A Permaculture Food Forest in Three Years

While much of our eco-thrifty renovation involved converting an old villa into an energy efficient eco-home, we also put considerable effort into turning a rubbish tip into a Garden of Eden. Much of the latter work was guided by permaculture design.

The most visible difference between permaculture and what otherwise might just be called organic gardening is the presence of a “food forest.” The word permaculture was formed in the 1970s from a contraction of the words permanent and agriculture. The choice of these words represents the emphasis on perennial crops over annuals – in other words fruit trees over vege plants.

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This is not to say that permaculture excludes growing annual veges like tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins, it just tips the scales toward apples, peaches and feijoas. Among the reasons for this emphasis is that perennial crops require less tilling than annuals. Tilling disrupts natural soil ecosystems, can cause erosion, and requires lots of energy.

A food forest differs from an orchard in a couple of ways. First, it consists of a wide range of species and even a number of varieties within each species. For example, we have planted a food forest with apples, apricots, peaches, plums, feijoas, guavas, pears, figs, paw paws, olives, and nectarines. Among the apples, we have over a dozen varieties.

Second, permaculturists tend to choose cultivars that are resistant to diseases, making them easier to manage organically. For example, Black Boy peach trees tend to be more resistant to curly leaf than other varieties.

Alongside disease-resistance, another characteristic that might be selected for is storage life. I remember 15 years ago when I was buying my first apple trees I selected varieties that were both “good keepers” and blight resistant. With a cool cellar underneath my home (in the U.S.) the apples would remain fresh for many months with no specialized cooling equipment. Screen shot 2014-11-28 at 10.30.51 AM


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Another characteristic of food forests is the presence of “nurse trees.” A nurse tree is one that provides services that help the fruit trees establish themselves and thrive. As the fruit trees grow up the nurse trees are pruned away.

Tagasaste (tree lucerne) is a common nurse tree. On our Castlecliff property we have used it extensively to nurture the fruit trees. Tagasaste is a preferred nurse tree for many reasons: it is fast growing – reaching a height of 2.5 metres in 18 months; it fixes nitrogen in the soil; it is relatively wind-tolerant and drought-tolerant; it’s foliage is good stock fodder; it’s flowers attract beneficial insects; it is a great chop-and-drop mulch for fruit trees; when it is no longer needed it can be cut down and burned as firewood.

Tagasaste is also a good companion for native saplings. For example, I inter-planted it with hebes and was amazed at how well the two grew together. At Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Tupoho I inter-planted tagaste with wind-hardy corokia and grisselinia around the outdoor play space for the kohanga. In the short term the tagasaste will protect the tamariki from wind and sun, but in the long term those roles will be filled by the slower growing natives.

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Along the same lines, in our food forest the fast-growing tagasaste provides much needed wind protection for the fruit trees until the natives take over that role. I often refer to this type of planning as four-dimensional design because it involves a distinct time element.

Another example of four-dimensional design in a food forest is integrating fowl such as chooks and ducks. We have successfully rotated our “ladies” through the whole of our Castlecliff property for pest control, ‘weed-eating’, and building soil fertility.

Next weekend we will be installing a food forest in Gonville, and thought it would be a great chance to offer a very hands-on workshop. See sidebar for details.

Peace, Estwing



Food Forest Design and Installation

Sunday, 7th December, 3-5 pm.

Designing a food forest for wind, sun and water using fruit trees, natives and tagasaste.

Space is limited. Registration essential.

theecoschool@gmail.com, 06 344 5013


Rising Damp is a Real Problem

I hang my head in shame. For the last three months I have felt like a negligent parent, having subjected my family to unhealthy conditions.

At the end of July we shifted from a warm, dry home to a cold, damp home. The new house has a large wood burner and a mammoth woodpile that was included in the chattels. During the first weekend in August I topped up the grossly inadequate ceiling insulation with R 3.6 blanket batts and figured that – along with burning heaps of dry firewood – would get us through until summer.

Unfortunately there were two factors I did not fully appreciate: 1) the winter weather would stretch into November; 2) the profound impact of rising damp.

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 With the extra insulation and a fantastic heat transfer system we have been able to heat our home to healthy temperatures – 18-22 in living spaces and 16-18 in bedrooms – but high humidity inside our home has had a greater impact than I ever would have guessed.

