Permaculture Update: Sharing with Interns

We have been very busy lately on the farm and have three interns helping us recover from the June floods and preparing for a resilient future. Here is a picture of the largest slips on our property.

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I have counted 13 dead sheep on the neighbouring farm, including these two.

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The above slip was caused in part by water pooling up behind it. With a simple, shallow drain we are able to divert most of that water away from this vulnerable hillside.

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The drain is less than 10 metres long and only about 10 cm deep.

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The drain is just below this odd piece of geography on our farm. The fence goes up the hillside and then right back down.

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We will fence off this hillside and plant it to manuka.

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Elsewhere on the farm, we can see the second stage of ecological succession as ponga are growing underneath gorse, which stabilises the slopes and adds nitrogen to the soil. It will be taken over by native bush over time.

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Here is a view down the valley.

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Up the hill in zones 1-2-3, we have been busy propagating black currants…

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… feeding lambs…

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… brewing beer…

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…sniffing plum blossoms.

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Our mate, Simon, has brought this macrocarpa log over to mill into slabs.   Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 7.54.44 am

We were given this goat, Buster, on Friday.

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Kelly the intern has drawn a zone 1-2-3 map.

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Kaitiaki Farm.

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Peace, Estwing

Plagiarism, Praise, and Poplar Poles

Have you noticed that those who demand to be credited are often the last to give credit to others? It’s one of those odd paradoxes of life. However, with an increase in “intellectual property” lawyers and the corporations that hire them, it appears that the trend is going the other way. I heard recently that a fish n’ chips shop in the South Island called “The Cod Father” is being sued by a Hollywood studio.

Some may consider this an over-the-top reaction, but we may see more and more cases like this, with potentially significant impacts on New Zealand because of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal and a failure to take plagiarism seriously by some sectors of our society.

A prime example is the highly publicised 2009 case of plagiarism against Witi Ihimaera in a book entitled The Trowenna Sea. What was far more intriguing than the plagiarism itself was the response from Auckland University, expressing publicly that it was a small offence. Beyond that, vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon claimed in an email to staff and students that public comment on the matter of Professor Ihimaera’s indiscretion was ill-informed. Nonetheless, Ihimaera recalled all copies of the book.

At the time this story was in the news I was marking papers at another university and found plagiarism rampant among students. After spending hours tracking down and documenting each original source that went un-cited, the course convener advised me not to pursue any cases of academic dishonesty.

What surprised me at the time was that these two New Zealand universities took academic honesty less seriously than the high school where I used to teach in the States. In both university cases, administrators made the choice not to take plagiarism seriously.

Interestingly, I got the same response after I pointed out that a Wanganui District Council officer plagiarized significant sections of an opinion piece published in the Chronicle written under a WDC byline. Granted, WDC is not an academic institution but surely this is not a good look for council and would not inspire confidence among ratepayers.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with citing sources and it actually makes one’s argument more robust. At the same time giving credit where credit is due and acknowledging other’s great ideas and good work enhance one’s own work.

For example, during the renovation of our Castlecliff home I was generous with praise for our local building inspectors and the fundamental elements of the building code. Everyone we dealt with in Building Services was helpful and professional, and by renovating our home through the proper channels we were able to prove that a warm, dry, low-energy home does not have to be made of sticks and straw, and built in the wop wops without consent.

Another example is all the wonderful businesses and organisations that partnered with us to provide free and independent advice on healthy homes to our community. Shouting their praise gave Project H.E.A.T. (Home Energy Awareness Training) more credibility, not less.

Another organisation that deserves huge credit is Horizons Regional Council, and particularly the staff at the Wanganui office. It is difficult to heap enough praise on them and the vision of HRC on holistic watershed management. The professional advice I have received on a number of occasions has been invaluable and the three metre poplar poles delivered to my door are already protecting vulnerable slopes on our land and will ultimately reduce peak flood levels – albeit just a tiny bit – for our friends in Anzac Parade. Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.53.10 am

Finally, it is my pleasure to acknowledge Adult and Community Education Aotearoa for supporting Adult Learners Week – He Tangata Matauranga for the third year. Together we have been able to provide over 20 free workshops on topics ranging from growing fresh vege to understanding your power bill.

THANK YOU to all of these groups that make our community healthier and more resilient!


Adult Learners Week – He Tangata Matauranga

Sunday 6th 2-3 PM. Best Heating Options for Your Home, Central Library

Tuesday 8th 5-6 PM. Hot Composting, 223 No.2 Line

Wednesday 9th 4-5 PM. Reducing Heat Loss Through Windows, Gonville Café Library

Friday 11th 4-5 PM. Managing Moisture and Condensation, Gonville Café Library

Friday 11th 6:30 PM. Solar Energy, CANCELED

Saturday 12th 4:30-5:30 PM. Best Gardening Tools for You. Josephite Retreat Centre, 14 Hillside Tce.

Sunday 13th 4-5 PM. Tomatoes Before Christmas. Wanganui Garden Centre, 95a Gonville Ave.

Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 11

Editor’s Note: This is part of the continuing series on good home design from around the world.


In the last column I wrote about adding glazing to the northern side of an old, run down villa to increase the amount of free solar heating during the winter. Specifically, we made three of the windows larger and added French doors. At the same time, we reduced the amount of south-facing glazing by removing two windows and replacing them with insulated walls.

These steps were part of the process of creating a passive solar home while drawing on many of the examples of good home design that I have seen all around the world.

However, one of the main problems with passive solar design over the last four decades has been homes that overheat during winter because of too much north-facing glazing and not enough thermal mass. Thermal mass is the least understood aspect of passive solar design. I’ll do my best to explain it by comparing it to a rechargeable battery, but first some background.

During the 1970s some very well meaning hippies started building homes with heaps of glazing but overlooked the inclusion of thermal mass. The homes overheated during sunny winter days and the occupants had to open windows to let out some of that heat.

Here is where the battery analogy comes in. Thermal mass absorbs the extra heat (energy) during the day and stores it like charging a battery. Think of a curb or concrete stairs that have been in the sun all day long and retain some of that heat after sunset. If you touch them they are warm after the sun has disappeared.

To get an idea of what thermal mass is, think of water and anything that sinks in water. These things are “massive,” or in other words dense. In a home, common forms of thermal mass are concrete, bricks and tiles.

But don’t be confused by a home with brick cladding or stucco. The thermal mass must be inside of the home, not outside. Specifically, it must be inside of the building envelope, which includes the stud walls, windows and doors.

Another key aspect of thermal mass is that it should be struck directly by sunlight to be most effective. In the same way, rechargeable batteries work best when the charger is plugged into the power point!

With plenty of north-facing glazing and ample thermal mass, instead of overheating during a sunny winter day, the excess sunlight energy is stored in thermal mass during the day (charging the battery) and then slowly released at night as the home cools (discharging the battery). I am partial to thermal mass as a design element because there are no moving parts, and it effortlessly takes excess heat energy at one part of the day and tucks it away for another part of the day, or rather the “middle of the night.”

I hope that helps explain how thermal mass works. In the next column I will give some more examples.


Peace, Estwing

Juan Anton: Permaculturist Supremo!

The 2016 Permaculture Principles Calendar features Juan Anton on the cover. Here is a little more about him.


78 year old Juan Anton Mora runs 40 minutes several times a week. What is his secret? A healthy lifestyle and a wish to change the world must have played their part. Because the purpose of each of his actions is to “change the world”, or to be more precise, to fight hunger in the world. No less.



In New Zealand, calendars are available from The ECO School. Email  theecoschool at gmail dot com

Dodgy Tradesmen

The Irish builders have been copping it lately for substandard work during the Christchurch rebuild, but I reckon there is enough dodgy building work to go around. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Lesson Number One: Never trust a property inspector who says, “Yeah, the ceiling is insulated.”

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It wouldn’t take more than an inch of 40-year-old ‘insul-fluff’ for the average pre-purchase home inspector to tick the box for ceiling insulation. The average homebuyer would trust the property inspection report, buy the home, and then spend the next decade or more shivering in a cold home.

Don’t trust these guys on the topic of insulation. Here’s why: For the most part, they are the same people that built much of the low quality housing stock that New Zealand suffers from.

Think about it. A property inspector is a retired house builder. Most houses built in the last 50 years are under-insulated and cold. These are the guys we are trusting to assure us the large investment we’re about to make is fit for purpose. It’s a bit like allowing the Wall Street tycoons who crashed the world economy to be the guys to help ‘reform’ the financial system.

If you are looking to buy a home, make sure you bring a ladder and a torch. Pop your head above the ceiling. If you can see the ceiling joists then the ceiling is under-insulated. It does not mean you shouldn’t buy the home, but it might mean you can negotiate on price.

Lesson Number Two: Never trust a plumber or electrician to put insulation back in place after they have removed it to do work. Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 7.18.03 pm

Many of you reading this column right now are living in homes with small and large sections of the ceilings completely uninsulated. If you have had a sparky or a plumber in your ceiling cavity anytime during the last two decades, I strongly advise you to get a ladder and a torch, and to have a thorough look.

Recently I was shocked by the actions of a very experienced and very pricey plumber who did some work at our home. About three weeks after he left I had reason to visit the ceiling cavity to reload bait stations for mice, rats and possums. I was shocked to see a large amount – and I mean LARGE amount – of recently installed insulation piled up against the flue for our wood burner.

Aside from the portion of our ceiling that went three weeks without insulation, stacking batts against a flue is obviously a fire hazard. Negligent is the kindest word I would use to describe this particular plumber. Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 7.18.13 pm

Lesson Number Three: Don’t trust the New Zealand Building Code minimum levels of insulation. Note the key word is “minimum.”

Many houses built today are destined to be cold homes due to poor design and under-insulation even though they “pass inspection” according to the letter of the law.

