It’s All About Water

Met Service predicted 15 mm of rain for us last night – we got 3 mm. That just about sums up water – too little, too much, and unpredictable. And the prediction is for more unpredictability in rainfall in the future. With this in mind, we are in the process of trying to ‘climate-proof’ our property with regard to water.

There are places on the property where we want more water and places where we want less water. For example, high on the property we are holding water with a new water tank…

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… and building swales.

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Other places, we are trying to direct water away from structures… Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.27.46 AM

… and in this case away from a fence that is rotting because it has remained waterlogged for many years.

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Here is a batten rotting from the bottom upward.  Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.28.05 AM

The drainage around the house is especially appalling and has required major intervention, such as this.

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And this.

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And this.

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And this.

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Underneath the house looks like this – relocating water from the ‘high side’ of the house to the ‘low side’

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Three drains uphill of the house end up here – draining out and underneath a garden path.

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 Everyone loves Water!Screen shot 2015-01-01 at 9.29.38 AM


Peace, Estwing

World’s Best Garlic

It has been a long and cloudy spring but summer is finally here. We have staggered our garlic harvest over three weeks due to three different plantings in June and July. On the new property it was a rush to even get the garlic in the ground before August.

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But with some help we managed to get about 800 in (on?!?) the ground.

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It was a dry winter so we had to water a little, but the heavy mulch did a great job of suppressing weed competition and ground evaporation.

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Although we got this garlic in 3 weeks later in July, we harvested only one week late because of the greater hours of sunlight in December. The first thing to do is pull a few bulbs and check to see if the cloves are separating or the skin is starting to split.

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Then go hard and get it out of the ground.

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Yow! This couch grass grew right through this bulb.

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I hang our garlic for three weeks to cure and then cut off the stalk. The bulbs can keep for up to 12 months, but many will only last 10. We sell much of our garlic at the local market on Saturday mornings in the city.  People who love to cook appreciate great garlic. It is a niche crop that serves the small holder fairly well.  Screen shot 2014-12-30 at 7.40.27 AM

Peace, Estwing

2014: Signs of Progress

At this time last year I reflected on what appeared to have been the Year of Eco-Thrifty. The Auckland teenager who goes by ‘Lorde’ rocketed to international fame with her song Royals, which rejects the excesses promoted by many others in popular music. Similarly an American rapper who also goes by one name, Macklemore, got considerable radio airtime with his quirky-but-catchy song, Thrift Shop. Finally, Pope Francis spent much of 2013 promoting messages of conservation and thrift, and even took on the beast of wealth inequality.

That was then, this is now. What about 2014? From my observations, Francis has been quieter this year, but certainly not inactive. The recent news that the US would be “normalizing” relations with Cuba came as a surprise to many. Likewise, that Francis had been working behind the scenes to facilitate communication between the two countries also came as a surprise.

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But the more we get to know him the less of a surprise these types of things become. In a word, Pope Francis is progressive. From my perspective, that is about as much as we can ask of anybody these days.

In this world, you are either going forward, going backward, or standing still. If you are a keen observer of current events, you may recognize that standing still is not an option any more.

Take climate change as an example. Doing nothing is not an option for those who believe in peer reviewed science and are concerned about the world their grandchildren will inhabit. The recent agreement between China and the USA on carbon emissions can be seen as progress. Baby steps are important. Screen shot 2014-12-27 at 5.37.19 AM

On the home front, it has been refreshing to hear a couple of District Councillors speaking in progressive terms and even using the word “progressive” in public. It is especially encouraging that some Councillors can reflect on their decisions and change their minds. This is a sign of great progress for our community. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step…

In the year to come let’s hope our community can make progress on a number of important issues such as resilience, inequality, health and the wastewater treatment plant. I suspect it will be difficult for us to progress as a community until there is some accountability for the monumental failure of the treatment plant and the ridiculous decision to spend close to a million ratepayers’ dollars squirting perfume into the air next to a windy coastline. Wouldn’t it be amazing for someone to put up his or her hand and say, “I’m sorry, and that type of bad decision will never happen again”? That would be real progress. Screen shot 2014-12-27 at 5.42.03 AM

Finally, I understand our city is looking for a new slogan and that some moderate progress has been made. To help the process along, here are a few suggestions:

Welcome to Wanganui: H me, Bro!

