Category Archives: environmental education

Nature Play- Our weekly breath of fresh air


I’m back.

After weeks, no months, wait… years?!? of not writing I am finally exiting out of baby-landia and getting back in the game. All of a sudden I have two actual kids, no more babies, and am finding that I actually have time to think about life. Time to contribute to something beyond the changing of bums and filling of mouths and “uppies mama”. So I thought I’d start by writing again.

I’ll start in with an easy post. What have I been doing for the past few years? You know aside from the whole diapering and feeding and holding. Which, believe me, is enough. Way more than enough. Enough to fill many a day and night.

But, on the days when I did have some spare energy, I’ve been a part of a mini movement in Whanganui. A movement of committed and sometimes slightly looney parents who are revitalizing the lost art of playing outside. Yep. Just playing. Outside. It is awesome.


We started as a few of us just getting together, then we became a facebook group, and currently we meet up weekly as a play group. It is the best part of my week, hands down, every week.

There is a lot that goes into the philosophy behind Forest Kindergartens and Forest Schools, and I am sure I will go into it in more detail in later posts. It has become a bit of a passion for me now. But put most simply, I love our nature play days because they allow me, no force me, to stop and just be with my kids in nature.

We play. We run. We splash. It is really that simple.

I don’t spend as much time outside with my kids as I want to. And the time we do spend is often while I am doing a chore, or my mind is occupied thinking about what chores I could be doing. Nature play is a scheduled interruption from that cycle. It is a forced pause in our lives to spend time as our “Zone Five” selves.

No matter the weather, or adventure, or misadventure (i.e. massive steep hill climb with toddlers in tow only to find out you’re headed the wrong way) the results are always positive. Nature play = happy mama = happy kids.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 8.12.10 pm

The Vegetarian Butcher

“Now that you’ve cleaned a chicken’s bum, I think it’s time to write your first blog post,” he says.

“Makes sense,” I say.

The Vegetarian Butcher

In the span of two days, I assisted in skinning a sheep; watched its butchering; plucked, gutted, and prepped a chicken. Farm life, am I right? That’s a lot of flesh and blood for a vegetarian celebrating five meat-free years and a year of being vegan-ish.


I’d wanted to be a vegetarian since a very young age, in hopes of being more like 8-year-old environmental activist Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons. I didn’t take the plunge though, until I was 17 and decided I was done supporting factory farms. I did so somewhat begrudgingly because I had (have) a soft spot for meatloaf and chicken tenders and still claim that I’d cave for either, so long as it was smothered in ketchup. I’ve stayed strong, though, and even moved towards a vegan lifestyle last December, excited about the added challenge to cook without the use of animal products. My college running coach wasn’t so thrilled—through university, I was averaging 100km, three weightlifting sessions, and assorted cross training every week—but I felt incredible! I was eating cleanly, feeling fueled, and morally sound.


Here, as is typical of a farm, the animals are workers. Where Kaitiaki differs, however, is in the tasks expected of the animals. In permaculture, the long-term health of the land must be considered in every decision made. By housing the majority of our poultry in tractors that are shifted daily to new grass, the ducks and chickens are providing a service without degrading the land. In a stationary poultry run, the birds are compacting the soil, stripping away grass, digging ruts, and accumulating poo that’s fertilizing nothing. Eventually there’s no fresh grass or insects for the birds to eat and the land underneath is unsuitable for future cultivation.

dsc_2631There is the added task of moving the tractors each morning, but this tiny pec/delt/shoulder workout is hardly a nuisance when considering the range of good done by our feathered farmhands. While chickens and ducks are for meat and eggs on any other farm, those are merely added bonuses here—rather than demanding eggs from the birds, we graciously accept them as gifts.

So when misfortunes fall upon our animals (i.e. broken limbs or little dogs), it’s time to put my tofu-centric views aside and utilize Holmgren’s third, fifth, sixth, and twelfth permaculture design principle: obtain a yield; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no waste; creatively use and respond to change. In permaculture, we are quick to learn that looking at the big picture and the long term can surmount what seems desirable (or undesirable) in the moment. In this instance, an animal lost is a meal gained. I’ve always said that I’d rather eat meat than see it thrown in the trash; I might soon have to eat my words.

