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Permaculture? Panama? Can Two Vagabond Gardeners Have It All

Adventures in Permaculture



Setting out in early November, our goal was to travel from Guatemala to Patagonia in roughly six months, arriving about yesterday and flying to lounge/work in the French countryside for the summer. We were to do this on the cheap by extreme budget traveling (dorm rooms and minimal bar tabs) and volunteering our way through Central and South America. Our trip went off course at our first stop in Nicaragua.

Since then, we’ve worked with a schedule-be-damned sort of attitude, often reminding ourselves that the whole point—though it was never the whole point—was to take what opportunities came our way. Somehow, we’ve managed to have a lot come our way. We managed the volunteer program in Nicaragua that first month, which turned into two months. We came to Glenavon on the Lake in Panama for two weeks or more, stayed six and have returned for six more months.

And, it is from here, just north of the Panama Canal, on property kissing Lake Gatun, that I write the latest in our permaculture adventure.

Why We Stopped

While the initial thought of lingering in Panama caused us some concern: We were yet again putting off our travels in South America (we’ve at least been to Colombia and Ecuador now) to hang around in Central America more. I mean we’ve been to every country here, some of them multiple times now, and the whole point of coming way back in 2008 was to make to South America. Nevertheless, good opportunity is good opportunity.


We volunteered at Glenavon on the Lake in January and February then, at the end of our stay, were offered positions that would keep us here for six more months. We were to use our imaginations to funk up the place (painting, art, and so on), introduce a jungle-y garden project, and kickstart a volunteering program. In essence, we were given the chance to do what we want to do: grow our own fun in some distant land and invite people to come partake with us.

So, in order for the deal to pass mustard, we insisted on actually making it to South America first, traveling for two months before we returned. We got back on the 15th of April. And, while this would seem like the time to settle in, to become the next retirees (unfortunately, it’s still a little early), the last month have been nothing of the sort. In the end, the real draw of staying in Panama was that we’re able to experiment with all this stuff we’d “like to do some day”.

Today is the day, so we haven’t paused at all. We’ve been running around Glenavon like Jesus Lizards on the lake (yes, we have them here). The projects just keep multiplying, mutating into grander endeavors, and exciting us all over again.

Or Have We Stopped?

The point I’m getting at is that stopping doesn’t necessarily mean an adventure is over or even stalled. In fact, we’ve been dying to do what we are doing, which ironically is some of the hardest, hottest work I’ve ever been privy to. The crux of this here blog entry is to introduce you to some of the happenings thus far in our permaculture adventure in Panama.

The Spiral Herb Garden

The idea came from a farm we worked at in Colombia. There was a cool little permaculture set-up just outside the kitchen door, a bed that spiraled around and was loaded with an assortment of tasty goodies. While at La Juanita Finca Verde, we also read loads of permaculture material and got some other ideas for how to build ours in Panama.

The gardens need to be near the kitchen so that you can quickly grab whatever you need while you are cooking. The herb spiral specializes in offering and needs to offer different types of sun exposure, thus little micro-climates, for a variety of herbs to grow. And, we wanted ours to look kickass.


Early in the week, I’d made a raised garden bed near the kitchen, filling a space that had once been cluttered with garbage cans and the debris that somehow didn’t make it in them. For the border, I made a wall with some flat stones the property owner, Alan, had bought for a rainy day. It turned out pretty nice. So, next thing I know, I was building a towering spiral (about a three or four feet high) for our herbs.

It was my first really inspiring project since we got back. It’s a perfect location, right between the house kitchen and the volunteer kitchen, where everyone can use it easily. It makes for a beautiful piece to look at while sitting in the communal space outside. It put a massive stack of otherwise unspoken for stones to good use. And, we are now growing three or four types of basil, lemongrass, mint, oregano, culantro (a cousin of cilantro) and anise in it. The plants are doing great.

More Crop Circles

Just before we left Panama in February, we built a magic banana circle. Basically, the formula is to dig a big hole, a circle with about a six-foot diameter and about three feet deep), and pile the soil all around the edges. The hole gets filled with organic material to produce compost, and plants—not just bananas but also plants that pair well with them—are put around the edges to enjoy the loose soil and feed of the compost.

