Last year, about this time, my wife and Emma and I agreed to take up a project in Panama. We were given six months, a small budget to feed volunteers, and a good plot of land—roughly an acre—to grow on.
There were lots of things either already in place: mangoes, limes, plantains, water apples, and a papaya tree shooting through the greenhouse roof. Other things– cashew, rosa de Jamaica, coconuts, lemon cucumbers—were growing wildly or nearby. And, we hit up neighbors for what they had: sweet potatoes, okra, Malabar spinach, star fruit, different varieties of banana, and so on.
We instantly and excitedly started devising plans for these existing components, but we also hope for much more. We wanted vegetables, annual fruits, herbs, seeds, and other things we associated with the supermarket. True, we had the budget to buy it, but like good little permaculturalists, we wanted to grow it.
Unfortunately, we had no access to a nursery or even a spot to pick up basic seeds, but we didn’t want to let that deter us. After all, our goal was grow most—if not all—of what we ate. And, so, it was from our groceries that we began building our garden.
Buying local just got better
Unsurprisingly, we are fairly contentious and conscientious consumers, with a long list of companies we boycott and a short list of sources we want to buy from, farmer’s markets residing at the top. So, we bought from the local veg vender when he came rumbling down the street with his loud speaker, and when we did have to use the supermarket, it was only to buy that which we knew grew in country.
Regardless, much of it was to the same end: For every piece of produce we bought, we tried to take from it to grow our own. What’s more, for every store-bought bag of dried beans, legumes, or seeds that passed through our kitchen, we were testing the limits of its reproductive ability, finding out if we could grow it. It wasn’t exactly a free garden we were producing—we did have to buy groceries—but we were definitely making the most of our economically acquired harvests.
At the end of six months, we had tripled the variety of viable food production on the place, and in effect, forever altered our thoughts on how a garden begins. Now, the first place we look for things to plant is in the kitchen, which—in a sensible world, not gone the way of processed and packaged foods—makes perfect sense.
Sowing the seeds we have
We started with the obvious: seeds. Many of the fruits and veggies we would buy on a weekly basis had them, often huge, fertile and ripe for the taking. I think it began with watermelons, or it could have been some sort of melon, squash or pumpkin—something from that family. Anyway, the seeds were obvious, really so, in a way that we couldn’t miss them. So, we started planting them. They grew.
After that, we began trying this tactic with other fruits and vegetables. We took the seeds from our one papaya tree and made a dozen or more. We took the seeds from a neighbor’s lemon (not lime!), a real rarity in Central America, and began anew. Loads of citrus—passion fruit, even—took. Avocadoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers—they all worked. We were amazed. We wondered why every gardener wasn’t doing this.
Then, we went to the bags. We planted quinoa, which died quickly in the heat, but we also planted chia, flax and amaranth from our food purchases. We planted soil fixers—pigeon pea, black-eyed pea, black beans, mung beans, pintos, and so on—culled from what we boiled in the kitchen. We discovered chickpeas and lentils don’t necessarily love the tropics.
If there was a seed, we planted it, and lots of them worked just fine.
Shoots and Sticks
Perhaps it was from the clippings of our neighbor Anna, who shared her sweet potatoes, okra and Malabar spinach, that the idea began to propagate, but the use of clippings became a rampant practice at our site. Soon enough, we had designated an entire area—a homemade shelf littered with old beer bottles sporting vegetative hairdos—to the practice.
As some market-bought herbs began to whither into their lasts throes, we took to them with scissors and began rooting the clippings (something that can be done with some fresh herbs from the supermarket). From the next generation, we began rooting every sprig of herb we used in the kitchen. We were growing three types of oregano, three types of basil, tarragon, reluctant mint, and multiplying clumps from a mother load lemongrass we’d found on site.
Likewise, we had enlarged our hibiscus production (great tropical salad greens) through clippings. We’d covered areas in soil loosening yucca plants simply by taking branches and shoving them in the ground. Our original bed of sweet potatoes multiplied into soil enriching ground cover all over the place, simply by taking the clippings—shoots—and shoving them into the soil. We were well on our way.
Skin-Deep or Right to the Flesh
Somewhere in the mix of it all, we started planting the bottoms of things, bits that still had some roots, and we discovered the ability to get a few more leaves of lettuce or cabbage before the heat melted them. The method worked with onions, chives, and leeks, that sort of stuff. Celery showed some promise but fainted in the tropical fervor.
From the other end, the tops, we were able to produce more plants. Beetroot greens would continue growing after the bulk of the root was gone, though the temperature played hell with them after a while. Radishes work the same way. But, pineapples were the real charmer here, as we easily rooted the spiky greens into new plants, ultimately a collection that comprised “pineapple hill”. This can actually be done as a pot plant in your house.
Skins are yet another way of increasing yield varieties. Most of us know that potatoes work this way, planting a chunk with an eye. Sweet potatoes are the same, only it require planting the skin such that it creates a shoot, then detaching replanting that shoot. But, we had a root vegetable called name (pronounced nya-meh), a sort of cross between sweet potatoes and yucca, that seem to just pop up everywhere. We discovered it by accident, propagating in compost, and started saving the skins to plant. They produced amazing vines in our magic circles.
And, then, there were spices. Anytime we took too long before eating a clove of garlic and it sprouted, it got planted somewhere. We discovered ginger—bless it!—likes shaded spots, dappled sunlight, so when selecting our hunk, we always looked for nodes that had sprouts to plant. Soon it was lurking in the shadows. We were out to find some fresh turmeric and galangal somewhere, which we’d seen growing in abundance further north at a farm in Nicaragua. We were just craving finding them!
The Seed Hoarders of Spain
After our six months in Panama, we found ourselves in Europe. Not long into it, we were WWOOFing our way through Andalusia in Southern Spain, dazzled by an array of citrus, almonds, grapes, and olives. Then, one afternoon, we tried a fruit called cherimoya, something not unlike soursop (what’s called guanabana in Panama) that we’d bought from the local market. What it turned out to be was a custard apple, a name we’d often heard from Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton in our permaculture documentaries but something we’d never tasted or seen. It was absolutely amazing. What did we do? Pocketed a couple dozen seeds for safekeeping.
You just never know when you might be starting a garden somewhere. At least, theoretically, we’ve got that cherimoya thing sorted out now.