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PonicLabs is a joint effort where we explore and experiment with novel, alternative, and sustainable cultivating methods without the use of soil, and help teach others about it.

Soilless cultivation, also known as hydroponics, is a way to cultivate plants without soil. Typically, the plant’s roots are suspended, submerged, or in an inert medium, and they come in contact with a nutrient solution which provides the plants with all the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients for their growth.

Windowgarden Design from 2015 in Sweden, Henrique Sánchez

Why?

There are several advantages to hydroponic cultivation, for example, water conservation (1), as the water remains in a container or is recirculated in some form rather than seeping into the ground. This allows for water savings of up to 70% (1) compared to traditional soil cultivation.

Another advantage is the faster growth of the plants (2), as they typically have all the necessary nutrients available in optimal form and concentrations, allowing the plant to spend less energy in developing its roots to reach them, as it would otherwise do in a soil environment. As such, some plants, such as lettuce and herbs, can grow up to 50% faster (1) in hydroponic systems compared to traditional soil-based methods.

In hydroponic systems, plants are typically grown in a controlled environment where the grower has more or even complete control over important parameters (3), such as the nutrient solution, water supply, pH levels, temperature, humidity, and light exposure. This level of control allows growers to optimize conditions for each stage of plant growth. For example, during the vegetative stage, growers can provide a nutrient solution with higher nitrogen levels to promote leaf growth. During the flowering or fruiting stage, they can adjust the nutrient solution to have higher levels of phosphorus and potassium, which are essential for flower and fruit development. Additionally, growers can easily monitor and adjust factors like temperature and humidity to ensure optimal conditions for each growth stage. This level of precision and control is more difficult to achieve in soil-based cultivation, where the growing medium and outdoor environments can introduce variability and limit the grower’s ability to fine-tune conditions.

Hydroponic systems can also maximize space utilization (4) through vertical farming (using techniques like stacked shelves, towers, or hanging baskets) and compact system designs (with narrow walkways, efficient plumbing, and growing channels or trays that minimize unused space).

Considering that in hydroponic cultivation plants can have optimum nutrient availability, reduced stress factors, faster growth rates, and efficient use of space, this typically results in higher yields (5) compared to conventional soil cultivation.

Additionally, hydroponic systems can experience fewer pest problems (6) compared to soil-based cultivation, due to a controlled environment, the absence of soil (from which many soil-borne pests and diseases could originate), the use of sterile growing media, and proactive pest management.

Lastly, hydroponic cultivation can reduce labor requirements (7) compared to soil-based cultivation via automation (for example, automated controls for irrigation, nutrient delivery, and environmental factors), simplified planting and harvesting (via the use of modular growing channels or trays, simple transplanting procedures, and cleaner harvesting activities), reduced weeding, and a centralized system maintenance, requiring no individual plant watering or fertilization.

History

It is believed that soilless cultivation of plants precedes modernity by a large margin. The earliest potential account of hydroponic principles is in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (8), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (circa 600 BCE). Similarly, the Aztecs developed chinampas, floating gardens on shallow lakes, as early as the 10th century CE (9).

Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Wikipedia Commons

In early modernity, the earliest accounts of soilless culture involve Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1627 published a book describing a method of growing plants without soil (10). In 1666, an Irish scientist named Robert Boyle also proved that rain water alone will not nourish plants. Proper juices such as present in dung must be added to water to nourish plants (11). After, in 1699, an English naturalist named John Woodward, experimented with growing spearmint in various water solutions (12), demonstrating that plants could grow without soil if the right nutrients were present.

Experiments by Julius von Sachs, History of the Suspended Pot, Non Circulating ‘Kratky’ Hydroponic Method

Around two centuries later, in 1842, a German botanist named Wilhelm Knop, developed the first standard formula for a nutrient solution, later known as Knop’s solution (13). Between 1851-1855, French Chemist Jean Boussingault established that plants could grow in an inert medium such as silica sand which was moistened with a solution containing chemicals or nutrients, therefore the nutrients did not need to come from soil (14). In the 1860s, another German botanist named Julius von Sachs, refined nutrient solutions and conducted extensive research on plant nutrition (15).

