Waffle Gardening - One of the oldest sustainable farming methods of the Southwest. Dry-Farming.
Water conservation at its best.

In the Southwest, where it’s dry and arid, people have developed techniques in order to adapt their gardens to the environment. One such technique is practiced by the Zuni (A:shiwi) called "Latdekwi:we", or waffle gardening. The Zuni people, along with other residents in arid regions, continue to practice the waffle gardening method today. By employing techniques that are specific to the environment, anyone can grow a healthy vegetable garden, even in the desert.

The Zuni people felt a close connection with the environment, and maintained a special relationship with the natural world for centuries. Through their keen observations, the Zuni adapted farming skills to the lands in which they lived.  Because New Mexico receives very little rain, the Zuni developed a dry-farming method – Latdekwi:we. The technique earned the nickname waffle garden because from above, the layout of recessed beds resembles waffles.

These and other dryland farming practices have allowed native people to flourish for thousands of years.

Waffle gardens can be considered the original “square foot garden.” The garden consists of a grid of squares, with each square surrounded by berms, or raised mounds of dirt. The shape helps the water flow directly to the plants. No waste, no runoff, no evaporation.

Ancestral Pueblo Farming

The ancestral puebloans left no written record of an epic history. Many of the most spectacular sites—like the 600 cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, or the enormous pueblo complex of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico—were abruptly abandoned about 900 years ago. Tree-rings and other data suggest that a prolonged drought, which may have dragged on for 50 deadly years, caused widespread societal collapse. That history has become disturbingly relevant, as extreme drought has gripped much of the Southwest.

For centuries, the Zuni, Hopi, and other pueblo tribes of the Southwest practiced a type of agriculture that enabled them to produce bumper crops of corn, beans, and vegetables in a region that receives about 12 inches of rain annually in good years—less than a quarter of the precipitation of a corn belt state like Ohio. Rather than planting and irrigating the same plots year after year, the Zuni rotated their fields, locating them near the bases of mesas, in order to capture runoff from seasonal storms. Remnants of small dams that channeled runoff water have been found at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Casas Grandes, and other sites.

Dryland farming techniques vary between tribes.
-The Hopi plant their cornfields in staggered rows near washes and arroyos, counting on natural runoff and monsoon rains to water their crops.

-The Navajo plant their seeds deep - eight to nine inches below ground - to reach the moist soil. 

-The Zuni use terraced farming and waffle garden beds, where water spills from one depression to the next.

Waffle gardens are constructed by forming small depressions surrounded by a low earthen wall. Seeds are planted within the center of the cavity. Profitable crops like tobacco and chilis were grown this way.

The Ancestral Pueblo people developed a number of farming techniques that conserve water. Pumice (a light, frothy rock that is full of gas) is a major component of the local volcanic tuff. Pumice can act as a sponge, absorbing water and releasing it slowly over time. It was used as mulch to preserve moisture in the soil. Other water-preserving practices included terracing, check dams that slowed water moving across slopes, and waffle or grid gardens. The selection of plants was also a good one. Corn is sun-tolerant and grows tall. Beans and squash are less tolerant but grown shorter and can be shaded by the corn plants which also provide support for growing. See Native American Three Sisters Gardens.

The newest techniques for conserving water in the garden are actually more than a thousand years old. American Indians survived for centuries in the desert by harvesting rainwater to grow crops. And while today’s water supply may not be as scarce, gardeners still can tap into ancient water-saving strategies to make the most of every drop.

Methods of water conservation are becoming more accepted, because people are realizing our limited water resources. Water-harvesting traditions in the ancients in the Southwest can offer today’s gardeners lessons in conservation. It's more than rain barrels.... This ancient method is more precise and the water is being used by the individual plants in that garden.

A waffle garden was typically intended as the family's kitchen garden. This type of family gardening was primarily done by the women, because it was situated close to the main village, and near the primary source of water, the Zuni River.

Both waffle and grid gardens are mulched with gravel, sand, or rock. Rock mulch conserves water by shading the soil and slowing evaporation. Gravel-sized mulch is most effective during a hard rain because it allows water to be pulled down into the soil and reduces runoff. Gravel mulch lets all the water flow through to the soil below. To be effective, gravel must be 2-3 inches deep. Gravel mulch is very beneficial to plants, and the reflected heat is not a problem, particularly when planting in the fall and spring. It is estimated that gardeners could save half of their garden water with these techniques. Dark gravel mulch absorbs heat from the sun to keep plants warm at night, and extending the growing season for tomatoes and eggplants. It also allowed cotton to be grown in the southwest, where it was normally too cold to grow. The gravel mulch acts as a dew trap to capture condensation.

