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Transitioning from Groceries to Garden


In Memory of Anna, Forever My Sweet Potato

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.


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 totally support this but as a person who absolutely bow rejects all hybrid and gmo fanken seeds, how would one be able to teat whether the fruit / veg that he / she bought is one of the latter?
    Especially in countries where labelling laws ate as accurate as the politicians expenses audits? ….
    Just food for thought :)

    1. The best advice I can give for this is taking from nature and neighbors when possible, using organic markets as opposed to supermarkets, and following your gut. In reality, there isn’t such a vast variety of GMO seeds for the vegetables that go to market. Corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and cotton are the biggies, and of course, they are used for and wide and turn up in just about all processed food. There are issues with others, I know, but generally buying from the veg stand or farmer’s market makes me feel as though I’m steering clear of a lot of the stuff I don’t want. It may not be perfect, but for me, it’s a good way to get a garden going and growing.

    2. GMO vegetables are not as common as many people think. The process of genetic splicing is very expensive and is not done on plants that won’t bring a large financial return. I can’t imagine a day when carrots will be GMO. Companies can’t
      get rich from carrots.

  2. Always nice to read your articles Jonathon.. I did wonder about the results of the hybrid seeds as well.. also, nowadays someone is spraying things like garlic and ginger with retardants that prevent them from sprouting – not sure how to get these off before planting?

    If you are going to the North of Spain, there are some farms up there worth visiting – heard about them in a talk by the founder of On the map, you should be able to find them..

    Best regards

  3. Cherimoya is Annona cherimola, Custard apple is Annona squamosa, Sour sop is Annona muricata. 3 different fruits. Another similar fruit is Bullock’s heart = Annona reticulata. Nature is more diverse than we think. That is why we need to save and even expand the rainforest.

  4. I’d be interested in hearing the results of the fruit seed plantings, as I read in many places the chances of producing a tree with the same fruit as the seed is anywhere from 1,000:1 to 1,000,000:1. As for the herbs and vegetable plantings, fantastic stuff!

    1. Mark, I’d heard that too but when I started picking and eating all the seed grown apples around town I realised it doesn’t matter if it grows true to type or not (unless you are aiming for purity). I’ve since grown and planted out seed grown apples in our orchard. If they are tasty fruiters I will keep them. If not I can always graft a variety I prefer onto them. :)

  5. I’ve been growing food from the local farmer’s markets for a few years now in Northern CA. So far, I’ve grown garlic, potatoes, lemon grass, ginger, tumeric, dried beans, flax seed, poppy seed, tomatoes, squash, mustard greens, chili peppers, all from organic heirloom varieties. I’ve also grown trees: plum, apple, peach, nectarine, and avocado. Only the plum has fruited so far but I only started most of them 2 years ago. I’ve also found that many plants will grow from tip cuttings that are 3-4″ and have most of the leaves removed. This is the way I have grown out most of my herbs and a lot of the flowering plants that I use as pollinator attractors.

  6. “We wondered why every gardener wasn’t doing this.”

    Because you never know if that vegetable you bought in the supermarket was a true breed or a F1 hybrid. (Look up Mendel’s genetic rules if you highschool biology class didn’t teach you what that means. It’s got nothing to do with GMOs – it’s a much older technique – but it means you rarely get a plant that looks the same as the one you bought.) And fruit seeds rarely germinate properly if they didn’t pass through an animal’s gut first and get just the right kind of climate (e.g. the right amound of cold stratification). And even if they do, you have the problem of open pollination and variant mixing. Few gardeners have the time and space to wait several years to see if an apple tree grown from seed will have edible fruit. (Curbits like squash and melons can have the same problem – seed saving when your neighbor grows decorative pumpkins can result in bitter squash for you the next year, if you’re unlucky and your squash and their pumpkins can interbreed.) Also, (at least here in Europe) a lot of commercial crops are variants that are bred for intensive care in climatised greenhouses, or they need a lot of fertiliser and pest control, or they’re just meant to be grown in a climate a bit warmer or wetter than your own (they might still be produced in the same country, and even farmer’s markets usually source their vegetables at least partly from central sale hubs, not local farmers). Plus, outside of Europe, you have the GMO problem. And in the end, you really have to know what you’re doing – a lot of hobby gardeners just find it easier to buy a pack of seeds which has detailed instructions about temperature / sunshine / nutrition / watering needs and proper sowing times.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t support some experimenting on the side, especially since I can’t afford nursery plants or specialty seeds. Here in a cool temperate climate, store-bought potatoes grow well enough for me not to need special seed potatoes – though I know that I risk importing diseases into my soil that way. I’ve been growing and seed-saving some tomatoes for years that I originally bought in the supermarket – they don’t fruit quite as much as the F1 hybrid variant that was developed for my area decades ago, but they taste nearly the same and seem to grow a little faster when they’re still small. (On the other hand, they’re more susceptible to brown rot.) I grow the F1 hybrid as well, but my seed-saved tomatoes are my fall-back option if something happens to the F1 seedlings. I hope that one day, the interbreeding between the two variants will result in a true-breeding variant of the F1 hybrid. (There was one, originally, but it was apparently lost during the somewhat chaotic switch from the government-controlled economy to the current capitalist one.)
    Hokkaido pumpkins (kuri ?) seem to breed true, and I’ll see this year if I get lucky with the store-bought butternut squash as well (most of those are hybrid variants). Spring-onions regrow well if you save the white parts and put them in a glas of water for a week, then plant them out once they have developed roots.
    I’ve managed to get one peach seed to germinate (out of several dozen – the one that did eventually germinate did so by accident in the compost, actually), from our own old tree that’s dying so I know my climate shouldn’t be too cold, but it will take another few years yet to see what the fruit will be like. No luck with apples and plums so far, not even with the wild variants. Though the trees do produce daughter-shoots from the ground, so I’m hopeful those might be usable (they might likely not be, if the trees were grafted onto non-edible rootstock). Walnuts germinate easily from wherever the chipmunks hide them, but the hazelnuts I actually want to propagate never do.
    Currants and gooseberry cuttings root fairly well if you cut them at the right time of year, though the gooseberry needed a couple of years until it showed any growth. Strawberries grow more daughter-plants than you will ever need, every year. (Though I’ve read that it’s better to buy a few new ones occasionally, because pollination isn’t great if you’ve got only clones.)
    Mint, majoram and ground elder (perennial groundcover, shade-loving, rich in vitamin C, tastes like spinach and parsley, and comes up shortly after the ground thaws = very useful “weed”) quickly spread themselves trough root systems, if you don’t stop them, and you can move them to new places just by ripping off roots with a few leaves.

  7. Vivi, I was able to get two seedlings from 6 hazelnuts. Apparently, you have to degrade the shell in some way (either by filing a portion of the hard outer seed coat to remove it, or as I did, crack it slightly with a hammer). I planted them in regular garden soil, somewhat on the clay side, and they took almost a year to germinate.

  8. For germination of seeds, I have noticed that seeds germinate more easily on the top of or just slightly buried in a worm farm. Best if its one with a lid so that there is an air gap of a few inches and not covered with cardboard. I have read somewhere that the small amounts of methane released from decomposing matter helps and I guess because it is moist and fertile – quite like an environment that mimics nature (i.e. fruit rotting under leaf fall under a tree)

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