Hydroponics is “a technology for growing plants in nutrient solutions (water containing fertilizers) with or without the use of an artificial medium (sand, gravel, vermiculite, rockwool, perlite, peatmoss. coir, or sawdust) to provide mechanical support” (1). There are different types of hydroponics systems: liquid systems have no support for plant roots, while aggregate systems offer some support. Hydroponics is considered to be an eco-friendly method because it limits water and land consumption, and is very productive.
To put it simply, hydroponics is growing plants without soil. Plants derive nutrients from the soil, but with many plants you can suspend the plants roots in water and mix the needed nutrients into the suspension. This is just one way of doing it, but all the methods involve a great deal more control over outside factors like insects, pests, and soil quality.
Hydroponics, though under other names, has been around for thousands of years. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Aztec agriculture of Lake Tenochtitlan, and the ancient gardens of China in the time of Marco Polo – all hydroponics. The name was coined by William Gericke in the 1930s, and continued by other researchers in Berkeley, California.
Other answerers have covered some of the basics of hydroponics, but the important thing to remember about hydroponic systems is that they require not just nutrients, but circulation. Most crop plants can’t grow in stagnant water. Plant roots need a certain amount of dissolved oxygen, and if they don’t get it, anaerobic bacteria and fungi destroy their roots. All of the ancient hydroponic systems mentioned by chelseaschuyler involved a certain amount of water flow to make sure the roots still had oxygen.
The chinampa system of the Aztecs remains the most productive agricultural system humans have produced, in terms of dietary needs produced per unit of space. It had both terrestrial and aquatic components.
The classic Mesoamerican polyculture of corn, beans, and squash were grown on floating mats with channels of water all around. The corn provided a trellis for the beans to climb on, the beans, through symbiotic rhizobia colonies on their roots, provided nitrogen to fuel the growth of the corn and squash, and the squash filled in around the base of the corn and beans, and its spiky stems and foliage deterred rodents from climbing stalks and eating crops.
In the aquatic part, fish, ducks, and turtles were raised in the channels, and harvested for protein, and the muck from the bottom of the channels, containing their waste, settled to the bottom, and was dug up and put on the floating mats to produce corn, beans, and squash. It was a labor-intensive, but elegant and productive agricultural system, one we would profit by emulating.
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