The Americas in New Zealand

Yesterday afternoon felt very American to me. I went over to visit with our friend Mark Christensen and collect bean seeds (most from  Turtle Island) and some suckers off an American paw paw.

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Mark works with others to propagate and disseminate heritage beans, tomatoes and apples, among some others.

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The paw paw was a tree in Mark’s heritage orchard. When I was visiting him about 6 months ago he mentioned it was sending out suckers. I made a note to come back and dig some out. Yesterday I finally did.

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The suckers were so small they were hard to pick out in the tall grass. According to wiipedia, here is some information about the paw paw:

Asimina, the pawpaw genus, a genus of trees and shrubs native to eastern North America

  • Common pawpaw (Asimina triloba), a temperate fruit tree, native to eastern North America


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Here is what the suckers looked like planted at our place.

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As we try to manage the property to be productive, we have brought some animals onto the land to graze the grass while it is still young and tender. Our friend SImon brought by this ewe…

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…and this lamb.

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We also have a temporary border called Shady.

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Peace, Estwing

Everyone loves cheese, especially governments. In a democracy like New Zealand, “block-of-cheese-tax-cuts” have become a popular pre-election promise. Even in dictatorships like North Korea, cheese appears to be essential to the political elite. Recent news reports indicate that Kim Jong Un is addicted to Swiss Emmental cheese – eating large amounts of it to gain weight so as to resemble his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

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Of course cheese must be elemental to the French government, but my own experience has been with an enigmatic orange mass called American Processed Cheese Food Product. “Government cheese” as it was affectionately called, was part of the vocabulary and diet for millions of Americans from the 1960s through the early 1990s. “Government cheese is a processed cheese that was provided to welfare, food stamp recipients and the elderly receiving Social Security.” (Wikipedia)

According to the “Urban Dictionary” (.com), it was “A block of orange-yellow processed “USDA Cheese Food” issued by “Da Gubment” to aid needy families by supplementing their food resources. Used for making grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni & cheese but also causes severe, bowel obstructing constipation, silent but deadly stinky gas, and/or “the runs” diarrhea in those who are lactose intolerant.”

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In the states, the term “government cheese” has come to refer to any type of government handout. The Rainmakers described the situation in song in 1986:

“They’re turning us all into beggars ‘cause they’re easier to please. They’re feeding our people that Government Cheese.”

“I don’t believe in anything, nothing is free. They’re feeding our people that Government Cheese.”

As suggested above, “government cheese” in a contemporary New Zealand context appears to have come to refer to the offer of inconsequential tax cuts at election time while avoiding meaningful changes like removing GST from fresh fruit and vege and/or taxing capital gains. Even in America these things have been in place for decades, and capital gains are listed as “unearned income” on tax returns.

As a child growing up outside of Detroit in the 1970s I was aware that certain items at the grocery store had tax on them while others did not. It was all very confusing at the time, but now I just go to the Internet to find it clearly explained:

“Retail sales of food and food ingredients for human consumption normally considered as grocery items for home consumption are tax exempt. This would include…cheese products, meat, nuts, popcorn, etc. The exemption does not include prepared food intended for immediate consumption.” (Source:

Somehow, many decades ago and before “smart phones” existed, the state of Michigan figured out a way to differentiate between prepared foods and raw ingredients. Yet if you listen to Talk Radio in New Zealand in 2014 you hear arguments about how onerous and complicated it would be to replicate that process. Really? With barcodes and computer networks? I would suggest a pair of teenagers, an Iphone, and a long weekend would be all that is required to come up with a free app to do just that.

What’s the point? Holistic-thinking economists identify GST on food as a regressive tax on low-income families that serves to widen income inequality, exacerbate social problems and slow economic activity. A regressive tax “imposes a greater burden (relative to resources) on the poor than on the rich” (Wikipedia).

Food, energy and rates make up a larger proportion of the household budget for low-income families than high-income families. As such, the government plays a role in widening income and wealth inequality. To repeat, both central and local governments play roles in increasing wealth and income inequality.

Research worldwide has shown a direct relationship between wealth and income inequality and social problems such as crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, and teen pregnancy (Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2009).

Additionally, certain economists-who-must-not-be-named might suggest that regressive taxes act as a drag on the economy. In other words, when people have fewer dollars in their pockets they spend fewer dollars in local shops. (I admit it is a radical concept.)