-Liz (Illinois, USA)

What I have Learned About (Permanent) Agriculture

When I arrived to New Zealand a month ago, I had no idea how it would be to work on a permaculture farm. I hardly had any idea of what permaculture was about. I grew up at a hobby farm with 190ha and have recently been working on a duck farm with 500ha, so I thought that the Lebo family’s 5ha would be ‘piece of cake’. But I was wrong!


My home country, Denmark is, like New Zealand a proud farm country. We produce a lot of grains and potatoes on our very flat landscape. I expected to see something similar here. But arriving in New Zealand has taught me that not only climate, but also landscape decides what the farmers grow and produce on their land. New Zealand has the most beautiful hilled landscape, where it’s often impossible to plow a field. Instead they produce a lot of wool and dairy from sheep and cows that easily graze on the hillsides.
The Lebo family has been taking advantage of the landscape of their property as well. Not only for their own benefit but also to benefit nature and the environment.


Their farm is 99% organic, where vegetables are grown in the flat parts of the property, while cows, sheep and goats are fed with grass from the hillsides. They have rehabilitated the biology of the soil of a compacted horse field, where they today grow lots of garlic, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and different kinds of fruit trees. They have started rehabilitation of wetland on their property, and planted poplars to keep the soil from sliding down the hill. All of this has already proven worthwhile and will continue to pay off in the future, to them and to the environment, which I found out is exactly what permaculture is about. Permaculture (Permanent agriculture) is about working with nature instead of fighting against it.

Since the day I came to the farm, we have been working hard on both small and bigger projects. I have been fighting thorny thistles and gorse with loppers and a spade. I have been fencing in the hills, which I find ten times harder than fencing in flat Denmark. I have planted, transplanted and watered hundreds of trees and vegetables. I have been weeding, feeding and sweating in the burning sun and I got to know the world’s best tool; the stirrup hoe.


At a permaculture farm you have a small scale but big variation in plants and animals, which gives you different kinds of chores than on a traditional farm, which is often specialised in a curtain plant or animal. I knew that farming was hard work, but at this farm we do everything by hand and tools. No machines. That is hard work – and fun work. It gives me skills that I have never thought, I would get, and I am looking forward to learning more the next few months.

-Rikke (from Randers, Denmark)

Permaculture Internship: July-September, 2015

We have been blessed with amazing interns over the last five years, and now we are looking for another. Dates are roughly the end of July through September.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.34.40 AM

We are midway through developing a large (5 hectare) permaculture property and renovating an 80 year-old home.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.31.28 AM

Our interns have cherished their time with us and still keep in touch.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.28.11 AMWe believe in hard work…

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.30.13 AM

…and fun.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.28.20 AM

Our work has been featured in national and international magazines and websites.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.33.32 AM

  We seek a highly-motivated individual who is keen to learn eco-design, holistic land management, organic agriculture and horticulture, green building, community organising, farm skills, and more.

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.32.36 AM  Contact us on theecoschool  –  at — gmail  dot   com

Screen shot 2015-07-08 at 10.35.55 AM

Dr. Nelson Lebo is a professional eco-design eductor. He holds a diploma in permaculture and is a recognized permaculture design educator.

Screen shot 2015-03-31 at 10.23.51 AM

Permaculture Internship

We are offering an internship for the next two months for a very motivated individual interested in learning aspects of permaculture design and land management, organic horticulture and agriculture, animal husbandry, and eco-renovation. The internship is free with accommodation and meals included, but we expect a lot of work in return: some stimulating and some mundane. All serious inquiries should be directed to me. Feel free to pass this along to interested parties. 

Over the last four years we have developed a premier example of a suburban permaculture property. We are now in the process of doing the same on a 5 hectare farm. Below are some examples of projects we have going.