Cluster planting is when plants with similar needs are placed together, a microclimate is created, and less water is used. A variation on cluster plantings is companion planting. Read about companion planting here-->   American Indians understood the benefit of planting corn, beans and squash together. These vegetables are called “The Three Sisters” , because they complement each other in the garden.
-Corn provides tall stalks for the beans to climb.
-Beans help replenish the soil with nutrients.
-Squash leaves act as living mulch.
The three sisters can be planted in a waffle garden, with corn in the middle of the planting hole, beans surrounding the corn, and squash planted in one or two corners.

The Anasazi at Mesa Verde also were skilled at harvesting water from dry lands. The early people of Mesa Verde were good engineers, and they knew how to harvest water where modern engineers would say there isn't any. The Anasazi created a water system that sustained the population. Small dams and diversions collected rain, and reservoirs stored the water. They knew how to harvest water, store water and passed that knowledge on. That knowledge was essential during long periods of drought, one of them lasting more than 50 years.

Buried clay pot irrigation is another ancient water-saving method used in places of perennial drought like Mexico, Central America, Asia and Africa. It’s estimated to be two times as effective as drip irrigation and 10 times more efficient than conventional surface irrigation.

While large earthen jars were used 2,000 years ago, today, red, unglazed clay pots work as well. Cover the hole at the bottom of the pot with masking tape and seal it with silicon caulk. When dry, bury the pot to its lip in the garden. Place plants or seeds close to the pot. Fill the pot with water and cover with a simple lid, such as an aluminum pie tin. Fill the pot as needed. The water will seep through the pores of the pot, keeping the soil moist. I've done this in a different way in small garden beds with large unglazed pottery/clay urns, and it works. Instead of just water in the urn, i filled it with water, and planted a tall aquatic/marginal ornamental pond grass inside, and the water seeped out nice and slow. The plant was happy, the garden was happy, And the pottery urn didn't need an unsightly lid. It blended in nicely. I didn't bury the entire thing into the ground. It stood as a decorative and functional piece. It seeped water just as well from above the ground. Sort of a giant drip irrigating hose.

Delivering water directly to the roots has two advantages. Plants receive a constant supply during the growing season, and weeds are kept to a minimum. Buried clay-pot irrigation can be used to grow annuals, perennials and container gardens.


How To Build The Waffle Garden

Soil additions were utilized to produce adequate yields. Just about anything you can think of growing, that is suitable for your climate, is acceptable in a Waffle Garden. Vining plants will require more space. In the past, water was carried by women and children in earthen jars from the nearby river, and each waffle was carefully watered, one by one, with a dried, hollowed gourd. Later on jars and gourds were replaced with buckets and dippers. These days, you can water your garden using a garden hose or watering can, concentrating the water at the base of plants.

To start making your waffle gardens, the soil must contain a significant amount of clay in order for the walls to hold.

First decide how large you want your squares to be, and this will depend on what type of food you want to grow.
For example: You can probably fit a few lettuce plants in a 1 foot square, just as you would in a square-foot garden. Typically, waffle squares are at least 1 ft. x 1 ft.
Traditionally, waffles are made by hand. Start in one corner of the garden, and shove the soil to the sides to form a square.
Keep the soil damp, press the soil together to form small walls around 4 inches high x 4 inches wide. Add a bit more water if it is too dry to hold together.
These small, depressed types of structures make efficient use of space, act as a barrier against wind, and concentrates the water available near the plants.


Photo Credits:
Native American Waffle Gardening, early 1920's photo
Gardens surrounding the Indian pueblo of Zuni, 1873
Zuni Community Waffle Garden, Zuni Youth Enrichment Project
Ashiwi Awan Museum

Research Sources
Ashiwi Awan Museum
Denver Post (2005)
Off -Grid
Grand Canyon Trust
Food and Environment Reporting Network
National Park Service
Native Seeds

Native American Three Sisters Gardens

Native American Medicine Wheel Gardens       Native American Farming Wisdom

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