Intensive Farming Practices Developed by Mesoamericans

Gardens Dubbed "The Venice of the New World."

Camas ChinampasCredit: KristinollerIn the Xochimilco district of Mexico City are the remains of some of the most unusual gardens in the world, the chinampas “floating gardens.”

When the Spanish invaded Central America in the 16th century, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was larger than Paris. Over 150,000 to 200,000 people lived in the city. Most of these did not raise their own food. Instead farmers who lived near the southern lakes of Chalco and Xochimilco provided much of the food for the city-state.

The Valley of Mexico is not conducive to traditional farming practices. Rainfall in the area is variable and the soil is poor. To compensate for this, Farmers built a type of raised bed island directly into the shallow areas around the lake. The farmers called their raised bed farms “chinampas” which comes from the word chināmitl or “square made of canes.”

In order to build the islands, farmers known as chinamperos first drove posts made of juniper into the lake bed. The farmers wove canes around the posts to make wattle fencing borders at the margins of the future islands.

Then they dredged the lake bed for soil, mud, muck and rotting vegetation. They piled the nutrient-rich soil into the wattle fencing to create the raised bed islands. Finally, the farmers planted willow trees along the edges of the chinampas to stabilize the soil. A group of 4 to 6 chinamperos working for 8 days could build a raised bed that was between 15 and 30 feet wide and up to 300 feet long.  Farmers could use the soil year-round to grow squash, beans, tomatoes and corn. During cold weather, the proximity of the plants to the lakebed would keep frost away.

The techniques worked so well that builders used it to enlarge the useable land in Tenochtitlan as well. These chinampas fascinated Spanish explorers, who named Tenochtitlan “The Venice of the New World.”

Although many of the raised beds were destroyed when the Spaniards invaded Tenochtitlan, a few are still farmed today in the Xochimilco district. The soil in these remaining beds is still capable of producing more food than the soil in rest of the Valley of Mexico.

Although the chinampas are still in use today, urban sprawl threatens their existence. The surviving floating island beds in Xochimilco have been a designated UNESCO World Heritage location since 1987. But corrupt officials have either encouraged illegal housing developments or have looked the other way when developers move into protected land.

Additionally, pollution from other parts of the city, draining of the natural aquifers that feed water into the canals and invasion by non-native plants and animals all threaten to destroy the remaining chinampas. Although the city is taking steps to correct these problems, the UN has considered revoking the Xochimilco’s status as a World Heritage site.