Understanding Nature: Toddlers, Trees, TPPA

Eco Design is about working with nature instead of against it. Nature, in this case however, can mean many different things. For example, it may refer to natural ecosystems and how they maintain a dynamic balance. But it can also refer to sun angles and hours of daylight that fluctuate seasonally. This can be referred to as a natural energy flow.

Nature, from an eco design perspective, can also refer to the behaiviour of animals such as chickens. In this case, we often speak in terms of “a chicken’s nature” to scratch up the mulch in a vege garden.

Believe it or not, even my two and a half year old daughter has a nature, and for the most part it is a nature to imitate and to help. As parents we can choose to work with her nature or work against it at our peril. As a father and designer, I constantly design experiences that channel my daughter’s nature for good instead of evil.

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Trees have a nature, and different trees have different natures. For example, it is in the nature of plane trees to block drains and crack pavement. To quote Wilson Street business owner Tony Swain from Monday’s Chronicle, “The council has just planted the wrong type of trees.”

Step one of eco design (also step one of common sense) is to plant the right tree in the right place. What a crack up it was to read the explanation from Wanganui District councillor Ray Stevens in Monday’s Chronicle that the trees were planted back when Wilson Street was residential. Is this to imply that the trees would not grow into the sewerage pipes of private residences or block storm drains in a residential street? This excuse for council’s mistake makes no sense, and appears to support the Wilson Street business owners’ feelings that “council was not listening.”

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Although trees have their nature, this is not to say that a tree’s nature cannot be channeled just like a toddler’s. For example, we have heard from a number of sources that the plane trees around the city used to pollarded regularly to control their growth.

Another example involves the training and pruning of fruit trees. The nature of most trees is to grow to the sky, which is a problem for the safe and easy harvesting of fruit. ‘Channeling’ branches to grow sideways instead of upward involves two steps. First we train the branches with twine and stakes (see photo), and then we prune to an outward-facing bud. The tree is still a tree, but by working within the confines of its nature we make it more ‘user-friendly.’

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Finally, it is in the nature of corporations to maximize profits. In fact, it is their one and only mandate. There is not social mandate. There is no environmental mandate. There is no cultural mandate. There is only the profit mandate.

Understanding this nature of corporations, does it make any sense to readers that we allow them to negotiate a major trade agreement in secret? As a democracy, does it make sense for citizens and voters to stand by and allow the current government to sign onto this secret trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) – without expressing our justifiable caution?

Mr. Key has stated that the October election was a mandate from the voters for the beliefs and policies of the National Party. Is it in the nature of New Zealanders to accept this and wait another three years? Or is it in our collective nature to voice concerns through all the channels of democracy?


Peace, Estwing

A Permaculture Day at the Beach

On Friday a mate called me to say there was heaps of seaweed washed up at Castlecliff Beach. This is quite rare.         Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 7.07.57 AM

It wasn’t until Sunday that I got a chance to get there, so we made a morning of it. Verti and Luna and I went to the beach and mama stayed home.

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Verti had so much fun playing in the sand.

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I had a good surf on my SUP, and then we started collecting seaweed.

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We loaded the car.

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Tied everything securely.

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Buckled everyone in.

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When we got home we added the seaweed to our compost piles straight away. We have two piles at the moment that are larger then 1 cubic metre.

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The blue hose in the picture above is putting water into the pile as we have had lots of dry weather lately.

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It was a perfect permaculture half-day getting “multiple functions” out of our trip to the beach.

Peace, Estwing

Reality, No TV: Our First Home

Our First Home is the name of a new programme on TV One. I have not seen it, but I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’ve seen plenty of programmes along the same lines and ‘been there / done that’ myself. Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 10.19.36 AM

It’s all about the drama. Renovating an old home is stressful. Living in it while renovating is especially stressful. Apparently it makes for great TV.

Our first home was in Castlecliff. The condition we found it was far worse than any house on Our First Home or The Block NZ. There were no TV cameras to document the drama, although a Chronicle reporter and photographer turned up in December, 2010 to see what we were up to.

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We started our blog – www.ecothriftydoup.blogspot.com – in October, 2010 and have posted at least once every week since then. Last year we upgraded and expanded the blog: www.ecothriftylife.wordpress.com. The central premise behind our work is living within limits both financial and ecological.

