Making better use of water in your garden should be a key consideration for all gardeners. Whether you have a lot of rainfall where you live, or not. There are many ways to use water wisely, wherever you live. One more interesting and unusual option that you might not have considered is creating a modern version of Aztec water gardens, or chinampas.
What is a Chinampa?
Chinampas are growing areas that were created on shallow lake beds in Central America. They were a key feature in Meso-American agriculture. And many sustainable landscape designers today are interested in how this ancient idea can be employed or adapted for agriculture and gardening in the present day. Chinampas have been much discussed by proponents of permaculture design – especially when it comes to optimal water use.
In essence, a chinampa is a small artificial island irrigated by the water that flows around and wicks up through them through capillary action. The irrigation ditches or canals that flowed between these built up areas on a shallow lake bed gave chinampas the appearance of floating gardens.
Chinampas were created by staking out an area in shallow water, then fencing in the area between these stakes with wattle of branches and reeds. These underwater fences were used to contain mud, lake sediment and decaying organic matter. These materials were built up until garden areas were raised above the water level.
As sediment built up in the channels, or canals between these beds, this material was excavated and added to the gardens. Thus, fertility was maintained over time, and channels continued to irrigate the structures.
Chinampa beds were often designed in larger scale food producing systems, with channels between multiple large gardens which were navigable by canoe.
But you don’t need to implement this idea on a massive scale. Even a smaller domestic garden could have a variation on the theme of the Aztec water garden.
Why Make Aztec Water Gardens?
Chinampas’ good fertility and constant irrigation made for productive growing systems, with high yields of edible crops.
Making beds that are surrounded by and constantly irrigated by fresh water can help to avoid water shortage issues, and ensure that the plants you grow always get the water they need.
By dredging surrounding ditches, canals or irrigation channels, you can also take advantage of natural nutrient accumulation. You can make sure that your growing areas are fertile, and that plants grown on the gardens get all the nutrients they need.
Aztec water gardens can be a good choice for those who already have a relatively large garden pond. And for those who are thinking about making one.
The ideas can also be implemented in an area of boggy ground. There, chinampas could help to make the most of the conditions, and avoid the need to direct water flow elsewhere.
Even where like-for-like implementation of this idea is not possible, we can learn from the success of ancient chinampas to create wicking beds for smaller-scale growing.
Integrating Aztec Water Gardens on a Garden Pond
Historically, chinampas were often created on a large scale. But the ideas they embody can also potentially be implemented in a smaller way in a domestic garden.
Creating a garden pond is a fantastic thing to do for biodiversity. A wildlife pond can enrich your garden and make it easier to grow crops.
But you could go one stage further. A pond could not only be used to draw in wildlife and support crops from elsewhere. It could also potentially be used to grow food in its own right.
There are a number of edible plants that can be grown in and around a garden pond. But making an Aztec water garden could be a way to grow a wider range of crops on an artificial island within a larger pond system.
You could take the traditional route. And build up your artificial island in your pond using the same techniques, or similar techniques to those used by ancient Aztecs. (Building fences below the water line to hold organic matter in place.
You could also build floating rafts that wick up water in a similar way, and integrate your garden pond into a hydroponic or aquaponic system.
Creating Irrigation Ditches Between Garden Beds
Another way to incorporate the ideas of Aztec water gardens on your property is to undertake earthworks in a boggy or waterlogged area. Taking advantage of a high water table in a certain part of your garden, you could create a series of lasagna type beds.
These beds, built of layers of organic matter, could be surrounded by permanent water-filled ditches, they will irrigate the beds, and be dredged like the canals in ancient chinampa systems.
Often, in an organic garden, it is a good idea to work with nature rather than trying to fight it. So if you have a very boggy or waterlogged area – building a chinampa style system could allow you to embrace the water your landscape contains. This could be a better alternative to trying to drain or divert that water elsewhere.
So chinampa design could help gardeners make the most of a difficult site. And obtain high yields from land that would not usually be suitable for most other means of food production.
Utilizing Ideas from Aztec Water Gardens – Making Wicking Beds
If might not have the space, or a landscape suitable for the creation of larger, traditional Aztec water gardens. But you could still implement the ideas in a slightly different way.
A wicking bed can be a solution to employ even in small spaces. A wicking bed also works on the principle that the growing area is permanently irrigated. As in a chinampa, the water in a reservoir at the base of the bed wicks up into the growing area through capillary action.
The water in a wicking bed is held below the growing medium, rather than completely surrounding it as in the ancient technique. But many of the principles are the same.
Both chinampas and wicking beds can be used to grow a much wider range of crops. They can support more variety than other types of bed within a water based hydroponic or aquaponic system. So they could be interesting choices if you want to grow more varied foods in water gardens.
A wicking bed could also be a way to integrate some of the ideas in an undercover growing area. Wicking beds do not have to be outdoors, but could also be integral features in a greenhouse or polytunnel.
Learning From History and Different Cultures
In gardening, it is important to explore history. We can often learn from those who gardened and grew food pre-industrial revolution. By exploring ancient growing methods, we can begin to see that modern is not always better. We can begin to appreciate that understanding of landscape and the elements is essential in good garden design. You don’t always have to stick to traditional UK gardening techniques in a UK garden. Instead, we can implement ideas from around the globe. This can help to make the most of all our particular garden can potentially provide.
Have you created a garden based on Aztec water gardens? Do you have any tips or experiences to share? Help other gardeners to develop ecologically sensitive and productive gardens by sharing what you know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.