Eco Friendly Garden Designs: Chinampas. By L.J. Hodek-Creapeau, Circkles Editor.
Chinampa is a method of ancient Mesoamerican agriculture which used small, rectangle-shaped areas of fertile land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico. The word chinampa comes from the Nahuatl word chināmitl, meaning “square made of canes.”
Sometimes referred to as “floating gardens,” chinampas were artificial islands that usually measured roughly 98 ft × 8.2 ft. Chinampas were used by the ancient Aztec Indians in Tenochtitlan, and ranged from 300 ft × 15 ft to 300 ft × 30 ft. They were created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle: Wattle and daub is a composite building material used for making walls in which a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material usually made of some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. The fenced-off area was then layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake. Often trees similar to a willow or a cypress were planted at the corners to secure the chinampas which were separated by channels wide enough for a canoe to pass. These “islands” had very high crop yields with up to four crops a year.
The earliest chinampas have been dated back to the Middle Postclassic period, (1150 – 1350 CE) and showing use primarily in Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco near the springs that lined the south shore of those lakes. The Aztecs not only conducted military campaigns to obtain control over these regions but, according to some researchers, undertook significant state-led efforts to increase their extent. With the destruction of the dams and sluice gates during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, many chinampas fields were abandoned, although remnants are still in use today in what remains of Lake Xochimilco.
Among the crops grown on chinampas were: maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes, chili peppers, and flowers. It’s estimated that food provided by chinampas made up one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the city of Tenochtitlán.
Today many horticulturists have adopted a modern version of the chinampas and call it hydroponics. While occupying a great deal less space, no soil whatsoever, and often being used indoor such as in a greenhouse setting, the principle is basically the same as the ancient chinampas except it has been made more efficient and convenient. Using the chinampa method can have many benefits: such as practically no weeding and watering as well as protection from animals and certain pests. Building a chinampas in your backyard pond can certainly be an entertaining and efficient way to utilize a decorative space for edibles. While nutrients must be continually replenished in conventional hydroponic gardening, chinampas are more self-sufficient in that the soil materials they are built on supply the nutrients for plants, and the water that permeates that soil offers nutrients as well in a more natural way. So supplementing the water periodically is not necessary as with hydroponics. As mentioned above, the Aztecs often constructed their chinampas with dung, which would offer a constant supply of natural fertilizer to their floating gardens.
Plants that we believe would do well with this type of planting are lettuces and Asian greens because you can plant a large number of them in a small area, they would do well with the added humidity of the surrounding water, and slugs can’t swim!
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