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The Resurgence of Waffle Gardens Is Helping Indigenous Farmers Grow Food with Less Water

For the past 64 years, Jim Enote has planted a waffle garden, sunken garden beds enclosed by clay-heavy walls that he learned to build from his grandmother. This year, he planted onions and chiles, which he waters from a nearby stream. It’s an Indigenous farming tradition suited for the semi-arid, high-altitude desert of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, where waffle gardens have long flourished and Enote has farmed since childhood.

“They are the inverse of raised beds, and for an area where it is more arid, they’re actually very efficient at conserving water,” said Enote, who leads the Colorado Plateau Foundation to protect Indigenous land, traditions, and water. Each interior cell of the waffle covers about a square foot of land, just below ground-level, and the raised, mounded earthen walls are designed to help keep moisture in the soil.

Similar sunken beds for growing food with less water have been used globally in arid regions, arising independently by Indigenous farmers, including across distinct Pueblo tribes in the Southwest. “When you have ecological equivalents you often have cultural equivalents,” said Enote. As climate change deepens, he sees this tradition as one of many ways to adapt while building food security and sovereignty.

Historic Zuni waffle gardens, circa 1919. (Photo courtesy of Kirk Bemis)

The Zuni Pueblo’s region is projected to see more intense droughts and storms in the coming years, intensifying the natural weather patterns. “Climate change will basically just make our extremes even more extreme,” said Kirk Bemis, a hydrologist at the Zuni Tribe Conservation Program. “Most channels and rivers around here are ephemeral, or they just vary, and they really depend on storm events.” Zuni agriculture developed in response to these extremes, which makes it especially effective at adapting to the region’s future.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Enote. “But in the meantime, we still have to do what we can to find ways to adapt and live with it. And I think that the waffle gardens are one tool for us to make it through.”

The Backyard Waffle Garden Resurgence

For a stretch of time, Enote was one of very few people who maintained waffle gardens in the Zuni Pueblo. “In the ‘70s, it reached a point where there weren’t hardly any waffle gardens around,” he said. Enote attributes this largely to the tribe’s move to a cash-labor economy, in the mid-20th century, but this began to shift in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s with a revival of agricultural traditions.

Another view of Curtis Quam's waffle garden. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Quam)

Curtis Quam’s waffle garden. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Quam)

In recent years, he has observed a growing interest in waffle gardens, among other Zuni farming traditions, especially spurred by economic and social unrest during the pandemic. “There really is a resurgence,” said Enote. “People are having a time of reckoning and soul-searching, and thinking more deeply about our origins, our identity, and that, in truth, we are farmers.”

While many of the larger areas in the Zuni pueblo that used to be farms are no longer utilized, backyard gardens are becoming more common—and a growing number are waffle gardens. Along with engaging in Zuni traditions, Enote says growing food this way “contribute[s] to the household budget,” by supporting food and economic security at the family level.

“I think the future for [the pueblo] and agriculture is in our backyard gardens,” said Daniel Bowannie, an environmental technician who runs the Zuni Sustainable Agriculture Program, which installs gardens and offers technical assistance. The program has installed about 100 modified waffle gardens, using wooden planks instead of clay-soil walls, throughout the village, including at the hospital and senior center. Bowannie also  walks people through the process of building their own gardens.

Not long after the pandemic hit, Bowannie’s phone began ringing off the hook. “I started getting calls on my personal phone and people reaching out for other family members or friends that had questions. They were sending me pictures and asking my questions, like: ‘Where do you get the soil?’”

Bowannie’s hope is for every household within the Zuni village to have a backyard garden, and he believes that such a shift could cut a family’s need to shop for groceries in half. “A small, 4-by-8 [foot] garden will get you a good four to five buckets full of corn, which is not enough to completely live off, but enough to feed our families, survive, and carry out our traditions.” He also thinks it’s important for the Zuni people to lessen dependence on grocery stores, which the pandemic showed are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.

“If we lose grocery stores tomorrow, what are we going to do?” said Bowannie. He sees backyard gardens as an important part of the answer to this question.

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