The Milpa Cycle

What is a Milpa?

Maya Forest Gardeners use a different style of a crop than Westerners. Instead of large fields growing only one item like corn, a milpa is a smaller plot of land with a large variety of crops. 

Maya architecture next to trees
Industrial plowed field on the left shows soil damage. But the Maya used agricultural practices centered on the milpa cycle on the right, which leads to healthier soil, water conversation, and many more benefits.

One of the benefits of this highly diverse farming style is reduced erosion. The trees in the milpa provide shade to the soil, preventing it from drying up. As the shade reduces erosion and traps moisture, the tree roots hold the soil together against winds and even gravity on slopes and hills.

Maya architecture next to trees
Tree holding on slope nearby a Maya architecture

Alfonso Tzul, a Maya Forest Gardener, said, “I have never seen a milpa with erosion and I have never seen a plowed field that doesn’t have erosion.”

What is the Milpa Cycle?

showing milpa cycle in action: infield home garden to preparing for annuals to growing annuals and harvest
Milpa Cycle in action

The Maya use a sustainable method of farming and managing the Maya forest called the milpa cycle. The cycle spans approximately 20 years and involves the skilled selection of plant species to sustain the Maya Forest as one of the most biodiverse places in the world.

The milpa cycle transforms in stages, and grows back into a closed canopy forest at the end. At least two-thirds of the milpa is part of the forest at any point of the Milpa cycle to conserve the Maya Forest.

LIDAR Base Map of El Pilar showing settlement and landscape use of the milpa cycle
Imagining the milpa cycle around settlements

Maya forest gardeners traditionally have more than one milpa each at different stages cycling at the same time. This maximizes the multifunctionality of the landscape and creates a mosaic-like crop rotation that ensures diversity in product yields. 

Stage 1: Forest into Field

Duration: ~4 to 5 years

Maya architecture next to trees
Smoke rising upwards in cut down trees because the forest gardener chose a day with minimal wind to control the burning.

The first stage of the cycle begins with a selected forest plot. While some valuable trees are favored, others are cut, dried, and burned to clear the area and enrich the top layer of the soil with nutrients.

Maya architecture next to trees
The darker dirt represents the controlled burning parameters, leaving the forest behind intact.

The burning is carefully monitored and controlled caring for the land and the adjacent forest. It takes place on a cooler day with little wind, a meter-wide clearing around the plot, and a backfire set for safety.

Maya architecture next to trees
Maize growing in healthy soil

The enriched soil creates the ideal conditions to grow a variety of crops typically featuring the Mesoamerican trilogy of maize, beans, and squash among as many as 90 other annual crops.

Maya architecture next to trees
Squash growing as a cover crop

Squash is planted early on as a cover crop to conserve water as other plants are growing. Plant species are cultivated for food, spice, medicine, and many more uses.

For example, plants we may consider “weeds” are cultivated by Forest Gardeners to detract pests from the main crops, enhance the soil with nutrients, and help maintain moisture in the ground. The lack of chemical pesticides and herbicides keeps the streams clear and unpolluted.

Stage 2: Field into Orchard

Duration: ~4 to 12 years

Maya architecture next to trees
The milpa with perennial trees and debris at the bottom that serves as compost

In the second stage, Forest Gardeners plant fruit trees. Fast-growing perennials, like plantain, banana, and papaya, begin to produce within a year and shade slow-growing perennials.

Maya architecture next to trees
Growing orange tree with Milpa in back

Although the perennial trees require labor and skill to maintain, they will be productive with minimal input as they mature. Fruit trees that need more time to produce, such as avocado, mango, allspice, ramón, and others are planted amidst the maize, beans, and squash to bear fruit in 5 years. 

A variety of fruits from the milpa yields include dragon fruit and papaya

Stage 3: Orchard into Forest Garden

Duration: ~12 to 20 years

During the third stage, the perennial trees mature and become reliably productive. The trees such as fruit orchards, mahogany, and cedar provide a rich canopy that blocks sunlight. 

Maya architecture next to trees
Group of fruit trees makes a forest canopy

Although some useful understory plants flourish under these conditions, it is too much shade for maize, beans, and squash. Thus, Forest Gardeners will initiate another milpa by burning a plot of forest to grow such crops again.

Hardwood trees like cedar and mahogany continue to mature over the next decades.

Maya architecture next to trees
Eladio Pop’s stage 3 cacao garden features a cacao orchard and growing plants in the back

Stage 4: Forest Regeneration

Duration: ~20+ years

Maya architecture next to trees
Ramon root on the left with a full forest canopy

In the last stage of the milpa cycle, the forest garden transforms into a hardwood forest. The hardwood trees rise above the fruit trees to create a high canopy. The milpa has regenerated to a similar state before the forest gardener cleared and burned it two decades earlier. It is now a managed forest with little to no undergrowth.

Maya architecture next to trees
Alfonso Tzul cutting trees for a new milpa

The Forest Gardener will nurture hardwood trees until they decide to clear, burn, and plant the field again. The trees are harvested for personal use or sale and the milpa cycle begins again.

Skip to content