What is a Chinampa?

If you are interested in organic gardening then you may be aware of the growing interest in the ways in which ancient cultures around the world grew their food. There is a growing awareness that, sometimes, the ancient ways are the best ways for a sustainable and ethical future. One word that comes up quite often in this sector is the word 'chinampa'. But what is a chinampa, and why might you want to create one in your garden?

Chinampa, a word taken from the Nahuatl languages, is a type of Mesoamerican agriculture. It used small areas of fertile arable land to grow their crops in small-scale farming on the shallow lake beds of Xochimilco and Chalco in the Valley of Mexico. These small areas of land in the shallow water were created by building up woven mats of reeds, with stakes or trees to pin the long growing areas at their corners. Soil and aquatic vegetation would be piled onto these rafts until the top layer of soil was visible above the water's surface. These were surrounded by drainage ditches, from which fertile mud was dug and placed on top of the chinampa to fertilise them. It is believed that the first chinampas were created in around 1100, though the techniques involved are definitely still applicable today.

While modern aquaponics systems are often high tech, using modern technology to rear fish and plants in a combined system, the Aztecs grew plants simply on these 'floating islands' of soil on fishing lakes and waterways. These chinampas could provide inspiration for your own low-tech hydroponic or aquaponic system. If you would like to raise fish and grow plant-based food together, but do not want to invest in any expensive equipment, then this could be an excellent solution for you and your garden.

Making a Modern Day Chinampa

If you have the space to do so, creating a permanent watery area/ pond in your garden is a wonderful idea. Not only could you have a carp pond, and attract the wildlife, you could also consider creating a raft of fertile growing area upon it. By building up a chinampa on a carp pond, you can make an area with natural irrigation, that does not require additional watering. The fish will naturally fertilise the water, which will wash over and through the growing area. Upon the raft-like structure, you could grow a wide range of leafy greens and other vegetables.