Welcome to Whanganui: No Longer ‘Family Friendly’

Welcome to Whanganui: Slogans Welcome

Welcome to Whanganui: Lawless


Welcome to Whanganui: The Bhutan of New Zealand*

* The mountain kingdom of Bhutan has become known for its measure of Gross National Happiness as opposed to the reductionist measure of Gross National Product used by most nations. Thanks to Cr. Martin Visser and his progressive ideas about quality of life in our awesome River City and the work he has done with the Social Progress Index.

This outside-of-the-square thinking is refreshing after the uninspired drone of “growth, growth, growth” we have been hearing for years. Here’s hoping 2015 brings more progress on this and other fronts for this beautiful place we all call home.

Peace, Estwing



World’s Best Garlic!

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the REBS stall at the River Market

A Free Range Childhood, Part 2: Cultivating Action

Richard Louv is a journalist and author who recently spoke in our River City. He advocates for children spending more time in “the woods” as North Americans call wild places with lots of trees.

I did not hear him speak in W(h)anganui, but went to a talk he presented at Dartmouth College (USA) eight or nine years ago. From what I remember, he was full of facts, figures, and statistics as any good journalist would be. From what I gather he shared the same type of information during his talk here, although presumably updated.

It is not difficult to document the loss of wild places near residential housing. Nor is it difficult to document the time children spend in front of screens instead of playing in “the woods.”

But like most journos I have known over the last two decades – Chronicle staff excepted, of course – he only tells part of the story. To illustrate this point, I have to begin with a question: For what purpose should we be striving to “reconnect kids and nature”? In other words, why bother?

Here are a few answers I have heard:

To decrease behaviour problems

To get kids “out of the house”

To help develop observation skills

To encourage “respect for nature”

To ingrain an “environmental ethic”

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In my opinion, the primary purpose of providing abundant opportunities for children to spend time in nature would be as part of a greater scheme to encourage the development of ecological literacy. Simply “reconnecting kids with nature” is not sufficient, and here is where Louv misses the rest of the story.

We know that spending time in nature is insufficient to develop ecological stewards or Kaitiaki of the planet because the generations of human beings who caused the environmental degradation we now face spent considerably more time in the natural world than the current generation of children. We may have fond memories, but they do not necessarily translate into sustainable behaviours.

Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the current generation of young adults – sometimes called Millennials or Generation Y – embrace much more sustainable lifestyles than Baby Boomers in spite of having spent less time in “the woods.” What is also interesting in that despite their eco-friendly lifestyles, most Millennials do not self-identify as “environmentalists.” Good on them.

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What could possibly explain this apparent contradiction in Louv’s “Nature Deficit” argument? The answer is simple: Recycling. Here is what I mean from a big picture perspective.

In places like New Zealand, most people who engage in sustainable behaviours do so out of a certain level of ecological literacy, which consists of environmental knowledge, an attitude of care, and the ability to act.

Don’t laugh, taking action is a real skill and goes right to the heart of the apparent difference between Boomers and Millennials. Many Millennials had educational experiences in primary school that included learning how to take action on environmental issues while most Boomers did not. The classic example is recycling.

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If you are over 50 or under 30, ask yourself this question: Was there a recycle bin in your classroom?

Learning to take action is equally important to learning to care, but neither is part of what an assessment-driven education system demands: learning da facts! As parents and teachers who want to do our best to raise sensitive children who engage positively with their environment and community, it is essential that we do not take Louv’s prescription as comprehensive but rather as part of a much larger and ongoing learning process. If we miss the big picture, then nature walks run the risk of tokenism, and we will fail to prepare this generation of children for what is predicted to be an increasingly volatile world with greater pressure on limited natural resources.

