Vintage landscape: Zuni gardens

“Gardens surrounding the Indian Pueblo of Zuni, in which are raised a variety of vegetables, such as peppers, onions, garlic, etc.,” c. 1873, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Zuni people of western New Mexico have long built a form of kitchen garden (now) called “waffle gardens.”

Each square plot is about 2′ to 8′ wide with bermed sides of unamended soil. The design efficiently captures and holds rainwater and retards evaporation. The Zuni traditionally filled their gardens with corn, beans, and squash.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who took the picture above, photographed events of the Civil War as an employee of Alexander Gardner.

From 1871 to 1874, he traveled the southwestern United States as part of a survey of the land west of the 100th meridian. Later, he worked in Washington, D.C., as an official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. He died of tuberculosis at age 42.

“Zuni gardens,” c. 1927, by Edward Curtis, via Library of Congress.

Edward Curtis, a Seattle photographer, took over 40,000 images of life in 80 native American tribes.  The photo above was one of 2,000 he published, from 1907 to 1930, in the 20-volume The North American Indian.

13 thoughts on “Vintage landscape: Zuni gardens

    1. There must be something (someone at the Bureau of Land Management has looked in to southwest garden practices rather thoroughly — one of my links). When I googled ‘books about Zuni gardens,’ there were several books on Zuni culture — and interestingly, this comment.

    1. Thanks! I love looking at the LoC online catalogue. But I go in looking for one thing and come out hours later on an entirely different track. I have about 5 VL posts in my Drafts box right now.

    1. I think it must — although on a smaller scale. I saw several references to demonstration gardens. I think it would be perfect for children’s gardens. They would love building the berms with mud, and the small size of each square would fit their attention spans.

      Vegetable gardens in Rwanda are usually the reverse — the beds are raised several inches with trenches/paths between them. This is because when the rainy seasons (2/year) come, it rains hard and a lot of water actually needs to run off to the trench and then soak back up to the bed. Then it doesn’t rain at all (well, almost) during the 2 dry seasons. I’m wondering how the rainy/dry seasons work in New Mexico and why the low beds of the waffle aren’t flooded out? I’m ashamed to say I’m not familiar enough with the west. I’m going to have to read more.

  1. Hi Cindy–follow you regularly through our GWU Linked-in connection (first time writing). I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, with the rich Native American culture all around us. My husband and I then moved north of Santa Fe in New Mexico and lived there for over 25 years, surrounded by the Eight Northern Pueblo Indians. Each pueblo is unique, as is each tribe. Wonderfully creative people. In the desert you garden to capture every bit of rain possible, so we usually planted everything with depressions around the plants, such as “tree-wells” around trees to trap water before it could run off. (Imagine my shock at seeing the way trees are planted here in Virginia and Maryland, bugling up out of the soil!) Same was true with our vegetable gardens. I had raised beds and was a follower of “square-foot gardening” back in the 80’s. Looks like the Zuni were the original designers!

  2. What is striking to me is the difference in layout in the two images. The first seems personal, like folk art, and the other image taken 50 years later is so regimented. Was that a decision based on local experience or gov’t intervention; would be interesting to know.

    1. Interesting. It would probably not be surprising if some government agricultural experts had gotten involved during the 50 years. However, as Edye points out above, each pueblo is unique, and the farmer in the lower photo may also have just liked straight lines.

    2. Linda –
      The main difference is that the 1873 image at the left is from uphill, looking down on several walled plots sown (from the different sizes of plants) at different times or with different crops. There is a bit of terracing to make best use of the slope.

      The 1927 image is a close-up of a single plot, on fairly flat ground, which makes symmetry easier.

      The walls keep out the jackrabbits and skunks as well as slow the wind down. When it snows, each walled plot will trap snow as drifts, which stays in the subsoil through the usually dry spring.

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