidity or alkalinity. Care is required not to allow salt concentrations to become too high, nutrients to become too depleted, or pH to wander far from the desired value.
Due to its arid climate, Israel has developed advanced hydroponic technology. They have marketed their system to Nicaragua, which uses it to produce more than one million pounds of peppers annually for sale abroad, including the United States.
The largest commercial hydroponics facility in the world is Eurofresh Farms in Willcox, Arizona, which sold 125 million pounds of tomatoes in 2005. Eurofresh has 256 acres under glass and represents about a third of the commercial hydroponic greenhouse area in the U.S. Eurofresh does not consider their tomatoes organic, but they are pesticide-free. They are grown in rockwool with top irrigation.
Some commercial installations use no pesticides or herbicides, preferring integrated pest management techniques. There is often a price premium willingly paid by consumers for produce which is labeled "organic". Some states in the USA require soil as an essential to obtain organic certification. There are also overlapping and somewhat contradictory rules established by the US Federal Government, so some food grown with hydroponics can be certified organic.
Hydroponics also saves an incredible amount of water; it uses as little as 1/20 the amount as a regular farm to produce the same amount of food. The water table can be impacted by the water use and run-off of chemicals from farms, but hydroponics may minimize impact as well as having the advantage that water use and water returns are easier to measure. This can save the farmer money by allowing reduced water use and the ability to measure consequences to the land around a farm.
To increase plant growth, lighting systems such as metal halide or high pressure sodium are used to lengthen the day or to supplement natural sunshine if it is scarce. Metal halide emits more light in the blue spectrum, making it ideal for plant growth. High pressure sodium emits more light in the red spectrum, meaning that it is best suited for supplementing natural sunshine. However, these lighting systems require large amounts of electricity (and hence high electrical expenses) to operate.
The environment in a hydroponics greenhouse is tightly controlled for maximum efficiency and this new mindset is called Soil-less/Controlled Environment Agriculture (S/CEA). With this growers can make ultra-premium foods anywhere in the world, regardless of temperature and growing seasons. Growers monitor the temperature, humidity, and pH level constantly.
Hydroponics have been used to enhance vegetables to provide more nutritional value. A hydroponic farmer in Virginia has developed a calcium and potassium enriched head of lettuce, scheduled to be widely available in April 2007. Grocers in test markets have said that the lettuce sells "very well", and the farmers claim that their hydroponic lettuce uses 90% less water than traditional soil farming.