Our banana circle, which also has sweet potatoes and yucca growing in it, did splendidly while we were gone. Since we’ve been back, I’ve added two new circles—a plantain circle and a papaya circle—to what has been deemed our food forest. And, this past weekend, a volunteer named Matt and I created another mini plantain circle outside the front of our fence, a little go at guerilla gardening (this circle is for the neighbors to take from).


We have at least two more circles coming soon, and perhaps a couple more in the distance future. We are considering coconut trees, moringa trees, and a mixed fruit circle as different possibilities.


It sounds a bit guttural, maybe a little fancy, but I’d been dying to make a big hugelkultur bed since February as well. Hugelkultur is a wicked idea that involves covering big pieces of wood, like tree stumps or tree trunks, with a few inches of soil and letting the decomposition of the wood feed the bed for years to come. When we’d left, there were already loads of half-rotten post and chunks of old wood around, so Emma and I had made grand plans.

Much to our chagrin, when we returned, several more trees had been chopped down “for the view” and “for the garden”. Doing my best to make plants out of trees, I set about utilizing as much of the wood as possible. First, I made a massive v-shaped hugel-wall, about three or four feet high and now covered with melon, pumpkin and squash plants that will soon have it sporting fruit.


Next, Matt and I got to work on another hugelkultur project, an inspiration for much ballyhoo and tomfoolery with my posh English accent. We built a Victorian stumpery, a massive garden mound that with soil piled onto tree trunks, stumps, and leaves. Ours rises from about ankle-height to waist-height and has stump stepping stones across it, as well as a high stump back wall. Looks very cool and should be wildly fertile.

The adventures are set to continue. Each new project feels like a new destination, a new experience for what has turned into a much longer trip than we anticipated. We’ve got loads more space to fill and lots of ideas, most of them quite funky, of how to do it. Not only that, but within a couple of weeks of advertising for volunteers, we’ve managed to book ourselves full for the next three months. We are actually having to turn volunteers away now. And…and…and I would be remiss not to mention all the…

Awesome Work Emma Has Done.

• We’ve returned just in time for mango season and harvest about two bags a day, roughly 50 mangoes for the tree next to our greenhouse. Emma has become a mango master, dehydrating them, cooking up jams, spinning out chutneys, and creating delicious frozen treats.
• AKA, Little Miss Green Thumb has managed to start up seedlings for about a half-dozen kinds of beans, melons, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and peppers. And, she has done cuttings with all of those herbs and various other stuff around the property.
• Together, we transformed what was a filthy construction site into a cool communal area, complete with a semi-outdoor kitchen, ping-pong table, potions and powder workstation, and seating area. Emma also came up with some awesome chalk job lists to plan out or next steps for all to see.


• Inspired by the cashew trees growing next door, Emma discovered that not only can we get cashew nuts from them (a rather hair-raising, semi-dangerous procedure), but we can also get some pretty sweet juice from the apple and use the “flesh” for an actual meat substitute. BBQ cashew fruit is really delish.
• Plants, plants, plants. What were once barren gardens and landscapes are now clutter with all kinds of plants, all about two to three weeks old. We’ve got some new pineapples on the go, jalapeños showing, and some seriously rejuvenated tomato plants. Stuff is growing everywhere.
• She’s started her first mural. A cool 1960s landscape in the communal area. Photos coming soon.

Posted by jonathonengels 14:28 Archived in Panama Tagged food travel farm living backpacking environment expat permaculture

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Such a green fingered adventure. keep up the great word guys. Ummmm I miss mangos!Sending you lots of love xxx

by lewyandkerri

  • work

by lewyandkerri

hey guys, your blog is amazing! Are your still offering opportunities to volunteer? My boyfriend and I have just finished an eight month bike tour from Canada, and we're looking to start the second phase of our trip, learning about permaculture and volunteering for a while. My email is [email protected],we would love to hear from you :) and our blog is www.theaussierattlers.com,we have loads of woofing and house sitting experience, we love to work hard and learn new stuff. Talk soon, guys

by Aussie workers

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