Showing posts with label Chinampas i. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chinampas i. Show all posts

Friday, January 23, 2015

Chinampas Permaculture and Forest Gardens

By Liliana Usvat
Blog 286-365

Chinampas is a method of cultivation used in Mexico since the Aztecs. It has been credited as the reason why the Aztec population was able to grow so large and prosperous on what was basically swamp land and shallow lakes. 

Chinampas comes from the Nahua language and means square made of canes and refers to the method of constructing these 'floating fields'. 

In shallow lakes square areas would be marked out with canes and then woven cane walls would be fixed in place and the area inside would be filled with sludge taken from the floor of the bordering area. 

The 'island' would be built up of sludge, earth, plant matter and stones until it was higher than the surface of the water. Willow trees were often planted at the corners to help hold the land and protect against erosion.

 Vertivert and soto caballo (or relatives) which have strong wide reaching root systems were also planted to protect and secure edges. 

This small field would be planted with food crops and flowers, while the canals of water between were wide enough for a canoe to pass along and gave access to the farmer. 

Chinampas were used widely in swamps too: canals were dug into the swamp and the sludge dug was piled up on the adjoining land to create raised beds. 

Free floating aquatic plants were allowed to grow in the canals and were harvested annually to use as mulch on the fields.

The earliest fields that have been securely dated are from the Middle Postclassic period, 1150 – 1350 CE. Chinampas were used 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. 
Chinampa farms also ringed Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, which was considerably enlarged over time. Smaller-scale farms have also been identified near the island-city of Xaltocan and on the east side of Lake Texcoco. 
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, squashamaranth, tomatoes, chili peppers, and flowers. It is estimated that food provided by chinampas made up one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the city of Tenochtitlán.
Chinampas were fertilized using lake sediments as well as Night soil and rich earth from the bottom of lakes.
Maize was planted with digging stick huictli /wikt͡ɬi/ with a wooden blade on one end.
The word chinampa comes from the Nahuatl word chināmitl, meaning "square made of canes".
Trees were also often planted in the corners to help secure the area.

The pioneer species,  guava, wild orange, cenizaro, ronron, espavel and a few others, bring in their own community of non grass plants and soon small islands of woodland spring up in the pasture.

 Small trees form canopy and underbrush appears which in turn provides shade and mulch for ground covers, more delicate species and fungi.

 The whole now provides habitat for insects, toads, reptiles, birds and mammals and as it grows it is nourished by the manure and decaying remains of insect and animal life. With more animal species there is more chance of seeds being dispersed, and so the little wood grows. 

Pioneer species gradually make way to settler species which at some point will overshadow those first small trees, and over time the pasture will disappear under the growing forest. It's all very natural and very beautiful. 

Why Chinampas Gardens are part of This Permaculture Design

Chinampas Gardens are artificial islands or peninsulas created by scooping nutrient-rich lake, swamp or pond muck into a woven cage so that crops can be grown above the waterline in a wet environment. 

Within this simple design, several unique functions are accomplished at once: 

  • a micro-climate that prevents early frost damage; 
  • an extremely productive soil that is mostly self-sustaining; 
  • a self-watering system created by water wicking in from the sides as moisture evaporates from the surface of the beds; and 
  • the growing of plants and fish within the same area.

Trellis over the Channels

In some areas, arching trellises were extended over the narrow channels and vining plants such as squash, cucumber and beans were planted so that their yielding crop could be harvested directly into a canoe, paddled to shore for unloading, and then return for more.

Benefits of Chinampas Gardening
  • Increased nutrient uptake
  • Less susceptibility to drought, frosts, and other weather calamities
  • Ability to grow more food (vegetables, fish and water foul).
  • Converting “unusable” low-ground into a productive food system
  • Dramatically reducing the need to water a garden. (Still need to water seedlings)
A more perfect example of stacking functions in a permaculture system can rarely be found.  Fish, fowl, and water plants could be harvested from the water channel and vegetables, fruit, and lattice-grown vines from the bed itself.


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.