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Accidental Propagation, For the Best in Gardening (Panama)

Many of the most successful gardens we’ve propagated have been as much luck and accident as they have been my astounding wits. We’ve made lots of special garden beds, no-till expressions of fertility and decomposition, but often times it’s the rogue plantings, the spots where seeds have fallen from a pocket or simply tossed away as compostable refuse, that turn out to be the most bountiful. Here are some of the impromptu, inadvertent strokes of genius we’ve had recently.

The dustpan bed

The dustpan bed

It started out as a raised bed along some steps where I’d put bird of paradises to attract hummingbirds, create a visual block for some unsightly pipes and storage, as well as fill a pre-existing concrete bed that didn’t seem destined for greatness. It’s in an imperfect spot for sun, in the shade of the house on one side and the shade of a mango tree on the other. It was built prior to our arrival, as an afterthought, left unfinished, filled halfway with concrete debris and construction garbage. But, bird of paradises grow easily here, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

The bed is essentially a large concrete pot with no drainage. I left the chunks of concrete in the bottom and added a little more to them to create a spot for water. I put a thick layer of leaves and soil then transplanted the flowers, which spread like grass and are all over the property here. Within a couple of weeks, they’d all taken well, even showing signs of new growth. Then, some funny things started happening.

I began shoving the stems of fresh basil I’d used for cooking between the flower stalks. It was just in moments when I was too lazy to put them in some water to root, but they rooted anyway. Soon, the bed also had a good crop of basil. So, I did it with tarragon, too, and the bed soon had basil and tarragon. But, the biggest stroke of lazy genius was the fact that the bed became the place where my wife Emma and I sweep the little piles of kitchen rubble every day — all those incidental seeds that dropped during food preparation. We’ve now grown tomato plants, peppers, cucumbers, melons and even a papaya tree (which has to be moved).

Hibiscus alley

The hibiscus alley has all but disappeared

There had been a highly unsuccessful tree transfer. A visiting gardener had moved two large hibiscus trees in the depth of dry season, and they’d promptly gone crisp, fell over, and called it quits. The parched trees sat there for a couple of months as the weather become more and more scorched. All the while, they were dropping more than just leaves: On the ground below them was a huge cluster of seeds.

My wife Emma had been working diligently to get more hibiscus going. When the initial departure had taken place, she’d collected and labored to start the seeds in the greenhouse. It had been a success, and she sowed ten or so new hibiscus, watching them closely, keeping them hydrated and happy. She’d salvaged enough to keep us in hibiscus leaves for salad greens with the promise of some decent tea when they flowered again. Crisis diverted, we largely forgot the mournful death spot and went about the business of building a food forest.

When rainy season kicked off, the seeds that remained on the ground began sprouting. Abundance doesn’t begin to describe. They were thick, coming up like a carpet, so we began to thin them out. We created a couple of hibiscus gardens, as well as dotted them around in existing beds. Ultimately, the most successful result was hibiscus alley, where we’d taken seedlings and transplanted them all over the area where the two original trees had fallen. Now, it’s insane.

Entrance to hibiscus alley

The lemon cucumbers

Lemon cucumber in situ

We’ve had some pretty decent luck with cucumbers here. In fact, at certain times, the fridge has been elbow deep on two shelves with them. However, our most productive vines have been purely accidental moments, and it all started with a cucumber — the lemon cucumber, aka apple cucumber — we never actually planted. In one of our front beds, a mysterious vine took over a little span of wire mesh and began bulging with little yellow fruits. We didn’t even know they were edible.

Nonetheless, we began harvesting them and asking around to find out if local Panamanians ate them. It turned out they didn’t, despite the crop being perfectly edible and delightfully delicious. We probably collected over a hundred cucumbers off this one rogue vine. Then, just as it was drying up, we noticed that a new one, again that we had not planted, had sprung up on the back section of the property. It spread all over, covering quite a few square meters of ground space. Again, there were (and still are) over a hundred fruits.

Unable to keep up with them in our daily salads, I’ve taken to make pickles with them — just layer a few onions and cloves of garlic with cucumbers. They have a slightly lemony taste and a thick skin, which does well in the pickle jar. I just saturated the layers with vinegar, set it in the fridge for a couple of days, and create an instant snack. And, it was doing this very thing that gave me the idea for the next stroke of genius.