Programmes like The Block NZ and Our First Home are based on the premise of “the property ladder,” which we don’t really have in our River City. From my observations we have more of a property step stool at best, and in some cases a hole in the floor. At the moment it is an unrealistic expectation to borrow money to do up a kitchen and bathroom, and expect to recoup the costs upon resale. This sets us dramatically apart from those doer uppers in Auckland, although there is still some common ground. Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 10.08.03 AM

According to the ourfirsthome website, the “Expert Tips” for Week One include:

  • Try to face living areas north with indoor/outdoor flow to add value.
  • Indoor/outdoor flow is a key…point.
  • Heating is important.
  • Privacy and seclusion add value.

If my editors would allow me use all caps for an entire sentence it would be this:

I would never consider buying a home with living spaces to the south and bedrooms to the north. Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 10.08.12 AM

Wait, I take that back. If I were to return to the Northern hemisphere I certainly would! But with a climate like the Whaganui region has, a home with the living spaces to the south is bass ackwards. Even the TV One “Experts” say that “Heating is important,” and free heating from the sun is the most important of all.

Free heating from the sun – aka passive solar design – goes alongside the indoor/outdoor flow that should accompany the northerly living spaces. Our first home in Castlecliff has the additional advantages of a private and secluded section at the end of a cul-de-sac. The flow is from kitchen to kitchen garden, through French doors, across a deck and past the outdoor pizza oven.

We planted the backyard with native trees for wind protection and fruit trees for healthy food production. The combination adds privacy and seclusion to that quintessential indoor/outdoor flow of contemporary Kiwi lifestyles whether in overpriced Auckland or affordable Wanganui.

But please don’t be tempted by what you see on TV to overextend your finances with the false expectation that “property prices only go up.” All bubbles burst. The Aucklanders will learn this too, and some will wish they bought here instead.


Peace, Estwing

Just Another Sunday on the Farm

I got a call this morning at 7:30 from my mate. He said, “I knew you’d be up because you have a 2-year old. I’ve got some goats I shot yesterday. Can I bring them over?”

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And just like that, my plans for Sunday morning took a dramatic turn.

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Goats are considered a pest in New Zealand and hunting is seen to be good for the native ecology. Eating the meat is a good use of the carcass.

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Although the carcass is actually very lean on a ‘wild’ animal.

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This meat saw I got at the auction came in very handy.

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Simon was a master at butchering the meat.

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We got a roast on the solar cooker straight away.

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Simon had no use for the hides so we decided to return them to the earth via our compost pile.

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We layered up plenty of wood shavings and sheep manure to ensure a very hot compost – over 60 degrees Celcius.

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The pile is well over one cubic metre and should make a beautiful compost in about three weeks time.

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Peace Estwing

Best Tool in the Shed

I am impressed by the number of families in our region that are embracing permaculture landscape design and management. I have been out and about across the city and around the region advising couples who live on small sections, large sections and lifestyle blocks.

If busy is the new black, then call me midnight. But I’m not complaining. What a pleasure it is to share my experience and enthusiasm for eco-design with a wide range of people who see the clear benefits of low-input / high performance systems.

During a consultation the first things I ask are: What is your vision? What are your motivations?

Last weekend I was working with a lovely couple on their lifestyle block and they said one of their motivations was to “work smarter, not harder.” As a former market gardener, that phrase runs through my head like mantra. When I am working my land it is an automatic way of operating. How else can I get 12 hours of chores done in 8 hours?

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In my opinion, the key to working smarter is good design, and the best designs are holistic and four-dimensional. (Time is the fourth dimension.) For a market gardener, four-dimensional design conjures up another mantra: tools, timing, technique. In other words, using the right tool at the right time in the right way.

For example, I would never use a pitchfork to turn a large compost heap – way too much work!

Ironically, the best tool for low-effort / high production vege gardening is essentially unknown in New Zealand. It is the best tool you have never heard of: the stirrup hoe. Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.22.48 AM

I have been using stirrup hoes for over a decade. When it comes to managing my annual vege gardens I use the stirrup hoe for roughly 80 percent of my entire tool use. In other words, when I pick up a tool, four times out of five it is a stirrup hoe, and the other time it is any other tool in the shed. This dominance is akin to the All Blacks who have held the world number one ranking for over 80% of the time and all other nations combined have held it for less than 20%. Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.24.21 AM

So why haven’t you heard of the stirrup hoe? Probably spending too much time weeding your garden!

Like a torpedo hoe or Dutch hoe, it is a surface weeder with the advantage that the leading edge always digs into the soil because it pivots between pushing and pulling. This back-and-forth motion accounts for its other name: the oscillating hoe.

