The Benefits and Age-Old Success of Waffle Gardens: A history on one of the oldest sustainable farming methods of the Southwest

Located in the arid Southwest, on the Southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau lives the A:shiwi also known as the Zuni people. Zuni Pueblo is the largest of the nineteen pueblos in New Mexico and perhaps the most isolated. Zuni Pueblo and its farming villages are nestled in valleys surrounded by Jurassic, Triassic and Early Cretaceous mudstone and sandstone mesas. Since the time Zuni was inhabited their survival was dependent on what the land provided. They developed different types of farming methods that enabled them to contest the variable water availability and inadequate soil quality that is common in desert soils. These methods include terrace gardening, a type of farming that allowed them to use the hillslopes of the mesas to divert water among several stair case terraces. On a larger scale is a type of agriculture known as dry-land farming or run-off agriculture which farmers used to grow important staple crops such as maize, squash, beans, and cotton. These agricultural fields were strategically placed on alluvial fans, which allowed farmers to capture and divert runoff and nutrient rich sediment from upper watersheds (Homburg et al.).


On a smaller scale, “waffle” gardening was maintained by each household. This type of family gardening was primarily done by the women as it was situated close to the main village near the primary source of water, the Zuni River, a small tributary to the Little Colorado River. In historical context this type of agriculture along with those mentioned before were practiced extensively since the time of inhabitance up until the turn of the century and around the time of WWII. My interpretations of this change in farming practices includes a decline in dependence on survival to obtaining more easily accessible food at grocery stores and a transition from traditional-sustainable ways of living to a more modern lifestyle. Other factors contributing to the decline of waffle gardening was the availability of water due to natural (drought, less snow pack) and anthropogenic reasons; the Zuni River was dammed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1904. These events altered Zuni ways of living; however, there is a renewed interest in traditional waffle gardening knowledge. Cultivation of land, culture and our language are interwoven so I believe that learning, practicing and carrying on traditions such as waffle gardens will help keep us connected with each other, our community and to our Earth.

“Zuni culture is deeply based in farming and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) believes that Zuni farming knowledge is integral to the long term sustainability of Zuni culture and economy and should be celebrated. Farming and gardening is also a very healthy activity that produces clean nutritious food.” Ashiwi Awan Museum website

The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) located in Zuni is an excellent resource of documenting, preserving and engaging young and old alike to keep ancient traditions alive. With their guidance I was able to construct my own waffle garden in the hopes that other people will give it a try for themselves. Another resource I found helpful was an online blog by the University of Redlands which was an interview of one of the last known waffle gardeners in the village. This document helped tremendously as it was an account from an elder who was still practicing waffle gardening.

Preparing Your Garden

Let me first tell you as I beginner gardener myself that any type of gardening is no easy task. The first thing I had to do was clear my garden of weeds, which was a lot since my garden has been out of use for a few years. Next I turned the soil with a shovel (what a workout). It is important to make sure your garden is level so that no one spot receives more or less water. I found it useful to water the leveled area the evening before building to allow the water to infiltrate the dry soil.


The garden minus the weeds, leveled and watered. Photo by Reyna Banteah

Constructing Your Waffle Garden


A group of women building waffles and a man working on the stick fence surrounding the garden. Photo Credit: A:shiwi A:wan Museum Photo Archives

To start making your waffles, 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, this will depend on what type of food you want to grow. Typically, squares are at least 12 inches by 12 inches. I used a 14” x14” measuring tool. Traditionally, waffles are made by hand using a flat piece of sandstone or in my case a piece of firewood to make the walls. You can also use a garden hoe and a measuring stick if you like. I started on one corner of the garden and used my measuring tool to shove the soil to the sides to form a square. Since the soil was still damp I pressed the soil together to form small walls around 4-5 inches in height and 4-5 inches in width. Add a bit more water if it is too dry to hold together. I was able to do a 2×5 grid, a 2 x(# of your choosing) allows you to construct, plant, water, and weed with adequate room on any side. These depressed type of structures make efficient use of space, acts as a barrier against wind and concentrates the water available near the plants.


Soil Amendments

Resourceful methods of soil additions were utilized to produce adequate yields. The mixture of forest soil and sheep manure made an excellent compost. These days you can find compost readily available at most hardware stores, plant nurseries and at a local New Mexico compost facility Soilutions, Inc.


Planting and Watering

Upon asking several pueblo members, they could recount chile, onions, cilantro and beans being grown in the gardens. For your garden, pretty much anything you can think of that grows vertically, underground, and is suitable for the climate is fair game. Plants that vine out 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. Today you can water your garden using a garden hose or watering can, concentrating the water at the base of plants.

Learning of the ingenuity it took my ancestors to perfect this type of gardening and by making my own garden, I am completely grateful for this tradition to be passed on to future generations. A special thanks to the A:shiwi A:wan Museum, Curtis Quam, for their invaluable resources and to my grandpa who helped me haul sand and take pictures.

-Posted by Reyna

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8 Responses to The Benefits and Age-Old Success of Waffle Gardens: A history on one of the oldest sustainable farming methods of the Southwest

  1. Darren says:

    Great blog! I am an amateur gardener at best, but have had luck in Alaska growing select hardy vegetables. I would like to try this technique in Alaska, to see if there are any added benefits for the hard to grow vegetables in Alaska’s colder summers.
    Thanks for your research! 555

  2. Pingback: Waffle Gardening - A Method for Arid Climates | The Survival Gardener

  3. Oliver says:

    I am interested in using this technique in Chimayo, but I wondering how it might be combined with flood irrigation (I use an acequia to water my milpa). Any suggestions?

  4. Caroline Metzler says:

    Thank you for this fine post. I practice permaculture in the SW New Mexico desert, and this information is useful. Much appreciated!

  5. Pingback: Farmers’ Perspectives on Climate Change in Albuquerque | ABQ Stew

  6. Beth says:

    Thank you! I live in SW Albuquerque, I’m going to make a waffle garden to plant next spring. Really appreciate the directions you give here!

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