For a struggling provincial economy such as Whanganui, I would suggest some of the “new ways of thinking” that local business and government engage in would include moving away from regressive taxes and an inequitable rates structure that stifle economic activity and stimulate anti-social behaviour.

To quote the Big Cheese, Winston Peters, “It’s just common sense.”

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Prepping for Tomatoes Before Christmas

I have had great success pushing the season outdoors by planting tomatoes on the vernal equinox and reaping ripe fruit before Christmas Day. This year is no different although it has been a struggle to do so.

This is what we started with: a sodden, compacted, clay lawn with poor drainage around the house foundation.

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I started by preparing to improved the drainage while also building more garden beds.

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This process took a while as there was lots of soil to move. Simultaneously I was making a cubic metre of compost where one of the garden beds would go.  Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.25.12 PM

The hot compost we make takes about 30 days to mature.

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I had a helper for part of the job.

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Finally ready by September 21st, the vernal equinox, to put in the tomatoes.  Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.26.34 PM

I had some plastic sheets that our new ceiling insulation came wrapped in. I used it to suppress some of the grass before cutting it to an X and then skimming the turf.

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As the soil was severely compacted, I forked it to help with aeration. These will be no dig garden beds once established.

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I always plant my seedlings with a litre or more of compost. Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.27.12 PM

Fold back the plastic…

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…and cover with mulch. Mind you, the plastic will only be in place for this one growing season. After the sod is killed and the tomatoes have done their dash, I will remove the plastic, fork the bed again, add compost, and then just treat it as a no dig garden bed.

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These first six plants are Early Girl. They will bear ripe fruit around the 10th – 15th of December.

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The next six plants are Money Maker. I have good luck with them as a consistent, heavy cropper and relatively good a resisting plant diseases.

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Peace, Estwing

Pouring a New Cup of Tea for Whanganui

There once was a family who put salt in their tea thinking it was sugar. Their tea did not get sweet so they added more salt. But it still did not get sweet. They complained bitterly, and kept adding more salt.

Finally, someone convinced them that they should contact the Old Woman from Philadelphia. Reluctantly they did. And what did the Old Woman from Philadelphia tell them? “You need to pour a new cup of tea.”

From all appearances Shamubeel Eaqub is not old, is not a woman, and in all likelihood not from Philadelphia. But his message regarding regional economies is essentially the same. “We keep on trying to use the same broken models in terms of regional development,” he told the Chronicle during his visit to Whanganui three weeks ago. Screen shot 2014-09-19 at 6.52.14 PM

He spoke about short-sighted policy that inevitably failed, and added, “We shouldn’t get hung up on growth for the sake of growth.” Does that sound like what a middle-aged man from Detroit has been suggesting through a certain weekly column on page B5 in the Chronicle?

Eaqub went on in his interview to advocate the asking of hard questions and that “We’ve got to shock people into talking about these issues because it’s uncomfortable. We need to create the urgency for action.”

Anyone familiar with the low quality of housing stock in New Zealand and its negative effects on health would echo his words. For example, Philippa Howden-Chapman from the Otago School of Medicine recently shared the following:

  • “New Zealand is famous in international public health circles for the dreadful state of our housing.”
  • 1/3 of New Zealanders shiver in their homes
  • 180 different types of mould have been found in NZ homes
  • some cot deaths are related to cold homes because parents bring babies into their own beds as the rest of the house is frigid

These sentiments are shared by Mike Underhill, the Chief Executive of EECA, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.

  • Over a million homes built before 1978 do not come close to meeting the current standards for energy efficiency
  • “Most older homes in New Zealand are in poor condition.”
  • at temperatures below 12 degrees inside a home there is an increased rate of cardiac arrest, and NZ experiences 1600 more deaths each winter compared to summers

Wait, it gets worse. New Zealanders spend up to 75% of their lives in their homes, and unhealthy homes have been linked to learning and behaviour problems in children at school. Unhealthy homes cost our medical system tens of millions of dollars annually due to increased hospital visits. The list continues.

But other studies have shown that every dollar spent on insulation saves five dollars in medical expenses. A recent study on Auckland’s Retrofit Your Home programme showed a Social Return on Investment (SROI) ratio of 3.1:1, with “positive social and economic outcomes.”