Here is a hugelkultur swale we have been building.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.19.14 AM Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.19.37 AM

Here is a small commercial garlic crop.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.20.44 AM

Hanging to dry. Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.22.27 AM

 This is an example of alley cropping with chooks. Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.23.20 AM

Here we are tractoring chooks through a young food forest.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.23.39 AM

This little chook is raising these 5 orphaned ducklings.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.24.29 AM

Minor breed sheep and water harvesting.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.24.17 AM

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.23.07 AM

We are renovating the kitchen.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.22.10 AM

And always adding insulation.

Screen shot 2015-01-14 at 7.20.19 AM

Peace, Estwing

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”

Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 12.08.33 PM

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.

Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 12.08.24 PM

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.

 Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 12.11.12 PM

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

Screen shot 2014-12-19 at 12.08.14 PM


Verti’s Free-Range, Local, Organic Garlic

2015 Permaculture Principles Calendar

Available today at the River Traders Market

World Famous in Whanganui

After nearly four years of determination, coordination, and cooperation, it appears I have become “World Famous in Whanganui.”

First of all, thanks to the thoughtful local resident who nominated me for the Pride of NZ Award. Does this make me a real Kiwi now? It is nice to be recognized for consistent and determined work to make our community healthier and more resilient to economic and environmental volatility. Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 6.59.51 AM

Second, thanks to all of the organizations, businesses and individuals with whom we have partnered over the years. Nearly every community project that my wife Dani and I have embarked upon in Whanganui has been a joint effort with others.

For example, our latest partnership was with the Whanganui Learning Centre and Castlecliff School. The project was an innovative whanau-focused learning initiative all about growing healthy veges in the challenging conditions of a seaside suburb (“with a holiday lifestyle” as the sign says). The project will be featured in a documentary film about school gardens in New Zealand.

Materials for the school gardens were kindly donated by Wanganui Garden Centre and Loaders Landscape Supplies. Both of these local businesses have also supported previous initiatives, such as the community garden on our front lawn. Thank you.

Probably our most successful partnership to date is Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training). Project HEAT was initiated in 2013, and is roughly modeled on the Eco Design Advisor programme offered by seven councils around the country. After failing to gain support from the Wanganui District Council, we turned to the community itself.

 Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 7.05.43 AM

Lots of time and effort went into building a base of nearly 20 local entities that shared our kaupapa: everyone deserves to live in a warm, dry, healthy home.

In a cooperative manner, each entity gave what it could give. In some cases that meant donating the use of a venue for a presentation and in others it meant photocopying information sheets or loaning a data projector. In a few cases it meant donating funds to cover the costs associated with running a community outreach education programme. Overall, Project HEAT operated on less than a shoestring. Well over half of the time that I spent on the programme was in volunteer hours.

Just as important as the material contributions made by our partners was the moral support they provided. In other words, one does not feel like a “voice in the wilderness” when surrounded by others who believe in and support you.

In the sustainability and resilience movements it is our obligation to support all those around us. Together is how we move our waka toward a common goal. After council chose not to support Project HEAT, it would have died a quiet death were it not for a casual conversation with a friend and his show of support.

This year Project HEAT has been back on a lesser scale due to a number of factors. However, our partners deserve recognition for their help and support now that we are easing into the backside of winter.

Yes, there are lots of awesome organizations and businesses in Whanganui contributing to sustainability, and they receive plenty of exposure through our excellent positive-news-based local print media. But today I get to thank our 2014 Project Heat partners because without them there would have been no free series of presentations, workshops, drop-in information sessions, and home energy audits.

Big thanks to Tree Life NZ, Sustainable Engineering, Black Pine Architects, Richard Collins, Progress Castlecliff, the Josephite Retreat Centre, and other anonymous donors.

Also to be recognized are the Chronicle, Midweek and River City Press for helping publicize the 2014 programme.

In the weeks and months to come, our family will be going through some changes that will affect our ability to engage with the Whanganui community as much as we have in the past. Hopefully I will be able to keep up with this column.


