History of Hydroponics, Part IV: From Businesses to People’s Homes

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December 16, 2016

This article originally appeared in Garden Culture Magazine US 12.

 

A number of entrepreneurs took up hydroponics early on as a direct result of Dr. Gericke’s work. The first with any measure of success being Ernest W. Brundin, a University of California graduate of Montebello, California. A well-to-do businessman, Mr. Brundin was taken by the early accounts of Gericke’s work and independently started his own greenhouse tomato farm, experimenting by himself at producing commercial quantities of soilless-grown tomatoes. Once established, his one-half acre was producing 40 tons of tomatoes a year, and he believed he could eventually produce 100 tons to the acre.

He named his new concern “The Chemical Culture Company”, and was so successful, that by May of 1938, he had already secured contracts to supply the dining cars of eastbound transcontinental trains. Eventually, Brundin secured steamship dining contracts, along with shipping them for sale as far away as New York City.

In early tests, Dr. Gericke had warmed the nutrient solution of his tanks with soil-heating cables, believing at the time that warming the nutrient temperature would increase growth. An earlier attempt at beginning a commercial tomato farm failed due to the prohibitively expensive electricity cost these cables required.

An Alternative Method

Brundin turned to solving this issue through steam, developing and patenting a growing system that connected a hundred growing tanks to a centrally located reservoir. The temperature of the nutrient was raised to 80°F by a steam boiler, before being mechanically pumped back to the growing beds on a timed schedule, after which it would drain back by gravity to the reservoir. Brundin was almost as active as Gericke in promoting hydroponics, and in fact, held a weeklong exposition of his “now world-famous plants” in the downtown location of The May Company, a leading department store in Los Angeles.

Brundin can be credited with patenting the first hobby hydroponic system, called the “chemical agriculture system” in 1938. He also developed and patented the first passive hydroculture pots for home use, described as a “double-decked” pot that contained the nutrient solution below a growing pot with a wick that would carry the nutrient solution up to the roots of the plant, and included a built-in solution level indicator.

Brundin wasn’t alone, however. Another one hundred tank commercial hydroponicum was established by a former student of Dr. Gericke’s near Sacramento, known as the California Packing Company. Rolland Langley of Mountain View, California, was a pioneer in establishing hydroponics as a teaching tool in schools. Used by thousands of teachers, in 1939 Langley developed a small leak-proof hydroponics kit that could be used in any school window, complete with a “… tank, tray, excelsior, rice hulls, and the plant nutrients.”

On the east coast in August of 1938, ads for salesmen to act as distributors for a “… quick selling line of hydroponic chemicals and equipment…”  began appearing in many newspapers, placed by the Modern Gardening Sales Company of New York City. In November of 1938, George Zarafonctis, the maître d’ of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Lubbock, Texas, opened a rooftop hydroponicum to supply fresh vegetables to the hotel restaurant. Many other examples of hydroponic entrepreneurship exist, too numerous to list here.

Expositions

During 1939, a number of expositions featured exhibits highlighting the new soilless growing techniques, including the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition (where growing tanks were constructed of glass so that visitors could see the plant roots growing), the 1939 State Fair of Texas, and other state fairs as well.

Perhaps the most popular show was in the Heinz Dome at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, an exhibit that contained displays representative of the company famous for their Heinz 57 ketchup. On display were several tomato plants being grown via “chemi-culture,” with the plants rooted in sand, and individual bottles of nutrient solution fed to the roots via gravity through clear tubes. And while it was admitted that these weren’t the same tomatoes that Heinz currently used in their products, they predicted that crops grown in the future could be done so without soil. So popular was the Heinz exhibit during the first year of the fair, it was greatly expanded for the 1940 season (May-October). The company hired G.B. Van Veghten to grow an expanded selection of both flowers and vegetables for the attendees viewing and educational pleasure.

War!

After leaving the University of California to pursue hydroponic research on his own, Dr. Gericke continued to promote his latest research under the auspices of his newly adopted terminology. Any opportunity he could avail himself of to spread the promise of hydroponics he took advantage of. He also would use this time to complete his book published in 1940, The Complete Guide To Soilless Gardening, the title of which curiously lacked any reference to hydroponics.

In the introduction, Gericke hits back at the conclusions of Hoagland and Arnon laid out in Circular 347, saying that “Some scientists who failed to realize the import of natural and field conditions have compared yields from small hydroponic basins with those from basins of fertile soil, and also with those of sand treated with nutrient solutions, using the same number of plants each. In using the same number of plants in the hydroponic basin as in the soil, these experiments have made the mistake of limiting the productive capacity of hydroponics to that of soil. Comparison can be only by growing as great a number of plants in each case as the fertility of the culture medium can support.”

He also emphasizes that hydroponics isn’t yet a precise science, and that much experimentation still needs to be accomplished, while warning against exaggerated claims of the press and shady businessmen. Yet, he goes on to say that the productive powers of hydroponics dwarf those of agriculture. He also foresees other benefits including preserving natural resources, or what he termed the “cycle of conservation.”

After America’s entry into the war in late 1941, Gericke continued refining his techniques and in 1943, announced in the January 10th issue of the Oakland Tribune that “Because he believes that he can best serve his country by disseminating information about his agricultural ‘revolution,’ Dr. Gericke has opened to the public his experimental gardens at 1555 Scenic Avenue.”

He went on to state that “… his principal concern at present is that every backyard, however small or rocky, is converted to wartime production.” And beginning the following week, every Sunday for the next 3 months, Gericke published detailed information in the Oakland Tribune for the public on just how to carry out this task. Thousands visited his personal gardens as a result, and countless soilless gardens were planted for the war effort.

In Memory of Jeff Edwards

Next, we were to visit how hydroponics helped the war effort, and how the post-war years led to renewed interest by the public and commercial interests. Unfortunately, we may never get the chance to learn those details or much about everything that took place between the end of this article and recent history. This is the last installment in this series. Jeff had planned to continue on from where he left off but passed away before he was able to share any more of this fascinating saga. We hope the rest of the more obscure parts of the story didn’t leave with him.

Jeff Edwards

The late Jeff Edwards, author of The History of Hydroponics series, was a seasoned veteran of the hobby hydroponic industry, a hydroponic history buff, and the creator of HydroponicGardening.com. The historian helped shape the industry of indoor gardening as we know it, and although he is no longer with us, his drive to educate and motivate people will live on through his fascinating work.

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