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Oh, The Beds I’ve Made: No-Till Gardening in Tropical Panama

One of the most exciting parts of taking the reins to a hectare of lakeside land in Panama was planning just exactly what kind of experimenting was going to be on order. We knew there would be a food forest. We knew there’d be a vegetable garden, fresh herbs, and lots of very dense clay soil with which to contend. Much of the space was steep hillsides, but at the bottom of those slopes sat a nice little swath of land that had already been dotted with plantains (the banana-like fruit, not the weed) and yucca. Beyond that, there was a lot of canvas to play with.

So, my wife Emma and I got out our notebooks and started sketching, putting this here, that there, and whittling out spots for all of the different types of no-till/one-till beds we’d discovered over the last half-year (from volunteering on farms). Some of the designs we’d only read about; some of them we’d helped to build. All of them were a step away from conventional garden rows. All of them were chosen with concern for the ground we were working — not being the most fertile we’d ever seen.

And, so, it came to pass that we created a nice mixture of gardening plots with different features that keep me rambling each time we give someone a tour of the property. Within three months, we were harvesting things regularly and keeping the fires burning throughout the rainy season, when most gardeners in this area of Panama seemed to pack it in for a few months. Here’s what we‘ve done:

Hillside cut-away, half-raised beds

Half-raised hillside beds before mulching

We adapted this method from some friends’ garden in Guatemala. They run a mountaintop avocado farm/guesthouse of about 400 trees (and 10 cabins). They have wisely mixed in a lot of other fruit trees, as well as some productive vegetable patches. Luckily, we got to garden there for a while. Using some tips we picked up on the mountain, we created a few nice hillside beds here in Panama.

A bed requires one initial dig to level the ground. First, we mapped out the spot and created some sort of boundary to hold the soil on the lower side. (We had lots of tree trunks around from developmental clearing — not ours.) We scraped the turf off as cleanly as possible and set it aside. Then, we dug out the back of the area, moving the soil to the front, until the bed leveled out. We dug a little deeper to loosen the soil at the back as well. We applied a good layer of quality soil, compost and mulch. Lastly, at the back of the bed, we created a small swale.

To make the swale, we leveled an area roughly a meter wide along the entire back of the bed. We stacked the cleared turf upside down (with a bit more dirt) along the low side of the swale to build up a sort of levee. Behind the levee, we dug a few centimeters down, making the floor level and flat. After our first attempt ended in a burst wall all over the left side of the garden bed, we learned to make a trench — a safety drain, or spillway — in one corner, a little lower than the top of the front wall, so, in the event of too much rain, the water has somewhere to go that doesn’t flood the garden with water and debris.

The swales make good, level paths for harvesting the beds, as well as work for growing stuff that can deal with a lot of water. We’ve planted lots of bird of paradise, which is growing all over the property and attracts hummingbirds. So far, we’ve gotten some cucumbers, watermelons, sweet potatoes, various herbs and several types of beans from our hillside cut-away beds.

Magic circles

Magic circle with bananas, yucca, and sweet potato

Magic circles are something we discovered from a permaculture farm here in Panama and later learned they are all the rage in tropical areas. We loved the space-saving aspect, how a dozen trees can fit in a space that would normally accommodate four. We loved the layering system, growing several strong tropical staple crops — banana, yucca, and sweet potato — together. We loved having a good, useful spot to put compost of all sizes and strains. We loved that the holes hold water, a very useful thing during dry season. We loved making the circle.

Our first circle was the banana. We set the diameter of the hole by marking the ends of the spade (a little less than two meters), and we dug about a meter down, building a ring of loose soil around the compost pit. Once the hole was dug, we filled it with leaves, cardboard, sticks, freshly trimmed branches and chunks of wood. We planted 12 banana trees in equal spacing around the circle, later coming back to add sweet potatoes as ground cover and yucca to fill the space in between. A couple of days later, we left for two months, and when we got back, the circle was vibrant with life.

There are currently six magic circles on the property — three plantain circles, two papaya circles, and one banana circle. They grow up quickly and fill out well. We’ve interspersed them with several other crops, including peppers, name (a local root vegetable), and taro. We have plans to do two more in the next couple of months: a banana and an experimental mixed fruit — with papaya, banana, melon (ground cover), coconut and moringa (for nitrogen). We also hope to find some vanilla bean to put in the mix.

Hugelkultur mounds

V-Shaped hugelkultur mounds with cucumber, squash and pumpkin plants

We are only two people with maybe a couple of volunteers at a time, working with only rudimentary tools; thus, those massive winding hugelkultur rows are a little beyond our capability. However, we have made some small hugelkultur mounds, taking advantage of the felled trees we encountered here. To put it simply, for those who’ve not read about them (you can do so here and here), hugelkultur involves burying large chunks of wood under earth so that, as the wood decomposes slowly, it will provide a steady stream of fertility from beneath the surface.

The beds are beneficial in lots of ways. Because they are built a meter or more high, they don’t require a lot of bending over to harvest and tend. They are long-lasting, with the possibility of the initial bed producing for a decade from the original wood. They are a great use of fallen and felled trees (even someone else’s). The raised aspect of the beds and the curvy contours create microclimates for good mixed gardening. Plus, they are just fun to make, and people are always interested in how they work.

