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Guide to Chinampas: How to Grow a Floating Garden

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 2, 2020 • 4 min read

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Long before European colonists set foot in the Americas, indigenous people in the Aztec empire pioneered a form of horticulture for growing crops on shallow bodies of water. These garden plots were known as chinampas, and farmers used them throughout what is now Mexico and Central America. The chinampas tradition has endured for centuries, and today home gardeners can make floating gardens inspired by those original Aztec farming methods.

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What Are Chinampas?

The word chinampa refers to a garden that is either built in wetlands or suspended directly above a body of water. It derives from the Nahuatl language and the word chināmitl, which translates to "square made of canes." Mesoamerican peoples built the first chinampas in what is now known as the Valley of Mexico, embedding gardens in raised fields with a water supply underneath.

In the contemporary United States, the word chinampa often refers to a floating island containing various types of plants, shrubs, and flowers. Most contemporary chinampas serve a cosmetic purpose, but they can also serve as a food source in the world of urban agriculture.

A Brief History of Chinampas

The chinampas agricultural tradition began in the Aztec empire and continues in various forms to this day.

  • Origin in Aztec empire: The original pre-Columbian chinampa systems were constructed in the twelfth century centered in the city of Tenochtitlán—primarily around Lake Texcoco, Lake Xochimilco, and Lake Chalco. Chinampa agriculture and chinampa farming helped sustain food production systems throughout the varying seasons of the Mexican climate. By building the garden beds above a freshwater lake (or on its shores), Aztec farmers could survive a dry season.
  • Spread throughout Central America: Though the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the site of present-day Mexico City, was the heart of the chinampas agricultural system, farmers also built them throughout other wetlands, shallow lake beds, and islands in what is now central Mexico. Aztec chinampas were reliable sources of food, likely supplying beans, squash, amaranth, chili peppers, maize, tomatoes, and flowers, among other crops.
  • Present-day use: In the western hemisphere, most traditional chinampas are no longer commonly used. Some mayoralties of Mexico City, such as Xochimilco and Tlahuac, feature modern day chinampas that produce crops such as corn, cilantro, squash, spinach, chard, lettuce, parsley, mint, chives, cauliflower, celery, rosemary, and radishes. In many other places, chinampas are purely decorative.
  • Use around the world: Similar forms of floating gardens have evolved in cultures around the globe. Dal Lake, in the Kashmir Valley region claimed by both India and Pakistan, is the site of floating gardens in the style of chinampas. In a region known for its lack of arable land, agriculture on natural and artificial islands has become a part of the local permaculture, much as it once did in central Mexico.
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How Do Chinampas Work?

Chinampas work via the principles of hydroponic gardening. A water source below the garden soil feeds the plants, either via natural osmosis or via manmade forms of irrigation. The soil itself can be reinforced by dredging muck from lake beds and packing it around the chinampas along with decaying vegetation and other organic matter. Water permeates this soil base, reaching the plant roots and nourishing the plant.

Pros and Cons of Chinampa Gardening

One advantage of chinampa gardening is the presence of a reliable source of water, which may become increasingly valuable in the era of climate change. Chinampas also have a natural drainage system, discharging excess water into the source below them. Disadvantages include susceptibility to flooding—when water levels rise, they can overwhelm the crops. In addition, possible pollution from urban waste can rapidly degrade water quality. Fortunately, pollutants tend to settle to the bottom of the lake and may only be an issue if stirred up.

How to Make Your Own Floating Garden

Home gardeners rarely use chinampas to grow food for sustenance. Rather, they create the floating garden as part of a landscaping project or to produce a few food crops for fun. If you'd like to build a floating garden for your own use, there are six useful tips for going about the process:

  1. Use bamboo for a foundation. Bamboo is a natural material that is lightweight and floats on water. Use bamboo rods as the foundation for your floating garden. Tie the rods together using twine or even vines. Use a cris-cross pattern for maximum durability, and seal the ends of the bamboo to prevent water from entering the rods.
  2. Create a bed of leaves on the bamboo raft. Banana leaves or palm tree leaves work best for this. If you do not have access to broad, waxy leaves, you can also use straw for your bedding.
  3. Add soil and compost. Your floating garden needs nutrient-rich soil to sustain it. Compost filled with leaves, dirt, and plenty of organic matter is a great choice. Animal manure also works.
  4. Plant your seedlings in the soil mixture. Cover each seedling with a quarter inch of dirt. Small vegetables and flowers like water hyacinth are ideal for growing in a garden in the middle of a pond or lake.
  5. Place your floating garden in a placid body of water. Your garden is now ready to float and grow. Take note that sufficient water may not seep up from below, as it would in a traditional Aztec-style chinampa. You will likely need to water this garden with a watering can from time to time.
  6. Leave the garden to float and grow. Though you'll occasionally need to pull it to shore to water it and harvest any vegetables, your floating garden should be relatively low-maintenance.

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