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Guerilla Gardening in Rural Panama

A gnome (the author) in the Communal Garden

Make no mistake, the war is on. The commodity is food, the source needs to be sustainable, and the community needs to know about it. If you are already into permaculture, or just gaining an interest, then congratulations and welcome to the peace-loving yet active front lines. We call it guerilla gardening.

A few years back, Ron Finley, a native of South Central Los Angeles, got a bee in his bonnet when he noticed his neighborhood was an asphalt desert of fast food restaurants and quick-marts. No wonder the local population was dying young and getting diabetes. Wanting the urbanites around him to have access to healthy food, Ron transformed his yard and curbside with fresh veggies.

The authorities tried to shut him down, but he fought back and won. Now, he has helped create urban gardens all over South Central, and in 2013, he did a ten-minute TED Talk explaining his mission. It’s gotten over tens of thousands of views
Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA

Well, I’m all for it, and in my own way I’ve joined Ron’s act, bringing it down to my current residence in a little fishing town about an hour and half outside of Panama City. Here, residents subsist largely on a diet of fried chicken or fish, rice and beans. In a typical diet, a “vegetable” might come in the form of French fries or patacones — boiled plantains flattened into a pancake and deep-fried. Truthfully, I’m not sure how much that’s going to change, and that’s fine with me.

I think Ron probably faces a similar problem in South Central. People have grown more accustomed to convenience at the sacrifice of their own health and planet as opposed to growing and knowing what they eat. Some kids have never left the city and grow up unaware that KFC hot wings are actually chickens (perhaps this is debatable) or that Gatorade Berry Blast isn’t actually fruit juice. Vegetables come in cans, are flavorless gruel, and get nutritionally neutered.

Panama has a similar problem in that, despite all the fresh fruits and vegetables available, people — especially impoverished people — have slowly whittled their diet down to unbalanced, unhealthy, and pre-packaged. Home-grown, healthy food is a commodity, harvested and sent abroad instead of nourishing the population here. And, just like everywhere, the mass-producing companies can come in and sell something loosely edible for much cheaper.
Fed Up (full length version)

So, what can a concerned permaculturalists do? Many of us are low on funds, busy trying to figure out our own sustainable systems, and still learning ourselves. We’d all love to do something, but we are working to feed ourselves, support loved ones, make ends meet, and all sorts of assorted tasks. That’s fine and true, but it doesn’t mean our hands are tied. What we can do is what we do, or at least strive to do, best — create ecological, sustainable food systems in the spaces available.

A few gardening tools, some seeds, and a little know-how — luckily, this kind of help requires nothing more than what we’ve already got. No material cost, no start-up fees. There is vacant, wasted land all over the place, so all we need is the gumption to cultivate it. In my case, it took very little gumption, as there was a beautiful strip of land between the front fence of the property and the road.

It used to be a horrible burden that required constant cutting, acted as dumping ground for litter-prone weekend lake visitors, and provided absolutely nothing. In fact, here in Panama, there is even a largely unenforced law requiring curbside grass to be kept below a certain level to combat mosquito infestations. That five by fifteen meter wasted strip of grass was a damned private and public nuisance. So, it seemed sensible to change that.
Guerilla gardening in Elephant and Castle: Richard Reynolds at TEDx Newham, UK

I started the process by using the permaculture system I was most familiar with: magic circles (see also here and here). I had plenty of plantains, the local favorite, and I’d learned to layer them with yucca (also widely used here) and sweet potato. So, after roughing out a quick plan for the rest of the area, a volunteer and I spent a couple of hours digging and planting the circle one Saturday morning. The neighbor had come over to ‘borrow’ some limes, so I planted a lime tree out front as well. And, so it began.

The next day, I cut the grass and used it to mulch a good section of the space. I noticed the soil was softer and richer than a lot of the property. It was beside a drainage ditch and had obviously caught a lot of topsoil over time. The big problem was that it was on a slope that shed water instead harvested it. So, I revised my plan, and when the mulch had done its work, I dug a swale along the fence, piling the soil next to it to create a nice, fertile garden row.

