Charles C. Gilbert’s Success Without Soil endures after 65 years.
Mr. Gilbert was one of the ﬁrst to commercially exploit the popularity of hydroponics at the time by marketing the ﬁrst nutrient solutions to commercial and hobby growers.—Progressive Farming Media Kit Volume 1 Hydroponic Gardening: A Resource Guide For Understanding, Teaching, or Writing About Hydroponic Gardening
Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics by Charles C. Gilbert. Charles C. Gilbert Company, 129 pp. [second edition, 1949].
My father got enthused about hydroponics—growing plants in sterile sand, gravel, or vermiculite and fed by liquid fertilizer—while serving during World War II in the Pacific, where the U.S. Army established several vegetable farms. Family lore has it that Dad was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the war ended. He was twenty-six years old on August 28, 1945, when he flew in Major General Kenneth Wolfe, who had directed the start of the heavy bombing campaign against Japanese cities. Outside Tokyo, which had been devastated by subsequent firebombing, Dad witnessed the development of a vast hydroponics facility.
At Chofu the army built a glass greenhouse that covered 232,000 square feet—over five acres—more than twice as large as any in the world. U.S. Signal Corps photographs show a gleaming structure that stretched to the horizon in a series of peaked glass roofs. Workers seeded lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops into gravel beds periodically saturated with 75,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer. Other crops apparently were grown hydroponically outside the greenhouse in special beds.
Soldiers longed for fresh vegetables, but they were forbidden to eat local food, grown under centuries of “unsanitary and primitive fertilizing practices,” Dad writes in Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics. This allusion to the use of human excrement was in contrast to the hydroponic plants grown in “sterile gravel and pure water.” He adds, “I wish that those who are not yet convinced of the value of soil-less growing could see the harvests taken from those fifty-five acres of concrete.”
Dad saw an opportunity—this was modern farming. The future, in fact: all variables were under control. Hydroponics could be done anywhere by anyone, and hydroponic farmers would need to buy products constantly. Upon his discharge, he returned to La Jolla, California, and set up a greenhouse at home. With two friends, he started a business in San Diego selling a hydroponics fertilizer. He wrote and published his guidebook to promote the sale of his Nutrient Formula.
Success Without Soil promotes hydroponics yield, nutrition.
Soil-less-grown plants out-yield those grown in soil by ten times, the book reports. Perfect soil is rare, Success Without Soil observes, and much farmland is so worn out and abused that the crops produced are unfit nutritionally. “It is necessary to fertilize, cultivate, irrigate, rotate, pray and perspire,” Dad writes, “in order to keep good soil fertile or to improve worn out soil.” Furthermore, diseases lurk in soil and often kill tender seedlings.
Growing up, I’d spy the green leatherette cover of Success Without Soil in Dad’s bookshelf, pull it down, and start turning its glossy pages—Dad had paid for the best paper stock—intrigued by photos of the Japan facility and enthralled by photos of him working in his greenhouse in California years before my birth. In one photo he’s inspecting tomato plants while dressed in a tuxedo; the tux presumably symbolized how clean and easy this way farming was, though I imagined he’d just come from a party, since Mom always told me those were his wild partying years.
I’ve only just read Success Without Soil from start to finish for the first time, impressed with Dad’s sentences, his expertise, his service ethos, and his persona. I recalled that Dad’s authorial persona was confidential, humorous, and self-deprecating, but this time I was surprised by how he tailored it to his presumed audience. For instance, he launches a brief, jokey attack on organic growing, surely assuming that his readers would expect or enjoy it. And there’s one reference to the Japanese as “Nips,” hardly the worst slur they suffered but astounding to me from a man who’d raged when he heard me, as a boy playing war, call my opponents “Japs”—like I’d heard on TV. While he didn’t have a smidgen of guilt for bombing them, he honored the Japanese, seeming to respect their discipline.
I also noticed a reference to my mother, who apparently typed the book, and I had to smile because the advice he’s dispensing was always her caution to him: “[S]tart small, start small, start small, start small, start small, start small—I would keep that up for twenty pages if I wasn’t afraid of having Rosie throw the typewriter at me.” Dad was completely unable to follow this path himself, and lost a small fortune cattle in ranching and in leisure pursuits that usually involved buying boats, racecars, and airplanes.