Having never lived in a damp home, the conditions were a shock for us. My wife and daughter had persistent coughs that came and went for many weeks. I managed to escape illness, but one morning recently I pulled open the bottom drawer of a low boy to find a pair of board shorts covered in grey mould. That was the last straw! Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 6.53.20 PM

In actual fact, I knew all along that rising damp would be a problem in this home, and I bought 200 square metres of heavy-duty polythene back in August. But controlling the ground moisture was not as simple of laying the polythene under the structure – there were other issues that also needed to be addressed.

A lack of proper drainage around the perimeter of the home meant that excessive water was flowing underneath the structure. This lead to a handful of the treated piles rotting far short of their intended lifespan.

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So the larger picture included drainage work, selective re-piling and laying polythene. Of these three jobs, the logical one to start with is drainage. In first aid treatment we follow the mantra: “First stop the bleeding, then treat other injuries.” The same applies to water damage and a home: “First stop the source of water, then make repairs.” Screen shot 2014-11-21 at 6.52.48 PM

While I have been slowly remediating the drainage problems, we have embraced a number of techniques for limiting the unhealthy effects of raising damp in our home. These are simple techniques that almost anyone in Whanganui can afford to do whether they are homeowners or renters.

The first crucial step was to improve sub-floor ventilation. I did so in a rather crude manner by breaking out a few pieces of Hardie Board with the intent of repairing it later. Air moving under the home picks up moisture from the ground and carries it away. Many NZ homes have inadequate sub-floor ventilation.

Another technique that is used by many people to dry their homes is to air them manually by opening windows and doors. But like many things, there are more and less effective ways to do this. The most effective way to air your home is to open it up for 10 to 20 minutes at the warmest time of the day. This is much better than leaving windows slightly open 24/7.

Finally, in order to avoid mould and mildew growth in our home we have taken a few simple steps with our furniture. I raised the low boy mentioned above with wood blocks to encourage airflow under it. Similarly I created a simple timber ‘spacer’ to move our bed away from a cold, south-facing wall. This allows airflow while keeping our pillows from falling through the gap. Win-Win.

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Peace, Estwing

Relevance and the 3 R’s

I’m a slow learner: it took me four years and 100,000 words to discover that relevance is a major factor for high school students learning science. Of course I knew this already from 14 years of teaching. It is just that academia required a little more evidence before it put a D and an R before my name.

For the sake of saving another four years I will go out on a limb and say that relevance is also a major factor for adult learners. In other words, “grown ups” do their best learning when they can recognise how that learning will impact their professional or personal lives.

In my experience as a sustainability educator working with adults I see this all the time. Over the last four years I have organised over 60 free or by-donation presentations and workshops in Wanganui on topics ranging from eco-renovation to growing food to permaculture to solar energy to programming a heat pump.

Why would 35 people recently crowd into the Wanganui Garden Centre on a Sunday afternoon to learn how to grow ripe tomatoes before Christmas without a glasshouse? Because they see its relevance.

An influential thinker on my doctoral research was Stephen Sterling from the University of Bath. He suggests that for sustainability learning to be sustained, it must be owned by the learner. In other words, the learner must want to learn.

Sterling also identifies different levels of change regarding an individual’s thinking about sustainability. First order change is doing more of the same but doing it better. Recycling is an example of this because it allows us to carry on our regular habits but just put the ‘waste’ into a different bin afterward.

He describes second order change as doing better things, such as reusing bags for shopping. The big step, however, is third order change: seeing things differently. An example of this from the 3 R’s would be reducing our consumer habits altogether.

Some of this may be relevant to those Chronicle readers who recently commented on Wanganui District Council’s decision on curbside (kerbside?!?) recycling. From what I read, many of the respondents appeared to see the relevance of curbside recycling to their lives and to our community.

Paul Brooks of the Midweek certainly recognizes the relevance of Referendum 06 and what he called “a clear mandate to go ahead with kerbside recycling” (Time to Recycle Result?, Midweek, 15-10-14). Brooks identified that “Councillors have said they want to save Wanganui ratepayers the extra cost of recycleables’ collection.”

Fair enough, but if the ratepayers voted for this service in 2006, would not that be an indication of the willingness to pay? On the other hand, I’m curious where the desire to save ratepayers money was when council decided to spend over $700,000 on a useless odour fence around the treatment plant.

As a researcher I look for patterns in ‘data’, and a consistent body of evidence suggests that WDC distances itself from exhibiting commitment to weighty sustainability initiatives. For example, in all of the articles about the new recycling centre council spokespersons consistently emphasized that no rates were spent to build it. Likewise, when insulation was put in some council housing the same emphasis was made – no rates were used.