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Mike Underhill from EECA also recognizes the co-benefits of energy efficiency, and recognizes benefits to the nation valued at over a billion dollars. Philippa Howden-Chapman believes “Housing can lead the way in the green economy,” and cited research showing that children living in well-insulated homes miss two less days of school during the winter and have reduced asthma symptoms. The list of benefits from healthy homes is a long as the list of problems with unhealthy homes.

In the pages of the Chronicle I have read: principals complaining about absenteeism and poor student outcomes; social service people complaining about landlords not providing insulation for tenants; and, most recently, Children’s Commissioner Dr. Russell Wills suggest that our Council’s role is “vital in fighting child poverty.”

Ironically, it was this Council that summarily rejected a robust proposal to improve the quality of housing in Wanganui with all of the associated benefits for health, learning, social welfare, and increased activity in the local economy. The proposal was rejected because it was not relevant to the policies within the 10-year plan.

Despite the mountain of evidence showing the problems and opportunities in the housing sector, WDC has so far declined to be any part of a positive solution. To quote Tim Williams from the Committee for Sydney, “It’s not evidence based policy making but policy based evidence making.”

As yet, the leadership from local government, business and community leaders that Eaqub identifies as essential has not emerged. But I remain optimistic that some progressive minds will have the courage to engage in meaningful change for our community rather than clinging to the old “broken models.”


Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Ethics in Action

Last week I wrote about permaculture as one type of eco-design that is unique because it is built around three central ethics: Care for People; Care for the Earth; Share Surplus Resources. The first time I learned about permaculture I was told “it is a system of science and ethics.” That resonated with me.

While there may be ample debate around personal ethics, there is somewhat less disagreement about science with the possible exception of the Chronicle’s Letters Page.

From personal experience, basing my design decisions on physics, chemistry, biology, geology and hydrology has proven to be very successful. Additionally, centering eco-design projects around helping people and the planet in a mutually beneficial win-win strategy has resulted in benefits far beyond expectations.

Sharing surplus resources can take on surprising forms and flow in strangely cyclical patterns. Here are some examples that we have experienced in the last few years among the small but dedicated permaculture community in Whanganui.

Two years ago we started a community garden in front of our Castlecliff home. One friend gave us a piece of slab wood and another one leant his router. With a few pieces of native hardwood washed up on the beach I was able to make a welcoming sign. Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 6.56.36 PM

Some other friends donated fruit trees and seeds. We, in turn, were able to share surplus building materials, some calendars we ‘won’ in a photo competition, and looking after a friend’s daughter while he was working on his house.

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Many months later I was able to use a second piece of slab wood to make another sign for those friends who had shared their surplus fruit trees with us. I had to borrow the router again, but that was ok because we had just hosted that friend’s children for a morning of puzzles and baking in our home while he was otherwise engaged. Screen shot 2014-09-12 at 6.58.48 PM

Meanwhile, another friend offered to help me organize the second annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend. She had a surplus of her time to share and has willingly given it to our community to help make us more resilient. One day when she came to our home to meet with me about the schedule for the weekend she complained that all of the firewood she had recently purchased was still green and not heating her home efficiently. I immediately told her we had a shed full of seasoned wood and that she should help herself.

One might call this a positive version of “what goes around comes around.” I could fill weeks of columns with similar examples. Please be aware, however, that these are not straight barter arrangements, but simply generous people “spreading the wealth.” It just happens.

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From a permaculture perspective, “spreading the wealth” can take many forms as described above, or something as simple as an individual sharing his or her experience, expertise or enthusiasm for a certain topic. That’s what this weekend – the Whanganui Permaculture Weekend – is all about.

Today and tomorrow are filled with events that are free and open to the public. Printed schedules can be found at many locations around the city, including the libraries, I-Site, River Market, and some local businesses.

Events schedule can be viewed online at:


Peace, Estwing

Would You Buy This House? Part 1: Energy

Sustainability at 10 Arawa Place

The exceptional level of sustainability of this property can be explained through exemplary levels of energy efficiency, long-term durability of products, and the high productivity of fruits, veges and fowl. The entire property has been designed and managed to be low-input and high performance.