An introvert who avoided socializing, in Success Without Soil he’s amazingly there for his readers, offering to send them additional information and corresponding with numbers of them. Of the first “so-many thousand” buyers of Success Without Soil, exactly half sat down and wrote him a letter, he reports. He includes long, enthusiastic passages from one Walter X. Osborn, who, upon release from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, had settled down in the Philippines and established what he called a “productive chemical farm.” Dad thanks readers for their positive letters, seems stung by one writer who criticizes him for being too technical, and pleads with readers to number their questions, keep a copy of what they asked, and be clear and exact about what they wished to know.
He cites this letter from a man in Maine:
Your book and everything was fine but I raise rabbits and arthritis is giving lots of trouble. Now I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be a good idea to feed your Nutrient Formula and everything directly to them so that the fur would be better. Also I could save money this way. Besides, I want to go and set up my business in Florida but I don’t know what effect it will have on my rabbit work but it should help the arthritis and everything. What do you think? I had a friend that moved there once but he won’t write me about it. Please answer at once as I must make plans and everything.
“I know very little about Florida,” Dad replies, “less about rabbits and practically nothing at all about arthritis—and everything!”
Romance & memoir dwell between the lines of the how-to book.
The first edition of Success Without Soil is dated August 10, 1948, the birthday of my mother, Rozelle Rounsaville, whom my father had hired as his secretary the September before. She must have been different from anyone he knew in southern California’s party circuit. A five-foot-two redhead, Rosie had grown up in a family of ten children in the sweltering country town of Atoka, in southeastern Oklahoma.
Dad quickly sold out of his book’s first printing. The second edition of Success Without Soil is dated May 23, 1949, my Dad’s 31st birthday. His Nutrient Formula mail-order business was written about in Forbes and featured in Mechanix Illustrated in October 1951, in an article by Lester David headlined “Mail Yourself a Fortune”:
Then, there’s the case of Charles C. Gilbert of San Diego, Calif., who began five years ago and now calls himself the world’s largest supplier of hydroponic information, equipment and materials. Hydroponics, a soilless method of growing plants, was generally misunderstood, Gilbert discovered. It was clouded by all sorts of technical gibberish. Gilbert thereupon set out to make the field so simple that any schoolboy could enjoy it as a hobby. He began selling seeds and a book called Success Without Soil. The business caught on so rapidly that today, during peak months, he does a $350 daily volume of business.
But by then he’d saturated the market—eager hobbyists and modest-scale farmers—and his Nutrient Formula business was wilting. Dad was soon pursuing a new dream. He and Mom bought a cattle ranch outside Hemet, California, where my sister, Meg, was born in 1953; I followed in 1955. When I was about two he settled us on another cattle ranch, in Leesburg, Georgia, having concluded that the rainy southeast was more viable for a grass farm than the California desert. Still unable to earn enough income from cattle, he moved us when I was almost six to Florida and went to work at the Kennedy Space Center. In retirement, he started a successful nursery.
Hydroponics never has seemed to achieve its postwar promise in America. I suppose that’s because we’re a big country, still with more land than we know what to do with. And hydroponic growing is intensive, and associated with greenhouses, which are expensive. Probably another factor is America’s cheap fuel policy: a grower in the Midwest can’t get a premium for early or out-of-season hydroponic tomatoes when they’re being trucked cheaply from fields in California and Florida. Hydroponics, I’ve noticed, retains its allure for marijuana growers, who for obvious reasons often want to grow their crop indoors.
Dad was value-neutral as far as methods and information went, so when I was a kid our house in Satellite Beach, Florida, was awash in literature with clashing philosophies. We still received the mainstream Progressive Farmer, which I found boring, but also got a quirky grassroots how-to rag, the original, on black-and-white-newsprint, Organic Gardening and Farming, along with the fun Countryside & Small Stock Journal. Later in the 1970s Dad subscribed to The Mother Earth News, a counterculture upstart that he’d learned about in the Wall Street Journal. Then we got the coolest pre-Internet resource ever, Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. On Dad’s bookshelves I found the four volcanic farming memoirs of Ohioan Louis Bromfield, who wrote rapturously about soil and mystically about the glory of humus.
So I grew up absorbing a very different agricultural ethos from that espoused in Success Without Soil. Dad’s romantic farming adventures, his losses, and his flood of alternative reading material helped forge me as a boy into an agrarian dreamer with organic leanings. Proud of Dad and his book, I’m still doubtful that there’s truly such a thing as success without soil.
This started as a basic review or account of reading my father’s book from start to finish for the first time, but I ended up explaining a bit more. My father, his farming, and the scarring effect on him—and therefore on me—of his father’s suicide constitute a major thread in my Shepherd: A Memoir, to be published in 2014 by Michigan State University Press.