For a long time gardening is more than just planting colorful decorative flowers. Indeed, you can create a themed garden, choose plants that attract butterflies, establish a backyard pond, and grow your own food in those aquaponics!
What is common for all these modern-day gardens is that they have common ancient predecessors: They are all kind of “sprouts” of Chinampas, the floating gardens of the Aztecs in Mexico!
How were these floating gardens discovered?
It all happened far back in the year of 1519 when Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in Mexico. There he found 200,000 people living on a fortified island in the middle of a lake!
Tenochtitlan, nowadays Mexico City, used to be the biggest and best-fed city in the world, and this fortress-city was completely surrounded by water. In dire need to feed their vast population, the Aztecs ingeniously built chinampas, or floating gardens, to convert the marshy wetlands of Lake Texcoco into arable farmland.
Even today, these floating gardens are considered a masterpiece of garden-engineering!
Dimensions of each of these gardens were: 300 feet long by 30 feet wide. To make a garden, workers weaved sticks together to form a giant raft, and then they piled mud from the bottom of the lake on top of the raft to create a layer of soil 3-feet thick.
The rectangular gardens were “anchored” to the lake by willow trees planted at the corners. Each garden was lined on all sides by canals to allow canoes to pass with workers and materials. This network of gardens extended for amazing 22,000 acres across the surface of the lake.
The floating gardens were companion-planted (the planting of different crops in proximity for pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial creatures, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity) with corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and flowers, and these incredible gardens yielded up to 7 crops per year!
The Aztec religion cherished the cult of sacrifice, and the gods were fearsome. The victims of sacrifice, standing on top of the great pyramid, could see the floating green gardens in the far distance, with the sun sparkling on the lake, and then their hearts were cut out and roasted in a fire. Utterly gruesome, everyone will agree!!!
Moreover, tens of thousands of human heads rolled down the steep stone steps of those pyramids, and the rivers that turned the temples red in the noonday sun were a cry to the pagan gods to keep their gardens growing and floating.
But in the end, when the sky went dark over Tenochtitlan, and the ground shook beneath the feet of Montezuma, it was not the sun god who brought judgment: it was the Conquistadors.
The Spaniards’ military advantages over the Aztecs—the swords, guns, and horses–were nullified in the sanctuary of the floating gardens, and Cortez was greedy for gold, not Indian corn! So, he gullible ordered the destruction of the chinampas!
The result of this unthoughtful order was: The floating gardens of the Aztecs, the key to the survival of this great civilization, were torn to pieces by the hands that built them, and thrown to the bottom of the lake, never to rise again.
The Ruins of a Civilization
Yes, nowadays, human sacrifice is probably the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they read or think about the Aztecs. Today, however, we know for sure that there was much more to Aztec civilization than this ghastly practice.
By 1519, when the first Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico, the Aztecs were de facto in firm control of an empire that was inhabited by a population of 5 to 6 million people.
This large population meant that the exploitation of the landscape for agricultural purposes had to be largely increased. So, this was successfully achieved through the use of chinampa agricultural system, these so-called ‘floating gardens’ which can be found on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico.
An artist’s impression of part of the canal network linking chinampas around Tenochtitlan. Source: Mexicolore
Although the further origins of chinampa agriculture in the Valley of Mexico remain unclear, it is said to have been used throughout Mesoamerica centuries before the rise of the Aztecs.
However, with the growth of the Aztec Empire, a systematic program of construction was carried out over a short period of time. This planning can be seen in the overall uniformity in chinampa size and orientation, as observed in aerial surveys.
While the need to sustain large population provided with staple foods prompted the Aztecs to undertake this massive project, its ability to organize manpower was equally important as a means for its accomplishment!
As mentioned above, the chinampa plot was constructed by staking out a rectangular enclosure, about 30 m in length and 2.5 m in width, into the marshy lakebed. The enclosure would then be fenced in by joining the stakes with wattle.
After that, the fenced in area would be filled with mud and decaying vegetation. In order to prevent the roots from becoming water-logged, it was important that the fill brought the chinampa plot above the lake level.
While constructing the next plot, which would be parallel to the first, a narrow canal for the passage of canoe would be left inbetween these 2 chinampa plots.
The canals enclosing the chinampa plots formed an illusion that these agricultural lands were floating on water, hence its misattribution as ‘floating gardens’.
To further stabilize these plots of land, willows were planted around the perimeter. This is due to the dense root system which, over time, anchored the retaining walls of the structure and reduced the effects of erosion.
Thames & Hudson Encyclopædia Britannica
So as to ensure that the chinampas would produce good harvests year round, it was vital that the supply of water was well-managed. During the rainy season, flooding would have been a problem.
Hence, a sophisticated drainage system, which included dams, sluice gates and canals, were put in place to get around this problem. This management of the water-supply is further evidence of the neatly-organized agricultural project by the Aztec Empire.
However, during the dry season, moisture had to be maintained, and this was done manually by carrying water in containers from the canals to the plants in the chinampa plots.
As for fertilizers, the Aztecs used human feces [collected in canoes] from the city of Tenochtitlan. By using human excrement to fertilize the crops, the Aztecs were also able to create a healthier living environment, as the city’s wastewater would have also been treated.
It has even been claimed that the city of Mexico once attempted to create a wastewater treatment system which functioned along the lines of the Aztec chinampa system.
So, what is most fascinating about the chinampas is human intervention. Though the Aztecs may seem like a blood-thirsty race only, their ability to exploit the landscape to their bountiful advantage shows human ingenuity and sophistication from the times of yore!
In addition, the organization of the chinampa building program and the management of its water-supply by the Aztec Empire is a further proof of the highly-developed hierarchical society that was maintained by the Aztec peoples.
The fact that a modern city is trying to emulate this ancient system in order to solve its water treatment problem also attests to the complexity of Aztec society!
Finally, it is amazing how many people have read (or heard) time and again about the sacrificial aspects of Mayan culture, and nothing at all about these incredible floating gardens that can save the ever-increasing world population from the spreading danger of famine!
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Aztec. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/46981/Aztec [Accessed 31 March 2014].
Evans, S. T., 2013. Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson.
Sprouts in the Sidewalk, 2014. Chinampas of Tenochtitlan. [Online]
Available at: http://sidewalksprouts.wordpress.com/history/international-history-of-urban-ag/tenochtitlan/
[Accessed 31 March 2014].
Townsend, R. F., 1992. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson.
Trigger, B. G., 2003. Understanding Early Civilizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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