My current favorite hugelkultur mound (we’ve made three now) is part of our communal garden, an area set outside the fences of the property to showcase some of what we are doing and provide free food for the community. It is basically a massive, misshapen pentagon. The reason I’m excited is that it was built using an impromptu compost pile in which we stacked some limbs and rotten posts to contain a load of vines we had to clear in our initial days here. A few months later, the pile was ripe and breaking down nicely. The whole thing got disassembled and reassembled as a hugelkultur mound.

At one corner of the mound, some surprise papayas popped up and are growing very quickly. Last week, I tossed a handful of lemon cucumber seeds from our lunch onto it. Sprouts are everywhere. The mound seems ready to produce after less than two months.

Cardboard Mulch Bed

Cardboard mulch bed with pre-existing plantain and seedlings

This is the lazy man’s layered garden bed. We just loved the idea of using up rubbish as a weed preventative resource. We first saw this at a farm in Colombia, where our host had grown a good crop of potatoes via cardboard mulching. With absolutely no tilling to be done, this was a perfect project to take on one lazy morning. We’d saved up our boxes for just such a day.

For our cardboard mulch bed, we composed it in several layers. The general idea is to first put a base of flattened cardboard boxes on the ground. They’ll kill the weeds beneath as well as attract earthworms from below. After that, we layered different material we had around — dried leaves and twigs from the neighbor’s lawn, a couple of centimeters of top soil from a trench I’d dug, a sprinkling of manure, a thick layer of milfoil (a freshwater weed cleared from the lake), more soil and more leaves. It sat for a week or two. Later, we planted melon, pumpkin, cucumber and okra plants.

Essentially, the bed has now become a nice thick layer of composted materials — a strip of very rich soil where once there was mostly clay. We managed to get cucumbers and okra out of the first plant but have since realized that the low amount of direct sun exposure in that area, due to pre-existing plantain trees, may be better suited for ginger, which we’ve not had much luck growing elsewhere. Recently, ginger has really popped up in this spot.

The cardboard as a weed killer has stuck with us. While we don’t use a lot of boxes, we have access to a lot of grass clippings. So, with many of our other gardens, we’ve first covered the spot over with a thick layer of grass, let it completely dry and kill the weeds beneath it, then molded it into a bed.

Vertical composting garden

Vertical compost with black-eyed peas

This is the most traditional looking of the beds we’ve made, but I like our vertical composting garden because there is so much more to it. When people initially see it, they assume we’ve broken down and done something ‘normal’. Then, we start explaining this sustainable system of maintaining fertile soil by constantly feeding it organic material rather than chemicals. They end up thinking it’s so much cooler than regular garden rows.

Though I’ve not seen a lot of information on it, vertical composting — I read about it in a book, Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting — works on a principle similar to magic circles and swales. Basically, we dug small swales, about the width and depth of our spades, piling the soil in a row (roughly the width of a spade) right next to the trench. Then, we left a space (again, the width of the spade) between the garden row and the next swale. The swale becomes a compost pit, feeding the row next to it. The untouched area becomes a pathway from which to harvest. Edges and eco-systems are all over the place.

After a few harvests, the garden row gets pushed atop the composting pit, and a new swale is dug where the garden row was, the soil being piled where the harvesting pathway was. The rotation ensures that the soil, despite being constantly planted, is also constantly renewed. We’ve grown cowpeas and various beans to help with enriching the soil sooner rather than later. More results to come.

The mounds

Mounds with sweet potato, name, and hibiscus

Using the same notion as hugelkultur but in a much more happenstance way, we built some garden mounds out of collected compostable material and a little bit of soil we had sitting around. We had planned to make a quick-leaf compost, but after putting this off too long, the ingredients got accidentally transferred to another recipe one morning when we found ourselves knee deep in grass clippings. While hugelkultur is built to last, we built the mounds for quicker results and more immediate use of materials. That is, we’d run out of wood debris.

The mounds are basically three large piles of grass, covered over with dried leaves and twigs, covered over with a few inches of soil, covered over with milfoil. Nothing super complex happened, but look at any compost heap and it’s full of life. We figured why not do it on purpose. When the mounds decompose enough, we should be able spread them out and create a fertile space of garden bed, with ground below having soaked up lots of good nutrients.

At the moment, one has sweet potatoes, the largest is covered in name (kind of a slimy cross between yucca and sweet potato), and the last and lowest has some perennial pepper plants. All of the plants have grown well with little to no attention. For sweet potatoes, it was literally just shoving the shoots in the ground, and for name, we just buried little slices of skin from cutting board scraps (it grows from eyes, like potatoes, but much more readily and tropically).

The herb spiral

The herb spiral

Last but not least is the herb spiral, which was actually one of the first beds we built (as should be the case). It’s right outside the kitchen and provides us with flavor for every meal, as well as lots of nutrient and medicinal assistance. Not only is it an amazingly efficient way to grow a variety of herbs in one spot, it’s also a downright attractive bed. Frankly, I’ve seen spirals all over the web and a couple more in person, but, for me, ours is aces. Get the details here (also on Permaculture News).

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I really like that you explained how to do everything that you have already done in your Panama paradise :)… good luck with all your projects!

  2. Great stuff thank you. I am in south Mexico on clayish soil but flat. One question, do you get ants eating your seeds? Any ideas?

  3. Some very good idea’s are shown here. My question is why you don’t have okra and peanuts growing. I am experimenting with both now in my small garden in Las Tablas. I am very fortuneate in that I was able to source some quality okra seeds and have them started now in the back yard garden. I don’t know when the best time to grow anything here in Panama as everything is just an experiment but I would think both okra and peanuts would do well for you.

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