William Frederick Gericke manually mixing hydroponic nutrients, Growing Plants Without Soil 1936

Closer to our time, in 1929, an American scientist named William Frederick Gericke, coined the term “hydroponics” and promoted its commercial application. He successfully grew 25-foot tomato vines using mineral nutrient solutions (16). In 1937, an American plant physiologist named Danien Arnon, developed the Arnon solution (17), which is still used as a basis for many hydroponic nutrient solutions today. During World War II, the U.S. Army used hydroponic systems to grow fresh produce for troops stationed on barren Pacific islands (18).

NASA’s Biomass Production Chamber (BPC) 1988-2000, Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way

In the 1960s and 1970s, NASA began researching hydroponics as a means of providing fresh food for astronauts during extended space missions. By 1978, NASA scientist R.D. MacElroy successfully grew lettuce, wheat, and other crops using hydroponic systems, demonstrating the potential for growing plants in space (19).

References

  1. Barbosa, G. L., Gadelha, F. D. A., Kublik, N., Proctor, A., Reichelm, L., Weissinger, E., … & Halden, R. U. (2015). Comparison of Land, Water, and Energy Requirements of Lettuce Grown Using Hydroponic vs. Conventional Agricultural Methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(6), 6879-6891. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120606879
  2. Touliatos, D., Dodd, I. C., & McAinsh, M. (2016). Vertical Farming Increases Lettuce Yield per Unit Area Compared to Conventional Horizontal Hydroponics. Food and Energy Security, 5(3), 184-191. https://doi.org/10.1002/fes3.83 
  3. Lakhiar, I. A., Gao, J., Syed, T. N., Chandio, F. A., & Buttar, N. A. (2018). Modern Plant Cultivation Technologies in Agriculture Under Controlled Environment: A Review on Aeroponics. Journal of Plant Interactions, 13(1), 338-352. https://doi.org/10.1080/17429145.2018.1472308 
  4. Despommier, D. (2010). The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN: 978-0312610692 
  5. Resh, H. M. (2012). Hydroponic Food Production: A Definitive Guidebook for the Advanced Home Gardener and the Commercial Hydroponic Grower. CRC Press. https://doi.org/10.1201/b12500 
  6. Raviv, M., & Lieth, J. H. (Eds.). (2019). Soilless Culture: Theory and Practice. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/C2016-0-01830-3 
  7. Kozai, T., Niu, G., & Takagaki, M. (Eds.). (2015). Plant Factory: An Indoor Vertical Farming System for Efficient Quality Food Production. Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/C2014-0-01039-8 
  8.  Dalley, S. (2013). The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced. Oxford University Press.
  9. Morehart, C. T. (2016). Chinampa Agriculture, Surplus Production, and Political Change at Xaltocan, Mexico. Ancient Mesoamerica, 27(1), 183-196.
  10. Sir Francis Bacon: Bacon, F. (1627). A Natural History, Ten Centuries.
  11. A.A. Steiner. 1980. Soilless Culture. Proc. of the Fifth Intl. Congr. of Soilless Culture. pp. 324-341.
  12. John Woodward: Woodward, J. (1699). Some Thoughts and Experiments Concerning Vegetation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 21(253), 193-227.
  13. Wilhelm Knop: Knop, W. (1865). Quantitative Untersuchungen über die Ernährungsprozesse der Pflanzen. Landwirtschaftliche Versuchs-Stationen, 7, 93-107.
  14. Alice and Robert Withrow. 1948. Nutriculture. Purdue University. S.C. 328.
  15. Julius von Sachs: Sachs, J. (1887). Lectures on the Physiology of Plants. Clarendon Press.
  16. Gericke, W. F. (1940). The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  17. Arnon, D. I. (1938). Microelements in Culture-Solution Experiments with Higher Plants. American Journal of Botany, 25(5), 322-325.
  18. Winterborne, J. (2005). Hydroponics: Indoor Horticulture. Pukka Press.
  19. MacElroy, R. D., Kliss, M., & Straight, C. (1987). Life Support Systems for Mars Transit. Advances in Space Research, 7(4), 159-166.

Disclaimer: The information above has been partially aided in its drafting and/or editing with LLM tools.

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