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Part 1: Energy Efficiency

10 Arawa Place has been redesigned and renovated as a passive solar home. Between April and August, morning sunlight reaches deep into the structure, bringing warmth inside early in the day when the temperature is lowest.

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An abundance of glazing on the northeast and northwest sides ensure that free sunlight energy heats the northern parts of the home on most winter days to 20 – 25 degrees. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.01.59 AM

Throughout the day some of the sunlight energy is absorbed within thermal mass, ensuring that the interior does not overheat while storing the excess warmth for overnight when it is released into the home. Beyond the mass already in the structure, we added approximately one thousand kilograms of thermal mass that receives direct winter sunlight from sunrise to sunset through three large windows and the French doors. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.00.21 AM

This extra thermal mass is essentially invisible because it takes the form of an extra layer of Gib on the walls, a cast iron claw foot bathtub, and a multi-fuel cooker with brick surround. When the sun is not shining, the multi-fuel stove easily heats the northern part of the home to 20 degrees or above on a few sticks of wood, with the added benefit of cooking and baking.

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Two-thirds of the home is easily heated by this combination of sunshine and a small amount of firewood. (The southern bedrooms are kept cooler as is common in most Kiwi homes.) A super-insulated building envelope ensures that much of the heat remains in the structure overnight.

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The walls in the northern parts of the villa are insulated to R-2.8 and the ceilings are insulated to R-3.6 above the kitchen and bathroom and to approximately R-5 above the lounge and all three bedrooms. These all far exceed the building code. (The underfloor insulation is incomplete at the moment.)

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We spent two winters in the small bedroom and never used a heater. Our body warmth alone kept the room above 15 degrees all night long. Temperatures in the lounge, kitchen and bathroom could drop to 14 or maybe 13 on the rare morning with a frost. Some of this strong energy performance can be attributed to a combination of double-glazing, pelmets, and floor length lined curtains, Roman blinds and window blankets. This combination of window treatments performs to a level of triple-glazing or better. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.02.07 AM

Other energy-efficiency measures we used in the home were Energy Star appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and solar hot water. This combination meant that our power bills over the last three years ranged from $17 to $31 per month including the daily line charge. The appliances we operated were: refrigerator, freezer, oven, toaster, electric kettle, cake mixer, wizzy stick, wifi, alarm system, clocks, radios, power tools, etc. Screen shot 2014-09-06 at 8.02.16 AM

The solar hot water system is set to a winter sun angle to maximize performance when hours of sunlight are shortest. The 240-litre tank allows ample storage to bridge three winter days without sun. We placed the temperature monitor in the hall next to the bathroom so it can be easily referenced. Over three winters, we only turned on the electric boost for the hot water a handful of times for 20 to 30 minutes each.

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To be continued…


Part 2: Durability

Coloursteel Maxx roof, November, 2011.

New, low-maintenance exterior cladding, 2012.

High quality exterior paint.

Walls braced against earthquake and wind.

Sistered bearers and joists fro added strength under floor

All floors treated for borer

All new wiring, November, 2011

Capping on fences to protect end grain from rain

Wind-hardy trees to protect netting from long-term UV damage

Earthen pizza oven protected from rain and wind

Brick patio instead of wooden deck

Driftwood – durable native hardwood timber for landscaping


Part 3: Productivity

Topsoil: 6 cubic metres for garden beds, trees and top-dressing lawns.

Wind protection: double-layer of wind cloth with new treated posts.

Rainwater collection

Compost: 8-10 cubic metres.

Native plantings for privacy and wind protection.

52+ Fruit trees: 7 feijoas; 11 olives; 13 apples; 5 peaches; 3 plums; 1 apricot; 2 guavas; 4 grapevines; 2 figs; 1 banana; 1 tamarillo; 1 orange; 1 loquat; plus rhubarb, cape gooseberry, strawberries, summer and autumn raspberries,

Vegetable gardens:

Rotational grazing of ducks and chooks:




Permaculture: Turning Liabilities into Assets

With an abundance of bad design around the world and across New Zealand, the opportunities for good design and re-design are almost endless. Simply addressing the built environment would provide thousands of jobs over many decades, to say nothing of the “natural environment.”

But this week’s column will, however, address the natural environment, which is, across most of this country, far from natural. In many cases non-native animals graze non-native plants on steep slopes that results in increased river levels and erosion during heavy rains and decreased river levels during drought. Put simply, poor design and out-dated land management techniques contribute to both flooding and drought: a lose-lose situation.