It got me thinking: Is supporting recycling in our community a bad thing? Is helping low-income seniors live in warmer healthier homes a waste of money?

On no other types of projects have I observed such a consistent emphasis by council to distance itself from the appearance of financial commitment. For example, the arts are supported whole-heartedly with significant council funding with no apologies made. Of course I am not against the arts, I am just presenting patterns easily observable in our community.

Top eco-designers will tell you that money is rarely a barrier in projects, and more often the limiting factor is human will. I tend to agree with them. Here are a few examples.

The Second Annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend held two months ago involved hundreds of people and dozens of workshops and presentations. It had no budget.

Zero Waste Events, recently administered through Sustainability Whanganui, had its origins four years ago at the YMCA’s Connecting Families Day. It had no budget and saved the Y money.

In both cases human will carried more currency than cash.

Peace, Estwing

Keep Calm and Think Different, Part 6 – “Thinking Like a Swale”

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Last month I was invited to give a lecture on eco-design at a tertiary institution. As part of the lecture I provided background on why we should even bother to put the eco into design. Among the reasons was to build resilience to the predicted and observed effects of climate change: including increasingly severe weather events.

During the question and answer time a young woman tried to start a debate on climate change rather than ask questions about eco-design. Even before she said that her parents were farmers I could tell because she was parroting the same statements I’ve heard from farmers many times.

I steered the conversation back to eco-design and how a growing number of farmers are using it to their advantage to build resilience to drought and protect themselves financially. There are two primary examples of how this is done: 1) protecting waterways with fencing and plantings of trees and/or shrubs; 2) constructing swales.

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Bill Mollison’s quintessential swale. 

The young woman challenged these suggestions: “My parents can’t afford to do that.”

“Your parents can’t afford not to,” I replied.

Ask a farmer in California how expensive the current drought is for them.

Predicted and observed impacts of climate change include more frequent and severe droughts as well as more frequent and severe floods. On my farm I am preparing for both and would suspect any prudent, conservative farmer (like me) would do the same.

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Small-scale swale. 

A recent announcement by the UN climate science panel revealed that there are three areas where extreme weather will have the greatest effects, two of which are particularly pertinent to NZ: farming regions and coastal areas.

Here is a good time to pause and remind readers that I do not beat the drum for carbon reductions or engage in campaigns against cow farts. I am happy for others to do those things. In life we choose our battles and my battle is to try to convince as many people as possible that eco-design is smart design and anything else is wasteful and ignorant.

In recognition of River Week I’d like to focus the rest of this column on ecological water management and specifically what I call “Thinking like a swale.” A swale is an earthen berm that runs perpendicular to slope. It is perfectly level and therefore does not drain like a ditch.

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Garden built as a series of swales. 

A swale catches water in times of abundance and stores it in the earth. Instead of running off a property during heavy rains and adding to flooding, the water is held on the property in a giant underground ‘water tank.’ This stored water can be called upon in times of drought either from springs that form lower on the property or by the deep roots of certain trees whose foliage can be fed to stock.

In these ways a swale works like a bank account. Deposits are made in times of abundance and withdrawals are made in times of scarcity.

But “thinking like a swale” is not limited to water management. This type thinking relates directly to passive solar design: excess sunlight energy is collected and stored during the day in thermal mass and released at night as the indoor temperature drops.

What is easily the coolest example of thinking like a swale that I have come across recently is a project undertaken by my friend Sonam Wangchuk, an eco-design engineer and education reformer in Ladakh, India. As a way to develop resilience to the effects of climate change and protect the people of Ladakh, Wangchuk has used eco-design thinking and natural energy flows to develop a working model of a seasonal artificial glacier.

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Prototype Ice Stupa

The ingenious artificial glacier, nicknamed the “Ice Stupa,” takes excess winter stream water and freezes it into a giant mound using gravity and the natural sub-zero temperatures of the Trans-Himalaya. In springtime when water is most needed by farmers to germinate their seed in the fields the Ice Stupa provides early meltwater before the higher glaciers begin thawing in early summer.

Wangchuk is among the top eco-designers in the world, and this project is one of his best. To learn more about this amazing example of eco-design and support Wangchuk’s work, see the sidebar.

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Traditional stupas in Ladakh

To learn more about Wangchuk’s project, follow this link:  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice-stupa-artificial-glaciers-of-ladakh


Peace, Estwing