Science: Hydroponics

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Last week a new science was given a new name. Hydroponics, by its foremost U. S. practitioner, Dr. William Frederick Gericke of the University of California. Set out in row's at the University's plant experiment station in Berkeley are a number of shallow tanks made of wood, concrete, metal. From some of these tanks grow thick, towering clumps of tomato plants bearing rich red clusters of fruit. From other tanks and in an equal state of vigor grow potatoes, tobacco, gladioli, begonias. The roots of the plants are not in soil but in chemically treated water.

The business of growing plants in water is centuries old. Long before the Christian era it was believed that plants got all their sustenance from water. In 1699 a natural historian named John Woodward grew spearmint, potatoes and vetch in water from springs and rivers. First experiments which involved adding nutrient chemicals to the water are credited to a German named Knop (1859). Growing commercial crops in water is another matter. At Berkeley, Dr. Gericke aimed at producing tank crops which would economically compete with or surpass soil-grown crops. So successful was he that several California vegetable and flower growers have changed to water culture, more than a dozen branch experiment stations have been opened, and Dr. Gericke enjoys a "fan mail" of some 500 letters a week.

In Science last week Dr. Gericke discussed his choice of a name for practical water culture of plants. He had first favored the word "aquaculture," but a colleague pointed out that this term already designates the culture of aquatic plants and marine animals. The problem was solved by another Berkeley colleague, longtime Botany Professor William Albert Setchell. At his suggestion Dr. Gericke put together hydro from the Greek for water, and ponos, labor. He likes the word because it has "a strong economic and utilitarian connotation'' and also because of its kinship to "geoponics," the common medieval term for agriculture.

The chemicals which Dr. Gericke adds to his water are those which ordinary plants need and get from the soil—calcium, magnesium, potassium, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus, iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc. Wire netting is stretched over the top of the tanks and packed with excelsior or sawdust in which the seeds are planted and from which roots sprout down into the water. This bed of litter on the netting serves to support the stalks after the plants are grown. Each tank has an area of .01 acre. In one of these Dr. Gericke grew 1,224 lb. of tomatoes, in another 26 bushels of potatoes along with a small stand of corn and beans. Corn and other grains will grow in nutrient solution but not in significantly heavier stands than in soil. Tomatoes are Dr. Gericke's joy. When the tanks are sheltered in greenhouses and the water electrically warmed, his tomato plants bear for eight or nine months a year.

William Frederick Gericke was born on a Nebraska farm, educated at Ohio State, Johns Hopkins, California. He is tall, stoop-shouldered, sparse-haired, 51. When newshawks ask him whether he expects to make a lot of money out of hydroponics, he just smiles, shows two gold teeth.