Good eco-design and contemporary land management can hold water on the land during heavy rains and provide water to plants and rivers during extended periods without rain: a win-win situation. This is called eco-design because in many cases it is the way “nature” manages water movement across the land with trees and wetlands.

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This new orchard will be designed to use excess water off the roof as needed. 

Redesigning marginalized landscapes for water storage is at the heart of permaculture – an Australian eco-design philosophy first developed in the 1970s. Permaculture is now practiced by tens of thousands of eco-designers in probably every nation on Earth. In arid places such as Jordan or Arizona, deserts have been re-vegetated using permaculture design.

In New Zealand, permaculture design has been used to restore the health of degraded land and to increase its productivity. A large part of this design philosophy is turning a liability into an asset. (Sadly, this is exactly opposite to what appears to be the management philosophy of Whanganui’s wastewater treatment plant.) For example, water poses a threat to a house made from timber, but is required for a vege garden to thrive.

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This area is being transformed into a vege garden alongside water management improvements. 

Good eco-design would transfer water from where it is not wanted to where it is, but without the need for costly drains or pumping. With regards to water management, good eco-design uses gravity to move it for free.

Another example of turning a liability into an asset is composting. Whether it is unwanted food scraps or an excess of manure or yard waste, composting the material and returning it to the land saves it from going to landfill where it converts into methane gas, or from running off and polluting streams and rivers. Win-Win.

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If you have a small section or a large section or a lifestyle block, you may be interested in learning how permaculture design is used to manage water and soil fertility. On Sunday the 7th of September I will offer a sampler of what good permaculture design would look like on both small and larger properties (see sidebar). These events kick off Adult Eco-Literacy Week (7th-14th) and the Whanganui Permaculture Weekend (13th-14th).

Aside from being the gold standard in eco-design, permaculture is also unique in that it is an ethically-guided belief system. Central to permaculture are three ethics: Care for people; Care for the Earth; Share surplus resources.

Whanganui is unique in New Zealand in that we have a small but dedicated core of permaculturists who hold tightly to these ethics. For the second year in a row we are offering a weekend of outstanding events hosted by a range of experts in their respective fields. In other places across NZ and around the world you could expect to pay hundreds of dollars to register for such a series of events, but we are offering it to our community absolutely free.

It would be difficult to describe how unique this is, and it is one of the things I cherish about living here. Thanks to this handful of people who care deeply about our community and truly practice what they preach. And a huge thanks to Rachel Rose for helping organize the weekend.

Peace, Estwing


Adult Eco-Literacy Week 2014, 7th – 14th September

7th September, 1-2 PM Eco-Design for large properties. 223 No. 2 Line

7th September, 2-3 PM Eco-Design for small properties. 223 No. 2 Line

9th September, 6:00-7:00 PM. Solar Energy. Josephite Retreat Centre, Hillside Terrrace.

10th September, 5-6 PM. Growing vege on sandy soils, Castlecliff

11th September, 12-1:15 PM. Raw Milk and Yoghurt Making, Women’s Network, 75 St. Hill St.

12th September, 5:30-6:30 PM. Best ways to use your heat pump, Josephite Retreat Centre, Hillside

14th September, 4-5 PM. Tomatoes Before Christmas, Wanganui Garden Centre. Gonville Ave.

Whanganui Permaculture Weekend, 13th – 14th September

List of events can be found here:

Permaculture Stash

In my opinion, a large part of permaculture is having a stash of resources to draw on for building projects. The resources are usually acquired for free, or at very low cost. They can consist of wood, steel, glass, brick, concrete or organic matter. As long as you can store your resources out of the weather, you’re entitled to as many as you can collect.

In the process of shifting, I discovered how many resources I had stored under the house and under roofing iron in the yard. First off, there was a lot of lumber with nails removed, as well as roofing iron.

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I moved my best pieces of driftwood for making cool stuff.

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In the former horse stables, I am building a lumber rack.

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More wood and a giant window for reuse as a glasshouse.  Screen shot 2014-09-01 at 5.57.01 PM

We ended up moving 2 cubic metres of compost.

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This is Verti sorting her lumber.

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Well done, girl.

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Peace, Estwing