That’s the tool, now what about the timing? Sorry, another mantra: “Once a week, every week, on a sunny, windy day.” Screen shot 2015-02-13 at 10.24.27 AM

Gently working the soil surface back and forth uproots tiny weeds as soon as they germinate. The sun and wind desiccate them within hours and they simply remain on the surface until they decompose back into the earth. Ninety-nine percent of my weeding is done without ever bending over.

As you can imply from the description above, the technique involved is gently working the soil surface – 10 to 15 mm deep only. The tool is held with the lightest of touch between your hands. It reminds me of my childhood when I spent spring afternoons raking the long jump sand pit for my father who was a track coach.

After about six weeks the soil surface is essentially devoid of weed seeds. That’s when another tool comes in handy: a bottle opener. Sit back, relax and enjoy a cool drink as you admire the immaculate vege garden. That’s working smarter!




Sustaining Sustainability: No Easy Task

In my experience, the sustainability movement suffers in two primary ways: misinterpretation and low stamina.

On the first point, we hear local officials yammering on about “sustainable growth” when in fact there is no such thing. What they mean is sustaining growth, which is the dominant message we get from the WDC despite advice to the contrary from economics experts. Of course Council has every right to put forth any message it wants, but it would be most helpful not to confuse things by placing the words sustainable and growth next to one another.

On the second point – low stamina – we see many sustainability initiatives ultimately fail in the long run. They may start with a bang but often end with a fizzle. In other words, it is very hard to sustain sustainability.

With the rise of digital cameras, smart phones, and social media such a Facebook, we have seen a proliferation of cool photos of tidy gardens and interesting things made out of shipping palettes taken on the day they were built – looking all shiny and new. These often go viral with likes and re-likes and shares and re-shares.

I am always left wondering, “What will they look like after two years?” Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 11.19.05 AM

Doing a one-off project is easy. Maintaining it for the long term is hard. By definition, sustainability relates to the latter, and this is where I have seen it fall down time after time due to lack of stamina.

For a few years I have been watching fruit trees die at a poorly designed community garden at the top of Carson Street. Knowing their ultimate fate, I asked if I could distribute the suffering trees to homes around the Castlecliff community. I was told no. Finally, after all but three of the fruit trees had died I was given permission to rescue the survivors. I dug the trees from the abandoned garden and relocated them. Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 11.14.48 AM

Experiences like this have provided me with a realistic caution when approached by groups or individuals to get involved with this or that project. I always say yes, but I am no longer as free and generous with my time as I once was.

On the other side of the coin, however, I have developed an increased level of respect for projects that have stood the test of time, especially those that are sustained by voluntary efforts. Some examples in our fair city include the River Exchange and Barter System (REBS), the Sustainable Whanganui Trust, Mark Christensen’s weekly working bees, and our annual Permaculture Weekend.

Aside from extraordinary volunteer efforts, the other way to sustain sustainability is to make it institutional. In other words make it part of the kaupapa of an organization. In order for this to happen there needs to be strong leadership, a member of the organisation who will take it on, and good design.

A local example of this is the New Zealand Masters Games. During the 2013 edition of the Games in Whanganui a successful recycling effort diverted over 19 jumbo bins of rubbish from landfill. We hope to replicate this 95% recovery rate of materials this year, but it would be impossible without strong leadership and support from within the organisation. Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 11.14.20 AM

With another world-class waste management result this year, the deeper the kaupapa of waste minimisation permeates the event, just as it has done with SKIP Wanganui’s annual Children’s Day. At some point the discussion changes from, “Should we do recycling and composting again this year?” to “This is what we do.” That is the point at which sustainability is sustained.

Peace, Estwing

How I Spent My Sunday: Part II

Last week I wrote about spending my Sunday putting 5 extra piles under the floor to take the weight of our new wood burning cook stove and the new hot water cylinder.

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This Sunday I started framing a platform for the hot water cylinder where an old laundry tub had leaked and rotted the floor.

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I pulled out the rotted bits and decided I should insulate the wall.

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I lined the wall inside what will be the hot water cupboard with 800 mm of plywood to serve as bracing for extra earthquake protection.  Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 3.34.07 PM

I had to cover the hole in the floor, so I used a sheet of sub-flooring I got from a building supplies recycler for $5, and then started building the stand for the cylinder.

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The cylinder weighs about 35 kg, so getting it on the one-metre high stand took a little grunt.  Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 3.34.26 PM

The cylinder has to be higher than the “wetback” water heater.  Specifically, it needs to have a rise over run of 1 to 7. Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 3.35.34 PM

The platform also has another purpose.

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It is a great playhouse for a 2 & 1/2 year-old.

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Fun was had by all.


Peace, Estwing