Gardens in the Sand: Historic Early Landscapes in the Southwest

Ancestral Pueblo people in early New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest began to create plazas, courtyards, terraces, and ritual landscape features as part of their settlements over a thousand years ago. In the 1920s, archaeologist Neil Judd found a cultivated ponderosa pine at the entry to one of the main plazas of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon—the earliest landscape planting in New Mexico history. Over the centuries, the early Pueblo people expanded their planting repertoire to include over 250 species that they brought into common use in their gardens, utilizing such local plants as Indian ricegrass, agave, chokecherry, wolfberry, and yucca flowers alongside Mexican imports including corn, beans, squash, and moonflower.

Over the thousands of high-altitude settlements created in the Southwest during a period of some six or seven centuries (circa A.D. 850–1540), landscape and garden forms often became as stylized as the building patterns and features of their towns, creating a subtle type of recognizable Pueblo landscape architecture that was widespread in the region.

Ancient Pueblo cultivation practices focused on the development of a network of small, “pocket” gardens around a Pueblo settlement, laid out on hillsides, valley floors, and the crests of hills. Many of these constructs were set in pinyon-juniper woodlands, taking advantage of sparse but carefully used rain and snowfall, which was channeled to insure the success of the garden system.

The dryness of the Southwest has preserved many of these ancient landscape features. We can still study them today, perhaps learning in the process a very good way to live and thrive in one of North America’s most demanding environments.