Overflowing with lemon cucumbers — this is almost every day

Straight from cutting board to hugelkultur

Papaya tree at the foot of cucumber-hugel mound

Not long ago, I pieced together a really promising hugelkultur bed, consisting of the innards of a compost pile over the half-rotten wood exo-skeleton that had held it together. The soil was rich and moist, the wood had already begun to soften and go nice, and I just couldn’t wait to plant on it. In fact, it started sprouting stuff before I even had a chance.

Not long after I constructed the bed, a few papaya trees sprouted on the lower side of the mound. One of them grew freakishly big in under a month, and the others I transplanted to other places on the property. None of them had been planted, and to my knowledge, we’d never even had papayas anywhere close to the compost pile or hugelkulture mound. Nonetheless, it is the youngest and biggest papaya tree we’ve grown this year.

Assuming the imprecisely constructed but obviously potent fertility of the hugelkultur would transfer its powers to other crops, I decided to use the scraping of lemon cucumber seeds from the cutting board one evening. Just before dusk, I went down with a handful of seeds, still slimy, and just tossed them around the top of the mound. It worked like a charm. That spot is going to be thick with crop in no time.

The yucca stand

The yucca stand standing tall

When forging a pathway through our food forest and accompanying garden beds, I was confronted with an unfortunately-placed yucca plant. Not wanting to simply hack it down and throw it to compost, I decided to quickly break the trunk into pieces and shove them into an as-of-yet unplanned piece of land, just off the path. As far as I know, this is the only way yucca can be planted, so I was trying to help the tree live on.

It did. It did a lot. The space was about five or six square meters, that backed into a magic circle, and before I knew it — in under two months — the twenty or so yucca plants had grown nearly as high as the plantains. They’d created an entire section of forest that had not been in any plan. All I’d done is shove the stems into some clay soil and covered the area in leaves, then forgotten about it.

We’ve enjoyed the yucca stand so much that I recently made a second one out of trimmings from the first one. On a little section of land just clear of a mango tree, another twenty or so yucca plants have begun to make their presence known. I guess this one can’t be considered accidental, though.

The magic nursery

The magic nursery — look at the growth inside the circle

We are advocates of the magic circle, with seven on the property and more in the plans. We’ve used them for plantains, bananas, and papayas, all interspersed with yucca, sweet potato, and perennial pepper plants. Most recently, we’ve constructed one I’m calling the breakfast bowl, which has a mix of papayas, plantains, bananas, and coconuts as the trees. Mint and melon make up the ground cover and moringa trees provide the nitrogen kicker. We’ll see how it goes.

While the circles are no accident, what happens in the center compost piles is beyond dumb luck. Nearly everything we throw in grows like mad. I’ve pulled out numerous meter-high plantain trees that have sprouted from little composted sections of root ball or discarded trunks. Yucca is growing all over them from tossed tidbits of stem. Elephant ears. Mango trees, via rotted whole fruits as well as pips alone. Cashew trees. Water plants. Whatever.

I’ve learned that whenever a new garden project arises, the magic nursery is a good place to check for young plants to include. They seem to be amongst the healthiest, fullest greenery we’ve got going, and the randomness of what I find makes for some creative bed combination to explore.

While I like to think we’ve done some good things on the farm here in Panama, the accidental beds are such a profound reminder of what good ideas nature can throw into the mix as well. It’s a humbling experience to carefully construct water catchments, layers of soil, the “right” microsystem and sound drainage, only to watch something grow ten times better only a few meters away, where no special prep work was done. I guess that the beauty of farming this way is that we still get to take credit and, more importantly, we get to eat it all.

The terrible, terribly healthy noni fruit

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. luv the story,just planting in tasi at moment ,does the dense light and grouping add to the growth rate thoughtb about what you had said about the yucca plants and was pondering on the bannana plant and availability in tasmania good stuu eat well and live long luv it
    regards rocky

  2. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Moringa does NOT fix nitrogen. That is the only thing left to be desired from that wonderful tree. Moringa is not a legume even though by description seems like one. It is actually a member of the mustard-oil plants, like the mustards, capers and papaya. Wonderful article though.

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