Peace Estwing

Diploma Work in Permaculture (New Zealand)

Editor’s note: This document was written over a year ago and submitted to Permaculture in New Zealand (PINZ) to document a two year diploma project in applied permaculture. PINZ has asked me to post it in the public domain. Please note that the links below will take you to our old blog. However, all of those posts have also been re-posted on this blog.

The Eco-Thrifty Renovation

A project completed in fulfillment of a diploma in permaculture.

Nelson Lebo

Abstract: The Eco-Thrifty Renovation (ETR) was initiated in November, 2010 and continues to be ongoing. The project aims to demonstrate that an eco-home and organic food need not be prohibitively expensive. Over the course of two years, I transformed a derelict villa into a warm, dry, low-energy home, and a section full of weeds and rubbish into a thriving foodscape. At the same time, the project has been used as an educational outreach programme for our local Whanganui community and the world through the internet. The entire project was carried out in alignment with permaculture ethics and principles.

*Note: I use the term ‘we’ often in this document to honor Dani’s contribution to this project, which was less about time and effort, and more about support. Some of the things I write about below using the term ‘we’ she may know little or nothing about (because I usually have about 8 projects going at once and she has been working 40 hours per week for the last year). Still, I feel the ETR and the ECO School are a team effort.

 Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 8.51.36 AM

Permaculture Ethics

The permaculture ethics have guided the project at all levels as described below.

Care for Earth: Low-energy homes and home-grown food can address many of the environmental problems facing the planet and humanity. First and foremost, are the issues surrounding energy, its extraction, production, transport and use. On all levels, this project has demonstrated a commitment to a low-energy ‘footprint.’ Additionally, organic growing practices cut down on artificial chemicals in the environment, and composting and recycling return resources to productive systems rather than relegating them to landfill. Finally, it is hoped that our educational outreach programmes inspire and teach others how to ‘care for the Earth’.

Care for People: The main focus of this project is to provide a working model suitable for low- and moderate-income families. There appears to be a broadly accepted misconception that sustainable lifestyles are prohibitively expensive. We have demonstrated that nothing is further from the truth when thoughtful design in included.

Many of our educational efforts are provided free of charge and some ask simply for a donation. Other programmes offer a sliding scale, with additional discounts for walking, riding a bicycle, or taking the bus. Recent funding allowed us to provide 80 free home energy audits for low-income families and pensioners in Wanganui. Additionally, a community garden in our front yard feeds families in our low-decile neighbourhood.

Share Surpluses: Up until now, the only surpluses have been those of ideas and enthusiasm, which were shared freely through the blog and a weekly newspaper column. Additionally, all of the fee-based education programmes we offer run at about half the price of comparable programmes elsewhere in the country, making them affordable for a wider range of people to participate. And we are finally producing surpluses of food from the community garden in front of our house, which we share with neighbours and friends.

 Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 9.54.40 AM

Permaculture Principles

Although Holmgren’s (2002) permaculture principles were not intentionally or deliberately used during this project, it is easy to recognize their application across many of its aspects. Instead, I describe what are permaculture ‘habits of mind’ that are engaged automatically when working from a holistic, systems perspective. What follows is a discussion of David Bane’s (2012) recent interpretation of Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles as they relate to the eco-renovation, the foodscaping efforts, and the educational initiatives.

1) Observe and Interact: Even before the ETR project began, observation and interaction were being employed in the design process. Dani and I looked at 30 homes in Whanganui in 2 days, ruling out 25 of them simply because they had very little potential for passive solar redevelopment. Of the five that had significant potential for solar gain, one also had advantages regarding section size, home placement on the section, and proximity to a bus stop and the beach. It also happened to be the cheapest house in Whanganui in the lowest-income neighbourhood. This set us up nicely to interact with a low-decile community with which to work directly.

The first step in the passive solar design process is to observe where the sun is at different times of the year and to plan for winter heating and summer cooling. Our villa offered a special challenge in that it was not broad-side to the northern sun, but pointing north with one corner, like a compass. Although not ideal, I was able to come up with low-budget / high-performance design and lifestyle strategies to maximize winter morning insolation – when it is needed most.

