The Ingenious Floating Gardens of the Ancient Aztecs

The more we learn about the ancient civilizations, the more they fascinate us. The Aztecs were a nomadic tribe that arrived in Mesoamerica around the beginning of the 13th century.

These skillful people eventually became a dominant force, as they drastically developed in a social, religious, political, and commercial aspect.

The Aztec people expressed their rich culture through their art, language, religious traditions, clothing, food, and warfare.​

In the 16th century, Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire, the home of 200,000 people.

Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City, was perhaps the capital, with a fortress, and surrounded by water.

To feed the population, the Aztecs built chinampas or “floating gardens”, converting the marshy lakebed of Lake Texcoco into a masterpiece of engineering.

The gardens were 90 meters long and 9 meters wide. The Aztecs created huge rafts by weaving sticks together. Then they accumulated the collected mud from the bottom of the lake above the raft to create a 90cm-thick soil layer.

They were attached to willow trees planted nearby the lake. The 22,000-acre garden networks were surrounded by a canal which allowed canoes to pass through.

These canals formed an illusion that these agricultural lands were floating on water, which explains the misattribution as ‘floating gardens’.

They planted corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and flowers, and the innovative gardens yielded seven crops per year.

Even though they are perceived as a primitive and brutal society, the Aztecs were in fact among the most advanced civilizations in the world at the time.

They also had advanced infrastructure and a sophisticated draining system, which was used to protect the crops from possible flooding in the rainy season, so they used dams, sluice gates, and canals.

During the dry season, the carried water from the canals to water their crops.

Crops were fertilized with human excrement, collected in canoes from the city. The City of Mexico is said to have tried once to create a similar wastewater treatment system along the same lines as the Aztec chinampa system.

The Aztecs found genuine ways to exploit the environment to their advantage, which again speaks about their highly developed society.

Yet, the arrival of the Conquistadors, who bore an advantage over the Aztecs. Their swords, guns, and horses were nullified in the sanctuary of the floating gardens. In his search for gold, not crops, in 1521, Cortez ordered his people to destroy the chinampas, burning the gardens as he ransacked the city on June 16th.

This put an end of the floating gardens, that never rose again.