By Emmy Ulmschneider
and Debbie Roland
In Arizona and New Mexico the Zuni Tribe began using agriculture around 4,000 years ago. It is estimated that 1,000 years ago they began waffle gardening, no doubt trying to find a way to grow food in the desert. The gardens were used until 1904 when a dam was built on the Zuni River.
So how did they do it? They got creative and invented this technique which is essentially the opposite of a raised bed.
This method is a sunken garden. In other parts of the United States this would create a swamp but here we don’t have that problem. Think of how you plant a tree, with a shallow basin to water the tree at the roots where the water is needed to get it established.
The same technique applies to your vegetable garden. You build sturdy dikes around your plants to prevent runoff from your water source, whether it is rain or the water from your hose. This water won’t evaporate as quickly and the dikes provide a shield from the wind.
Waffle gardens can be built with no money spent on special containers or supplies. If your soil is one that has a great amount of clay, all the better to build a dike with. To begin, be sure that the ground is level. Unlevel ground would mean uneven watering and that is not the goal.
Bark mulch is not used in a waffle garden, but gravel is used instead. The rocks don’t absorb any of the precious water, protect the soil, and slow evaporation.
The waffle garden is a perfect place to try planting heirloom seeds. The indigenous peoples of the Americas contributed much to the foods that we love. Think corn, beans, squash, tomato, pumpkin, chocolate, chilies, sweet potato. The traditional three sisters garden grown from the southwest to the northeast, consists of corn, beans, and squash (pumpkin). Any garden is a partnership between the plants, the gardener, and the earth. The three sisters garden is a good example. Corn, legumes and squash (pumpkin) are planted at the same time. The corn is the first to germinate and provides the structure, the bean as a legume, supplies nitrogen, and the squash (pumpkin), the slowest to germinate, provides shade. Together they are stronger than the individual plants.
If you are interested in heirloom seeds that have stood the test of time, try these resources:
Alliance of Native Seedkeepers:
For more information, call the AgriLife office at 498-4071 in Odessa or at 686-4700 in Midland or visit aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu or westtexasgardening.org.