In my personal food forest, I was thinning out hibiscus plants, rosa de Jamaica, which are commonly used for tea here, so I planted a few. (The leaves also make for great salads, which I hoped to pass on at some point in the future.) I added the local legume, guandul, a short-term perennial also known as pigeon pea, as well as some black-eyed peas along the swale wall to enrich the soil. I was also starting to get some regular passers-by and mumbled greetings as their startled stares urged me on.
Guerilla gardening with seed bombs

Busy with my own project, I let the guerilla garden age for a few weeks, mulching the space several times. The magic circle began to thicken, the peas popped up, and a good handful of hibiscus survived the transfer. The mulch kept the area clear and seemed to attract every free-running chicken within a half-kilometer radius. That’s a lot of chickens in rural Panama, and they’d definitely started challenging my seedlings. Even so, I was happy to see the space maturing into something. It was, after all, a communal garden, and the chickens are part of the community.

It was time to add more. I decided to showcase some of the permaculture projects going on inside the fence, outside the fence. I’d already done the magic circle, a swale, and mulched like mad, so it was time for a hugelkultur mound. I put this one together using an old composting pile of rotten wood, trimmed plants, and leaves that had been marinating for several months. It gave me a ready-to-plant mound within two or three hours. That mound is now heaving with cucumber vines and a few sweet potatoes and feeds the fastest growing papaya tree around.

Next, I used a collection of stones I’d pieced together to create a rudimentary herb spiral. With so much good, fully deceased grass mulch around, it made short work of my spiral. I laid out the design with a one stone high wall then packed it with the mulch before moving the wall a little higher. The process went this way until I was out of rocks. I had rooted several sprigs of several types of basil and oregano from my personal spiral, so those went in, as did a few chunks of lemongrass.

And, the last step I’ve taken has been utilizing the drainage ditch as much as possible. I flattened it out, dug a little deeper, using the soil to make two large raised beds. The ditch itself now has speed bumps within it so that water will linger and settle into the soil rather than rushing off into the netherworld of water wastage. Banking on the new water collection methods, I’m planting a couple of small trees to grow alongside the ditch on the street side of things.

Now, the garden has roughly twenty different types of edible plants growing in it, including pigeon pea, noni, lemon cucumber, plantain, sweet potato, cranberry hibiscus, rosa de Jamaica, cantaloupe, pumpkin, squash, lime, water apples, chayote, papaya, basil (3 types), oregano (3 types), lemongrass, tarragon, pineapple and perhaps more. All of this is in the space between the fence and the road, which would have been wasted.

For months now, I’ve been taking yard clippings, fallen branches and leaves from the property next door. The groundskeeper and I often exchanged pleasantries as he breaks from cutting and I rake past him. I always ask if it’s okay. The other day I finally caught him out front and was able to let him know this garden was for the village to eat from. “Nosotros! (Us!)” he said, smiling. He had no idea all this time I’d been using his clippings to grow food for him.

It’s a beautiful garden. I love it, and I hope the neighbors will, too.

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. You should spend some time at summit botanic gardens 20 min. outside of Panama City on the road to Balboa. The somewhat neglected and forgotten trees at Summit include many fantastic and rare species of tropical fruit and nut. Its a good resource for the region.

    1. Rosa de Jamaica is a type of hibiscus. The leaves are great in salad and the buds are used for tea. Many hibiscus leaves work well. We also use cranberry hibiscus and okra leaves as greens. Thanks for the read.

  2. You’ll have to update us on your project – I think it’s wonderful and hopefully one your neighbours will enjoy and perhaps replicate :)

  3. Hey Jonathon, this article was linked from the Glenavon FB page. Can I ask you how I can get in contact with them ? Cheers !

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