Progressive Earth

Growing Healthy People, Plants & Planet

The History of Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a modern technology that utilizes primal process. It’s not new, we humans didn’t invent it, but we think we did. We’re good at that.

Hydroponics is, in fact, the oldest form of growing. Ocean life is known to pre-date land plants by millions of years, so hydroponic photosynthetic algae and photosynthetic bacteria actually existed before land plants ever did.

Hydroponics as we know it was developed from the findings of experiments carried out to determine plant composition dating back to the early 1600's, but plants were being grown in soilless culture far earlier than this.

The first known instance of water-based hydroponics is in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Located on the East bank of the Euphrates River near present day baghdad, the gardens were built by King Bebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) to please his wife Amyitis.

The gardens thrived off of an elaborate watering system that supplied a steady stream of river water rich in oxygen and minerals.

Similarly, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back to several hundered years BC depict the growing of plants along the Nile River without soil.


The worlds rice crops have been grown hydroponically from time immemorial, as they are to this day.

The floating gardens of the Chinese, as described by Marco Polo in his famous journal, are another example of hydroponic culture.

The Aztecs of Central America developed an ingenious method of utilizing the concepts of hydroponics. Hostilely treated by their more powerful neighbors and denied any arable land, they learned how to build rafts of rushes and reeds they called chinampas.

Chinampas were stalks and tough roots that were lashed together and loaded up with sediment from the shallow lake bottom. Because the sediment came from the lake bottom it was rich in a variety of organic compounds and minerals that the Aztecs used to plant in.

The chinampas supported abundant crops of vegetables, flowers, and even trees. The roots of the plants grew through the floor of the chinampas allowing a constant water source and root oxygenation.

The chinampas were sometimes joined together to form floating islands as much as two hundred feet long flanked by waterways and drainage canals.

Some chinampas even had a hut for a resident gardener. On market days, the gardener might pole his raft close to a marketplace, picking and handing over vegetables or flowers as shoppers purchased them. Talk about local agriculture!

The chinampas were such a success they supported a thriving civilization of over 200,000 people at the height of the Aztec rule, making it larger than any city in Europe at the time. A makeshift village invented out of creative desperation to stave off certain demise ultimately proliferated into a system of horticulture capable of supporting the capitol city of Central Mexico- a testament to the efficiency of intensive soilless culture.

When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, the sight of these floating islands must have astonished Cortes and his gang. William Prescott, the historian who chronicled the destruction of the Aztec empire by the conquering Spaniards, described the chinampas as "Wondering Islands of Verdure, teeming with flowers and vegetables and moving like rafts over the water."

Chinampas continued in use on the lake well into the 19th century. Similar systems flourished in presentday Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador well before Columbus' arrival in the New World. Functional examples of the system persist today in Xochimilco in Mexico City and southwest Tlaxcala State, Mexico.