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Water Quality: Designing for Win-Win-Win

A recent poll reveals water pollution is the top issue of concern in New Zealand. Climate change ranks not far behind.

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Here are a pair of articles I have written for NZME (the Whanganui Chronicle) about how we can use good design to address both issues while building more resilient farms.

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Published 2nd September, 2019.

Dr. Nelson Lebo

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

These words, attributed to Toni Morrison, have been echoing in my mind ever since I heard them in a recent tribute to the late poet. In one sentence she’s able to explain the hydrologic cycle, surface water runoff, groundwater movement, flooding, land drainage, waste water systems design, guttering and spouting, and even spilt milk.

The best I’ve come up with is “Water never lies.” That’s how I help our farm interns understand topographic landforms, overland flow paths, drainage and swales.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way water moves across the land – one of those kids forever playing on piles of soil with buckets of water. I had great difficulty learning to read at school but somehow could read the landscape effortlessly.

When introduced to topographic maps at age 15, I took to them easily as my classmates floundered with the concept. Contour lines sprang into three dimensions before my eyes while peers saw them only as so many squiggles. They scored A’s on spelling tests as I scored C’s.

For the next decade I spent a lot of time trekking and trip leading, and in one instance relied on my map reading and navigation to lead a group of students out of the Smoky Mountains during a freak spring snowstorm that dumped over a metre in 36 hours.

It was not long after that when my understanding of landforms took a leap forward one evening at a presentation by a local naturalist and university lecturer, Tom Wessels, who had just published a book: Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Wessels helped me understand the role that life plays in helping shape the landscape and specifically the role of trees.

Not long after that I spent my life savings on a small farm in rural New Hampshire that consisted of steep slopes, glacial till, a 220 year-old farmhouse and pit toilet. It was exceptionally cheap, but served as an invaluable tutor over the next eight years as I floundered toward the good life.

These are the memories that played across my mind last month while planting poplar poles on a hillside above Purua Stream in Okoia. Having already planted 125 on our land over the last four years, I was able to take my time and carefully choose exactly where to place these last 15.

Extreme weather events worsened by climate change were also on my mind. The overriding goal for our small farm is resilience to both heavy rainfall and drought. By planting more trees we address both, but this is only part of the equation. The other parts are shrinking our carbon footprint and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere.

Along those lines we’re planning to build a super efficient dwelling along with an innovative wastewater treatment system. Passive solar home design is well recognised so I won’t address it here but instead will focus on water.

Much of rural New Zealand suffers from water pollution but it’s not just cows. Older septic systems are failing and because of the high cost of upgrading to modern standards many people choose not to. A friend recently told me how bad the situation is.

Regular Chronicle readers will know that I’ve been writing about eco-thrifty approaches to building and renovating since 2011, and this is no exception. Having studied rural wastewater systems intensively for the last year I’ve adapted a European design to local conditions that addresses not only treatment for health and environmental standards but also carbon capture from the atmosphere.

In most cases wastewater is considered a pollutant and disposal is all about mitigating negative effects. I take the opposite view: it’s a valuable resource that should be harnessed for positive effects. This perspective represents a shift from what designer William McDonough describes as moving from “eco-efficient” to “eco-effective.”

Eco-efficiency is about being less bad while eco-effectiveness is about being good. Which would you prefer?

Additionally, the wastewater design is more affordable to build and has a much lower carbon footprint than others. That is the type of win-win-win approach the world needs in these turbulent times, because water never forgets and nature bats last.

Byline: Nelson Lebo enjoys playing in the mud with his children.

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Published 16th September, 2019

Dr. Nelson Lebo

The New South Wales government has announced it will spend $10 million to relocate native fish from the Lower Darling, which is experiencing low water levels and facing a long Australian summer with little rain forecast. Researchers indicate the causes are climate change and water extraction by irrigators upstream, resulting in an expensive “Noah’s Ark” type intervention funded by tax payers with no guarantee of success.

This is the type of lose-lose-lose situation humanity increasingly faces worldwide: environmental disruption accompanied by poor resource management resulting in an expensive Band Aid response.

Observations suggest these scenarios result from a failure to connect the dots or see The Big Picture. This is often called “reductionist thinking” or “tunnel vision.” It is the opposite of holistic thinking, and leads to a whole lot of costly mopping up afterwards. It’s a waste of time, resources and money. I hate waste!

The most effective way to address waste I have come across was popularized by William McDonough as Cradle-to-Cradle design in which his motto became “waste equals food.” A fortnight ago I introduced how McDonough designs with the goal of “eco-effectiveness” rather than “eco-efficiency,” or, in other words, being good rather than being less bad.

This approach to design requires a holistic perspective and a clear set of desired outcomes. When I design systems I seek to achieve the following: robustness, resilience, effectiveness, affordability, easy replication, and low resource input.

Take wastewater for example. In most cases it’s considered a pollutant and disposal focuses on mitigation. I take the opposite view: it’s a resource that can be harnessed for positive effects.

I’m in the finishing stages of designing a land application system from greywater that turns waste into food by using the effluent to ‘fertigate’ (fertilize and irrigate) willows* and other plants as part of a greater land management plan on our farm that involves growing food, sequestering carbon and building resilience to climate change. This approach to farming is called regenerative agriculture.

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Central to our management plan is growing more trees and feeding them to goats while protecting slip prone hillsides and unstable stream banks. This is a win-win-win farm plan in and of itself, but the greywater design adds to the overall productivity and resilience of the land while offering affordable, effective replication on other properties as needed.

The system addresses environmental challenges in these ways:

1) By using coarse woodchips instead of mined aggregate as the bedding material, the carbon footprint of building the system is reduced through eliminating the need to mine and transport aggregate over potentially long distances. Woodchips, on the other hand, are a local resource everywhere in New Zealand and can be processed and transported using relatively little fuel. Additionally, aggregate is a non-renewable resource while woodchips are renewable.

2) While serving as an aerobic media for the biological treatment of greywater the woodchip bedding material is stored as a carbon sink.

3) Fast-growing willows sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while also taking up nitrates and phosphates from the wastewater.

4) The system is designed to be affordable and to encourage those living rurally to engage in a lower cost upgrade rather than continuing to use substandard systems or upgrading to an inadequate system. Redirecting greywater takes pressure off existing wastewater systems and extends their lives, thus reducing costs and dispersing wastewater over broader areas of land. (It’s possible this approach can also be used for stock effluent.)

5) Willow branches are fed to stock (in our case goats) which takes pressure off grazing during summer months and helps prevent the need for buying in feed during droughts.

In a nutshell, this land application system is easy and inexpensive to build; adaptable to different soil conditions; replicable and scalable; low in embodied carbon footprint; and, increases the productivity of farmland while sequestering atmospheric carbon. How many wins is that?

* Based on the work of Feidhlim Harty of FH Wetland Systems Ltd.

Byline: Nelson Lebo practices regenerative agriculture in Okoia.

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Support efforts to protect Purua Stream: 100% of proceeds from the 2020 Permaculture Calendar go to permaculture projects, including protecting our local stream.

Peace, Estwing