The Lazy Man starts a new farm

magic circle
A basic building block of the way that John Douglas does organic permaculture is the “magic circle.” It’s both a way to build topsoil on land that is not particularly fertile and in the meantime produce food. 

Starting a new farm at age 70

notes by Eric Jackson, photos by John Douglas

John Douglas, the self-styled “Lazy Man,” does organic permaculture. He taught it as a Peace Corps volunteer. He retired from that but he teaches it to current Peace Corps volunteers, among others, to this day. Until recently he taught it at La Finca Perezosa (the Lazy Man’s Farm), a 10-hectare hillside on the banks of the Zarati River in Churuquita, northeast of Penonome.

That famous farm has been sold, and now, closer to Penonome in Sonadora — six clicks to the northwest of the city center — he’s starting anew. The plan is to improve the land, demonstrate organic permaculture to those interested and feed himself and others.


To start a magic circle, choose a spot and gather plant debris. What you are thinking about growing and sun conditions of the particular spot are important considerations.


This is, after all, Panama. Unless you have the right political connections or surname, somebody might come along and insist on inspections or permits. (The law here generally lets you farm in peace.) Here, the circular hole having been dug and some logs placed around it, the inspector checks it out and approves.


In the loose dirt and organic debris at the edges, plant what you want to grow. Throw whatever organic stuff to compost into the bottom of the circle — but you WANT the depression in the soil, because that collects water and helps you get through the dry season. The things with the big leaves are otoes, local staples with edible tubers. The stems and leaves are not part of the ordinary Panamanian cuisine, but they are edible and tasty. Like the roots, otoe greens must be cooked before eating so as to neutralize toxins. The little tiny plant front and center? With any luck that will grow into a fruitful papaya tree in short order. Its roots will grow down to drink the moisture that collects a the bottom of the magic circle. And if things don’t go that well? What you have to chop down with your machete, you toss into the middle of the circle to add to the compost.


He’s just setting up, but John plans to do demonstrations and tours, and to sell seedlings and cuttings for your little farm, be it many hectares or the planter box on your condo balcony. Call him at 6435-7686 or send him an email at if you are interested.


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