Those strategies are explained in the following blog posts:


2) Catch and Store Energy: In permaculture, the classic example of catching and storing energy is a swale. The potential energy of water is stored high on a property and distributed ‘for free’ using gravity. But our property is dead flat, and our soil is sand. So instead, I have adopted thinking like a swale. What this means is mimicking the function of a swale by catching energy when it is in abundance and storing it for times of need, and slowing the flow of energy and materials on our property. One example of this is the use of thermal mass in our renovation. Thermal mass stores excess insolation during the day and releases it at night. We used a number of innovative techniques for adding thermal mass to an old villa on piles, as explained in the following blog posts:


Insulation is also an example of slowing the flow of energy through a property. Thinking like a swale, insulation functions as the permeability of soil, slowing the flow of heat rather than slowing the flow of water. We have employed a wide-range of innovative low-cost and high-performance insulation strategies, as explained in the following blog posts:


Other ways to slow and hold resources on the property are practiced in the gardens – adding a small amount of topsoil and heaps of compost to slow the drainage of water away from vegetable plants. This post summarizes some of our efforts, and highlights the impressive results:


3) Get a Yield: Obtaining a yield is a natural human expectation for putting forth effort toward a goal. In the gardens, a yield can take the form of abundant, healthy food, as seen in the above post, reposted here along with others. By using a strategic combination of tools, timing and technique, we have been able to produce abundant kai for very few hours of work.


Obtaining a yield in an energy-efficient renovation takes the form of a warm, dry home, and cost savings on a power bill. These can be seen as a return on an investment of time and money.


Specifically, getting a yield can be understood through the concept of payback period – the amount to time is takes for savings to pay back an investment. I have chosen to emphasize the concept of payback period in an attempt to appeal to a broad swath of the general public who may not necessarily be concerned about the environment, but are interested in lower power bills.


4) Self-Regulate & Accept Feedback: Most learning processes involve both positive and negative feedback loops. During this project, I have experienced many feedback loops, primarily involving growing food in a coastal zone and involving the educational projects we have launched from the platform of the ETR.

Regarding growing food in a coastal zone, the challenges are sand and wind – two circumstances I have never faced as a grower. I made some good mistakes on my way to learning more about this ecosystem and microclimate, as shown in the following posts:


Regarding the learning involved in our community education projects, woah! Previously I have been a classroom teacher that dabbled in garden workshops for adults. But I have never done anything like a whole community approach to sustainability education. An overview of this approach is described in these posts, while some more details are included below.


We have experienced varying levels of success with our different educational initiatives. Because we’ve taken an ecological model to education, we can accept high failure rates without being fussed about it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Most people will say they learn more from failures than successes, so why not embrace failure instead of avoiding it? Perhaps 80% of my ideas go nowhere because I cannot find community partners. That just means that a particular idea is not appropriate for this place at this time. OK, shift gears and carry on.

Most importantly, I am learning what really works, what does not, and why that might be. The keys, I have found, are to be responsive to needs and not prescriptive, and to build partnerships in all endeavors.


Sadly, I have learned that part of the failure of environmental education appears to come from the environmental movement itself, as described here:


5) Use and Value Nature’s Gifts: Nature’s gifts come in the forms of matter and energy. We accept all nature’s gifts, and try to hold them (slow their flow) on our property with a previously porous home and previously porous soils. These are explained in the principle Catch and Store Energy, above. The best way to value a gift is to steward it mindfully. Some ways we do that are described below.

For a passive solar renovation, nature’s best gift is free sunshine! The redesign of our villa is based on winter sun angles, as described above, and reposted here:


With this addition on free, solar energy:


But beyond, free and abundant sunshine, nature served as the inspiration and model for the entire renovation, as seen in our design principles, as seen here:


Another way we use and value nature’s gifts is by composting. As Geoff Lawton says, “If it lived, it can live again.”


Especially awesome has been a resent partnership with the New Zealand Masters Games: an 11 day event with over 6,000 participants. Working together we were able to reduce the landfill waste from the games village 95% versus the last Games in Whanganui in 2011 when their rubbish tally was: 228 wheelie bins and 4 jumbo dumpsters. This year there was a total of 14 wheelie bins and less than 1 jumbo dumpster. See more details here:


Finally, sometimes, nature delivers free gifts nearly to our doorstep, such as firewood flowing down the Whanganui River and washing up on the shore in front of our home.