The current building code “minimum” for ceiling insulation is R 2.9 for this region. That is not enough. Don’t settle for a minimally insulated home. By international standards R 2.9 is meager. Throw in a couple dozen down lights and you may as well be living in a 1950s state house.

The take away for all three lessons above is this: If you can see your ceiling joists at all then your ceiling is more than likely under-insulated. You’ll need to put the insulation back in place from the tradesmen’s visits and then top up with blanket insulation over the joists and existing insulation. We have topped up with R 3.6 and except for a negligent plumber we have a fairly cosy home.

Got the message? Get the ladder!

Don’t say you’ll do it next week because you won’t. Put down your paper right now. Put down your coffee. Get that ladder and go!


Peace, Estwing

Guest Post: Kelly on Planting Trees to Stabilise Slopes

Greetings everyone, this is our first blog post as interns at the Eco School. We hail from Portland, Oregon USA and just started our 1 year New Zealand working/learning/traveling experience. The main goal of our trip is to learn more about permaculture, sustainable living and to learn about, and give back to the local communities we visit.

Before arriving in Wanganui we heard there had recently been some flooding. We had no idea of the severity of this flood. When we arrived, about 6 weeks after the major flood, it looked like the river was still way above normal level. There were still traces of silt on the streets and in the grass of the parks. We walked into the i-Site, or tourist info center, and saw a red line on the pillar above our waist height marking that this was the highest flood level ever recorded in Wanganui history. As we drove up the hill to our new home for the next six weeks, it looked like a hungry giant had taken multiple bites out of them. There were slips and erosion occurring everywhere we looked.  Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 6.12.07 am

Slips far and wide. 

There is no doubt that climate change and many other factors have led to this disaster. The hills are wasting away and sometimes taking a couple of sheep with them. Some homes that were built too close to the edge looked like the Titanic going down. You can see the vast difference in the soil quality before and after the slip. Needless to say, there’s lots of work to do!

One of our tasks has been planting poplar trees. We planted 20 trees in various spots along the hillside near slip areas to help with erosion control. They also serve as wind breaks, moisture and flood control, and they can be used for animal fodder in drought season. Permaculture design rule: everything must serve at least three purposes, check.

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Poles above a slip. 

They were a cheap, easy to plant, low maintenance variety that was recommended by the council. At only $7 each, you get a 3 meter high tree. To plant them we dug out as small of a hole as possible that was about 60 cm deep. This sounds easier than it was, with the clay and moisture in the soil, we had to get down on hands and knees and stick our arms in up to our elbows to pull out the dirt. It would stick to the shovel so you’d have to kick it off with your boot. By the time we were done our boots were 5 kilos heavier! We stuck the tree in on one side of the rectangular hole so that the soil only had to be tamped on one side.

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Patrick tamping away. 

We then used top soil that was collected from the some of the slips to fill the holes. Most of the soil we dug out was clay, so the top soil will give the tree more organic material and a better chance at taking root. Then we tamped, stamped, tamped and packed some more. Got to make sure these guys don’t move until they’re roots are established.

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Poles in the ground.

One and a half days later, they’re in and ready to start growing, soaking up the extra moisture, rooting down the hillsides and protecting the beautiful land and animals at the farm. It feels good to be putting something back into nature.

Until next time, thanks for reading.


Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 10

For the last two and a half months I’ve shared examples of good home design from around the world. In a nutshell, good design includes using natural energy flows to heat and cool a structure. Natural energy flows include sunlight for winter warmth and wind for summer cooling.

A common term used for this approach to building homes is ‘passive design’. This approach to housing allows a well designed home to ‘just sit there’ and achieve comfortable temperatures year round with low power bills.

From desert to mountain, and from the tropics to cool temperate regions, I have included seven styles of homes so far in this column. For the eighth example I am offering a twist, because who in their right mind would include a 100 year-old New Zealand villa as an example of good home design?

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However, the process of transforming a cold, draughty villa into a cosy, warm home is only a matter of following the basic design principles from other high performance homes that we can see around the world. Just as a reminder, the basic design elements are these: solar gain, thermal mass, insulation, cross ventilation, and a centrally located fixed heating source.

The first challenge of turning a century-old villa into a passive solar home is increasing glazing to the north and decreasing glazing to the south. In other words, this means adding windows and/or glass doors to capture more winter sunlight and removing windows or glass doors that receive no direct winter sun.

This type of work is more than likely to require building consent, so make sure you do your homework. Special care must be taken to not compromise the bracing of the home or its weather tightness.

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Any northerly facing window is likely to provide an ample supply of free winter heating as long as the sun is not blocked by trees or neighbouring buildings. Once you have checked on potential winter shading, decisions can be made on increasing the amount of north facing glazing.

At the same time, southerly facing windows simply lose heat from a home almost continually from May through August. Replacing some of these cold windows with insulated walls will hold more warmth within a home, but remember all work needs to comply with the building code.

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Next week I’ll tackle the misunderstood issue of thermal mass.


Peace, Estwing