To be continued…

Peace, Estwing

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Verti’s Free-Range, Local, Organic Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the River Traders Market

Early Summer Permaculture Update

This is the difference between climate and weather: while 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record globally, we have had a long, cool, windy winter/spring here in the lower north island. The winds have been nearly relentless for the last 3 months, but the hours of daylight have increased on schedule. I’m getting up 5:00 or 5:30 am everyday now.

The biggest indicator of the cool weather is that our tomatoes are behind schedule.  Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 7.35.26 AM

Last year we had ripe tomatoes on the 13th of December. Two years ago it was the 20th. This year we might get them by Christmas. But it looks like we will definitely have courgettes by the weekend.

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We will certainly have potatoes for Christmas.

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Long term, we have pumpkins forming on the vine.

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We finally got the chook tractor into the fledgling food forest.

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Those birds have a big job to do.

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This apple has been transplanted from our last property.

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We also transplanted this dwarf nectarine. I thinned the fruit so we’re hoping to get a few good sized ones in the new year.

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Peace, Estwing

A Free-Range Childhood, Part 1

It is hard to be a child in 2014. The pressures and distractions of adulthood inevitably trickle down to children who often suffer the effects of mum’s and dad’s increasingly digital lifestyles. At a time when research shows what young children need most is quality time with their parents, the trend is in the other direction.

For some reason I have always been fascinated with this type of tension between extremes. Perhaps this is why I gravitated toward Buddhism, which is based on the story of a royal prince who takes a vow of poverty and then finds a middle way. Screen shot 2014-12-12 at 2.28.40 PM

Verti finds her Middle Way. 

In common language we call the middle way a “balanced life.” My observation is that it is hard to achieve and getting harder all the time. As a social science researcher I am fascinated by the way people live their lives, especially when certain behaviours run contrary to what they report to be their values. In other words, there is a dynamic tension between what we do and what we think we ought to do.

From my observations there was a similar dynamic tension at the centre of the A Place to Live Conference recently held in W(h)anganui. I chose not to spend $1,000 to attend the three-day conference, so my perspective is based only on what has come through the media.

It appears that the conference had a significant focus on refuting Shamubeel Eaqub’s recent comments, which came through at times in what Kim Hill identified as “boosterism” during her radio show. Fair enough. Most of us love living here and are not afraid to say it. I love living in W(h)anganui and “boost” it at every opportunity.

But at the same time I am not afraid to critically reflect on our city in an attempt to make it even better. We hear from various sectors of our community the desire to change, but without critical reflection we are destined to stay the same. In the spirit of critical self-reflection, here is some food for thought.

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Verti in a moment of reflection. 

On the one hand, the keynote speaker brought from America for the conference, Richard Louv, promoted the value of children spending time in nature. On the other hand, numerous speakers representing Whanganui promoted the digital world and ultra-fast broadband.

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with either of these messages, placing them side-by-side presents us with what is probably the most difficult proposition facing humanity: our ongoing disconnection with nature caused largely by our increasing connectivity with technology. We are separating en masse from our life support system (Earth) in favour of a tech support system (Microsoft).

As difficult as it is for adults to find balance between Mother Earth and motherboard, I suggest it is infinitely harder for children. They are so easily dazzled by the colours, sounds, and movements of passive screen entertainment.

If we as parents, teachers and a Whanganui community wish to instill an abiding love and respect for nature in our children, it will be a monumental task made all the more difficult by the increasing role of technology in our lives. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact.

I know this because my wife and I have spent the last 27 months trying to raise a free-range child with an active, independent mind. It has been damn hard work. Yes, at times it feels like work, but if you know our daughter, Verti, you know that at two she is already an inquisitive, creative problem-solver. Screen shot 2014-12-12 at 2.28.57 PM

Verti engaged in play – imitating papa.

Our simple formula is based on research in brain development: 1) no screen technology before age three; 2) constantly talking to her from day one; 3) providing her with opportunities for creative, independent play.