6) Waste Not: Composting has been covered in the previous principle, so I will focus on the three R’s here. Reducing, reusing and recycling come as second nature to permaculturists. Some of the ways we put these into use can be seen in the following posts:


Additionally, I have collaborated on waste education initiatives in our community, as described here. These provide some background for the amazing result from the NZ Master’s Games described above.


Finally, I also found a way to make use of the untreated timber that we had to remove from the villa during the renovation, and a crappy old skil saw from the local auction house

7) Design from Pattern to Details: The patterns of the Earth include day and night, the seasons, climatic patterns (although changing), as well as hydrological, geological, chemical and biological patterns. In a passive solar redesign, we begin with the natural, repeating patterns of the sun and finish with things like: adding glazing to the north and removing it from the south (as described above); and the strategic placement of thermal mass (also described above).

On the land, I have mostly designed around wind patterns, making some mistakes and then having to redesign based on the wind-hardiness of different plants. For example, even though all of the literature says that olives and feijoas will stand up to coastal winds, I found that they do need some level of protection. I moved 8 olives and built wind protection for 6 feijoas.

I also learned that summer raspberries and persimmon will not tolerate any salt winds. I transplanted the raspberries to a more sheltered position, but the persimmon died due to three weeks of onshore winds right when it was leafing out.

There are lots of good insights into our landscape design strategies including wind protection and sun traps in these two posts:


8) Integrate: I see this as an umbrella term over the entire design process, which includes 4-dimensional design, and re-design. In my opinion, this principle represents the concept of systems thinking, or ‘ecological thinking.’ This is reflected in the famous Native American saying, “Everything is connected in a web of life.” It is embodied in the Lakota (“Sioux”) phrase, mitakuye oyasin: all my relations. This represents a worldview that recognizes a relationship to all living and non-living matter in the universe during all of time.

I believe this is a permaculture ‘habit of mind’ that can be developed through practice until it is done unconsciously all the time. Because of my learning disabilities, my brain naturally recognizes the space in between objects easier than the individual objects themselves. While the American school system tried to beat this out of me, I was able to retain enough into adulthood to re-awaken this way of seeing, and to cultivate it into a more developed form. In my twenties, I practiced systems thinking exercises (not knowing it was such at the time) that have re-trained my brain to ‘see interconnectedness’ including the 4th dimension.

Long before I ever heard of permaculture, I was thinking in ‘permaculture ways.’ Maybe that is why, when I unexpectedly met Bill Mollison at Schumacher College (Totnes, England), permaculture made so much sense to me. It may also explain why I have defined permaculture in this way:

Permaculture is an eco-design system that seeks to recognize and maximize beneficial relationships while minimizing or eliminating harmful relationships.

On our section, and beyond our section, we seek to integrate systems of energy and matter, as well as human systems. Socially, we have done well at integrating with some non-greenie groups, such as the softball club, mental health organizations, the regional PHO, and the YMCA, as well as some local Maori groups. Regarding my PhD thesis, I have spent four and a half years studying the integration of a permaculture approach to science teaching and learning in New Zealand secondary schools.


9) Choose small and slow: I could write on many different topics, but this is the one I think deserves the most attention. Here is where I can raise an observation I’ve made over my last four and a half years interacting with the permaculture community in New Zealand. Hardly any permies I’ve met (quite a few for a small country) ride bicycles or take public buses instead of driving. I know that everyone has an excuse for this, but I’m not really interested in hearing excuses. I have heard lots over the years.

In my opinion, riding a bicycle instead of driving is the single best example of choosing a small and slow solution, especially as it directly addresses the two biggest identified challenges addressed by permaculture: climate change and peak oil (Holmgren, 2009). My history with bicycle commuting (over 100 kms at times) goes back over 20 years, and I named my farm – developed over 8 years into one of the most sustainable properties in North America – Pedal Power Farm.

