Inside Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, Luis Covarrubias’ painting Gran Tenochtitlan en 1519 shows the city of Tenochtitlan, situated in what is now the center of Mexico City, at the height of Aztec rule. The artwork shows what appears to be a compact, bustling city lost within the blue water of Lake Texcoco. For those familiar with the vastness of the DFs streets, the idea that it was once limited to a few small islands completely surrounded by water seems surreal. However, how the Aztecs were able to expand food production by building farmland, called chinampas, Mexico City’s famed floating gardens, might be even harder to fathom.
Created by piling up the rich soil from the lakebed and aquatic vegetation, the chinampas were connected by causeways, many of which have become streets in the modern city. Bit by bit, as the city ran out of the room and radiated outward, more of the ancient lake bed was built over. Eventually little of it remained. During the Spanish Conquest of Mexico dams were destroyed and many farms were abandoned, yet some, such as the chinampas of Xochimilco, have been preserved.
The chinampas of Xochimilco include more than 6000 acres of wetlands on the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco, part of an immense network of lakes and canals that once extended across the Valley of Mexico. While they existed prior to the Aztecs as small household gardens, they were developed into large scale farms that could supply entire communities. They designed a sewage system where human waste would be used as fertilizer, adding nutrients to the soil.
A polyculture production system, multiple crops are planted at many of the chinampas, including amaranth, lovage, Brussels sprouts, squash, beets, celery, microgreens, chard, corn, chile peppers, and various herbs.
Seeds are germinated for 25 days by using an ancient chinampa technique of making chapines, small squares of mud dug from the bottom of the canals. The chapines are extremely fertile from the organic matter that’s naturally in the mud. Already moist, they don’t need watered throughout the process and the squares can be pulled off one by one for planting when ready.
There are approximately 100 miles of canals weaving through Xochimilco’s wetlands. On weekends locals paddle canoes or party on trajineras, brightly painted wooden boats.
The ways of life of the farmers of the chinampas, knowledge that has passed down from generation to generation, has been fading for decades. Younger generations are not following in the footsteps of their parents and today, more than 90 percent of the chinampas are abandoned. Growing pollution and the exploitation of aquifers continue to make life in Xochimilco more difficult. Some fear that the chinampas could disappear completely within a generation. Still, there is hope.
Organizations like Yolcan, a platform that connects farmers with restaurants, academics, and responsible consumers, is helping support them. Aside of a CSA program, they run tours from the Embarcadero de Cuemanco to the chinampas that include harvesting produce, learning traditional agricultural techniques, and lunch.
A team of restaurants – including Pujol, Quintonil, Lorea, and Máximo Bistrot – have banded together to support this unique but forgotten agricultural system by buying produce from one of the farms. Four days a week the restaurants, via a Whatsapp group, receive a production list with 250 kilos of produce. You say how much you need and you get what you get. It encourages chefs to work with the season and experiment with new produce.
When taken care of, the chinampa system is highly sustainable and encourages biodiversity. The floating farmland is approximately 50 percent more fertile than average farmland in Mexico because of the organic material from the flora and fauna that live in and around the canals. Plants receive water from the canals, which are replenished from the rain. There is a growing awareness that this ancient agricultural system can be integral to understanding how to feed the Mexico of the future.