The aim is not to raise a Luddite child – technology will inevitably come. The aim is to prepare a human being who is best able to consider a vast array of competing factors and choose her own middle way.

To be continued…


Peace, Estwing

Call Me “Miyagi.”

We have had a half dozen interns over the last four years. They have all been excellent. We are grateful for the time they have spent with us.

In the first week we teach them a couple of core skills, which include turning a hot compost pile and pulling nails. These skills represent the two “metabolisms” that William McDonough has identified: biological and technical.

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In my opinion, these also teach respect for materials and humility. This week our new intern, Camila, said, “You are like Mr. Miyagi and I am like Daniel-san.”

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Here is Camila practicing her technique.

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“Wax on.”

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“Wax off.” 

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“Like this, Grasshopper.”

Here are our other interns hard at work.

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John, 2011.

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Amy, 2011

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Tommy, 2011

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Jiquao, 2012

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Xander, 2013

I believe it is a great privilege and responsibility to work with interns. For the process to be successful, all involved must see the benefits. In nature we call this “mutualism,” a mutually-beneficial relationship between two organisms where both are better off.

Peace, Estwing

Four-Dimensional Eco-Design

“If you want to build a better future, you must believe in secrets.”

This is the provocative sentence that greeted me when I clicked on the page for Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future. Written with Blake Masters, it has been favourably reviewed by a number of sources and made its way to The New York Times Best Sellers List.

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I first became aware of the book a couple of months ago while listening to a radio interview. The phrase that caught my attention at the time was, “How do you develop the developed world?” In my opinion, eco-design is key to answering this question.

Eco-design has secrets that must be believed. It is inherently holistic, dynamic and future-focused. One of the things I love about eco-design is that it evolves alongside changing conditions rather than remaining static. I refer to this as four-dimensional design as mentioned in last week’s column about food forests.

Time – the fourth dimension – is an integral part of eco-design in two primary ways: 1) repeating cycles such as day and night, or the changing of seasons; 2) progressive change over time such as ecological succession.

In either case, eco-design is dynamic enough to adapt to the conditions whatever they may be. From this perspective I would suggest that eco-design inspires a level of confidence in that it involves feedback loops and is always open to adjustments. This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. sums it up:

“Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.”

I have faith in eco-design.


OK, enough with the flowery language. Let’s get to some examples.

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Passive solar design makes homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer while cutting operating costs. The main factor in this win-win-win system is seasonal sun angles. A passive solar home is designed to welcome low angle winter sun while excluding high angle summer sun – all with no moving parts. The structure itself is built for seasonal change and day-night cycles.

Another example of four-dimensional design is the lazy conversion of lawn into vege garden.

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By taking it step-wise over time, the total amount of physical labour is minimized by letting nature do most of the “heavy lifting” although in this case it’s digging/tilling.

With heavy, compacted soils like we have on our property, a good way to decompress the earth is to plant potatoes. At the same time, adding organic matter helps to lighten clay soils by increasing biological activity. As the potatoes grow taller, we mulch them with more organic matter, which gives us a larger harvest of spuds while contributing even more organic matter to the new garden bed.

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Preparing the beds.

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Sprouting spuds.

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Garden taking shape.

Another aspect of holistic eco-design comes into play when assessing a potential garden area for low-maintenance and high-productivity. The design of our new kitchen garden concentrates fertility where we want food to grow (the beds) while removing it from where we do not want weeds to grow (the paths).

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One final note of four-dimensional design: Three weeks ago I mentioned a project being undertaken by my friend in Ladakh, India, called the Ice Stupa Project.

It was my intention to share this amazing project with the Whanganui community by giving a short presentation. That does not look like it is going to happen, but I urge you to check out the Ice Stupa Project on the internet and to watch the inspiring short film on Youtube, “The Monk, The Engineer, and the Artificial Glacier.” Screen shot 2014-12-06 at 7.14.28 AM

This project represents a gold standard of eco-design and could be the most inspiring thing you see all year. The crowd-funding page for this project on is called, “Ice Stupa Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh.”


Peace, Estwing