We chose the location of our current home for three main reasons: walking distance to the beach; walking distance to a bus stop; and, flat, short bicycle ride into the central city. These are all small and slow approaches to eco-thrifty living. Dani wrote this post ages ago:


Here are some I wrote:


10) Work Diversity: In this project, we have worked diversity in two primary ways: ecological food production; and, a holistic approach to whole community sustainability education.

The former has been described above in some of our approaches to designing from patterns to details. We currently have planted 118 edible perennial plant species of many different varieties and cultivars. We always plant multiple varieties of tomatoes, and always have our first ripe ones well before Christmas. Talking to others around Whanganui, including professional market gardeners, this ‘beat the local market’ by many weeks. We managed this not with a glass house, but by using microclimates and selecting the best varieties to plant at the best time (observe and interact; self-regulate and accept feedback; get a yield).

Regarding an ecological model for whole community education (see above in #4), we have partnered with a diversity of community groups and businesses on many projects. Most of these entities have no overt green mission, but we were able to find common ground (kaupapa), on issues of wellness, poverty, mental health, spirituality, etc. Two of our most amazing partnerships have been with the New Zealand Masters Games and the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Meanwhile, some attempts at partnering with many green groups and all attempts to partner with the Wanganui District Council have failed. Who woulda guessed? There is no way to know unless you try. That’s why I am happy with an 80% failure rate, because I know those efforts that do work are the most robust, and, above all else, I am learning the truth about sustainability projects in a community, not some theory written by someone else or a belief I might have held because ‘it seemed logical.’

In nature, diversity often leads to stability. I believe our efforts described above will provide a high level of stability (resilience) in our lives. We are likely to have food in the event of a disruption to the food supply, and we are likely to have support from a wide swath of the community if our family falls on hard times or suffers a tragedy. In three years we have been lucky to be adopted by a large and divers whanau in Whanganui.


11)Push the Edge: How about taking a crappy, old villa and turning it into a warm, dry, low-energy home? How about power bills averaging $22/month, including a line charge of $13? How about 118 edible perennials on 900 square metres? But these things are secondary to what is really significant about this project.

In terms of making a unique contribution to the global body of permaculture knowledge, the education efforts in our community are by far the most significant. We are pushing the edge by developing a new model for community sustainability education as described multiple times above. Nowhere in the world that I am aware of is anyone taking this type of approach, especially with no initial funding source and only modest ongoing donations from local individuals and organizations.

The only way to push the edge is to take risks and accept failure. I’ve done both many times over the last three years, but the learning is worth it. Be warned, however, that when you push the edge publicly as we have, you’ll get blowback from the left and the right. That’s no problem, as we’ve received amazing feedback from the middle, where the vast majority of people reside, and where I think permaculture has largely failed to make inroads. Ha, it just occurred to me that we are pushing the edge by going to the centre. Beautiful!


12) Respond to Change: This principle gets to the heart of dynamic design and what I call ‘four dimensional design.’ We employ this principle in a number of ways, including: window treatments; annual vege production; and, refining our approach to community education.

As described above, we use a combination of pelmets, thermal curtains, and window blankets as part of our holistic strategy for reducing heat loss through windows in winter. But we also use them to prevent heat gain in summer. In both cases, change is represented by day/night cycles of sunshine and temperature fluctuation.

On a winter’s morning, all curtains are drawn and window blankets are in place. With the sunrise, I open the curtain and remove the window blanket on one double-glazed window (northeast-facing) beside the breakfast table. Later, when the sun has risen more and the outdoor temperature probe that receives direct sunlight reads higher than the indoor probe in the lounge, I open the lounge curtains (also northeast-facing). At around 11 am, I then open the northwest-facing curtains. At about 2 pm, I close the northeast-facing curtains. At sunset I close all curtains and replace the window blankets.

In the summer we can reverse the pattern, as well as open windows to encourage cross-ventilation.

