When Raised-Bed Gardening Was a Way of Life

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chinampasThese days, when most people hear the term “raised-bed gardening,” they probably think of carefully tended boxes of plants in community gardens and suburban backyards.  Popularized by John Jeavons in the early 1970s, the Grow Biointensive Method did a lot to popularize biodynamic gardening and firmly established the term “raised bed” in the vocabulary of small-scale vegetable gardeners everywhere. But raised-bed gardening can be traced back to the hydrological agriculture systems of antiquity, specifically the system known as chinampas.

Chinampas consisted of a network of raised fields on low man-made islands in the middle of lakes, marshes and floodplains. The chinampas were created by collecting nutrient-rich mud from a lake, pond, or river and placing into a woven cage, so that crops could be grown above the waterline. This design had the advantages of providing a favorable microclimate, an extremely productive, self-sustaining soil, and a self-watering system, in regions where rainfall was inconsistent.

Currently, the most intact, refined examples of chinampa agriculture can be found in the Xochimilco/Chaleco lake basins in the central valley of Mexico. Similar land management techniques have been employed throughout the Americas. Extensive examples can be found in Los Llanos de Moxos, in the Beni region of Bolivia. Traditional raised-bed agricultural fields such as these are widely regarded as the most productive and ecologically sustainable forms of agriculture in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and represent a level of agricultural technology unequalled anywhere in the world.

With changes in global climates and weather patterns, there is a growing interest in the theory and practice behind chinampas and how they could help societies meet future food-production challenges. Ironically, just when it’s needed most, the culture of the chinampas is rapidly dwindling in the same parts of the world where it was invented and perfected.

Tlahuac near Mexico City is one of the last places in the world where you can still see people farming chinampas, just as their ancestors have since pre-Hispanic times. But urbanization has taken a toll on the Tlahuac chinampa farming culture. Many residents have taken up more modern professions and left to work in the city. Fast-food restaurants, cinderblock housing developments, and bumper-to-bumper traffic are pressing in. And the recently opened 20-station Golden Line, which can carry some 437,000 passengers a day to Tlabuac, is sure to speed up the demise of what is left of the chinampas there.

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