Hydroponics. An ancient solution revisited.

What it is: Crop growth with plant roots submerged in mineral nutrient solution rather than soil


The famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were said to have been built by king Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled for 43 years between 605 and 562 BC., in order to please his wife queen Amytis. The daughter of the Median king, Amytis, became a Babylonian bride in order to secure a coalition between the two nations. Amytis came from a green land of rough grounds and high mountains. The flat, sunburned landscape of Mesopotamia (Iraq) depressed her and the king decided to reproduce her home countryside by building an artificial mountain with lush gardens planted on ascending terraces.

Around 50 BC. Diodorus Siculus wrote that these multilevel gardens stood on a complex construction of thick brick walls, stone pillars and palm tree beams in dense array. To render the beam roofs waterproof, they covered them with layers of reed and bitumen (abundant in this land of oil sources), as well as double layers of lead. The gardens were watered from the nearby river Euphrates. The wondrous result was a cool, fragrant and moist oasis, worthy of the gods.

Historians have examined whether hydroponics were used as a means of plant growth in the case of the Hanging Gardens. Since in contemporary hydroponics, no soil is used, the Hanging Gardens’ innovative irrigation system is considered as a first form of hydroponics, a hypothesis further supported by numerous ancient sources which describe the Gardens in detail.


Due to lack of lands suitable for cultivation the Aztecs developed a form of hydroponics around lake Texcoco at the valley of central Mexico. They used rafts, called chinampas, made of reeds and roots, which they topped with a bit of soil in order to grow several kinds of plants including trees. Crop roots reached through the rafts and grew in the water below. Many rafts were connected by the Aztecs so as to create whole floating islands of up to 70m in length, a view which greatly impressed Cort├ęs’s Conquistadors. In several occasions Aztecs carried those rafts to the markets and sold their fruits and vegetables directly of them.


There are references to the use of hydro culture in Egyptian archives dating from the times of the New Kingdom and Pharaoh Hatshepsut (c.1460 BC.) The Egyptians were using the tide of the Nile in order to benefit from the river’s water and its organic elements and achieve the increase of the crop yield.

Ancient China

Forms and applications of hydro culture were widespread in Asia, and especially China, since ancient times.


Hydroponics was (re)discovered in modern times during the18th c. when the importance of water as basic plant nourishment and the supporting role of soil in providing nutrients was confirmed.

It was concluded that soil-less, mineral based / nutrient enhanced plant growth was a viable solution which escaped many of the problems common in traditional agriculture

Hydroponics in space

NASA has already developed a portable device for growing vegetables suitable for consumption by astronauts during space missions.