Often referred to as "floating gardens," chinampas were stationary artificial islands that usually measured roughly 30 by 2½ meters, although they were sometimes longer. They were created by staking out the shallow lake bed and then fencing in the rectangle with wattle. The fenced-off area was then layered with mud, lake sediment, and decaying vegetation, eventually bringing it above the level of the lake. Often trees such as willows were planted at the corners to secure the chinampa. Chinampas were separated by channels wide enough for a canoe to pass.
The earliest fields that have been securely dated are from the Middle Postclassic period, 1150 – 1350 CE. Chinampas were used primarily in Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco near the springs that lined the south shore of those lakes. The Aztecs not only conducted military campaigns to obtain control over these regions but, according to some researchers, undertook significant state-led efforts to increase their extent.  Chinampa farms also ringed Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, which was considerably enlarged over time due to the use of chinampas. Smaller scale farms have also been identified near the island-city of Xaltocan and on the east side of Lake Texcoco. With the destruction of the dams and sluice gates during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, many chinampas fields were abandoned, although remnants are still in use today in what remains of Lake Xochimilco.
The primary chinampas crops were maize, beans, squash, amaranth, tomatoes, and chilies, although chinampas were also used to grow flowers. It is estimated that food provided by chinampas made up one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the city of Tenochtitlán. Chinampas were fertilized using lake sediments as well as human excrement.
The word chinampa comes from the Nahua word chināmitl, meaning "square made of canes".
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