Regarding low-input / high-productivity methods for annual vegetable production, it is all about tools, timing and technique. These would be familiar to any small-scale market gardener worth his or her stirrup hoe. I have developed a decade of experience and learning into a design/management system that I use and have presented as a workshop in New Zealand and Australia.

The system relies on designing and managing for weed control, and getting multiple other benefits along the way. In my travels around the world as well as my reading, learning, attending workshops, etc., I have never come across a better system for low input (time, effort and money) and high productivity. If I had, I would be using it.

Finally, as described above, our ecological model for whole community sustainability education is holistic, cooperative, and adaptive. Regarding its adaptability, it is open to self-regulation and feedback to improve and expand.

For example, I approached the local primary school (low decile) to offer my services to help integrate sustainability across the curriculum. I met with the teachers at a staff meeting where they all showed great enthusiasm and said all the right things. I went home excited but then waited a month to hear that the teachers had decided that they needed to focus more on behaviour education and would not have time for sustainability education. My heart sank. Then I changed my approach.

With funding through the Sustainable Whanganui Trust I was able to offer the school a solar sausage sizzle for each classroom. The principal said yes on the spot, and two weeks later every student in the school had learned about some of the applications of solar energy to power an ipod and to cook kai. Fun and learning were had by all. See some cool pics and more info here:



While the permaculture ethics and principles were not overtly used during the ETR, I hope that I have made it clear that those permaculture ‘habits of mind’ embodied in the principles and ethics were used at every step. Thank you for reading, and I hope you have found it helpful.



Bane, P. (2012). The permaculture handbook. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society.

Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria, Australia: Holmgren Design Services.

Holmgren, D. (2009). Future scenarios: How communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change. White River Junction, VT., USA: Chelsea Green.

Engaging Children in Recycling & Composting

Last week I had every intention of writing about Sea Week, Castlecliff Children’s Day, recycling and composting. I even had the photos picked out.

Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.29.00 AM

But then I saw a cryptic invitation in the Chronicle about writing poems for St. Patrick’s Day. Then I saw a letter from Bob Walker on the costly and impotent “odour fence” and an article that included a remarkably uninspired statement by a councilor about “growth” and “lifestyle.”

What started as an innocent limerick in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day rolled into 650 words of critique on what appears to be a pattern of reductionist, ineffective and costly decisions by council.

While I stand by every word, I did not mean offend anyone with undeserved insult – especially not the Chronicle editors. I think they, along with the entire Chronicle team, have guided our paper to a secure place of relevance at a time when many newspapers around the world are reducing circulation, down-sizing, digitizing, and disappearing entirely. Over the last two years, the Chronicle team has built what must be best network of local columnists of any paper in the country.

Long live the Chron

May all celebrate her in song…

Never mind, on to the rubbish…I mean waste management.

Good on Des Warahi for committing Castlecliff Children’s Day to waste minimization. Like SKIP’s Children’s Day a week earlier, we were able to work together to divert a large amount of materials from landfill by making recycling and composting easy for attendees.

 Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.29.10 AM

Castlecliff’s Children’s Day wrapped up Sea Week, which saw many school children helping clean up our coastline. While it is important to engage children in this type of overt action to help the environment, it’s even more important to make sure that they do not perceive it as a one-off. In other words, tokenism has the potential to do more harm than good if children see “the environment” as something “out there” that they engage with only on certain occasions.

The Enviroschools programme has done a good job throughout New Zealand of making sustainable practices such as recycling, composting and worm farming regular parts of operations for the schools that join. Equally important is that children experience those practices at home. Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.28.53 AM

Waste minimization is a great example of eoc-thifty thinking because it so obviously saves resources and money. For example, it takes our family about two months to fill one bag of rubbish. It may not be that we have any less total ‘waste’ than other families, but that we divert most of it from landfill by recycling and composting.

Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.28.28 AM

Much of the ‘waste’ that makes its way onto our property comes home with Verti and me from our walks along the beach. If there is anything I’ve learned as a new parent it is that my 18 month old daughter loves imitating and helping. From this perspective, I can’t think of many things more valuable than walking with her along the seashore collecting discarded cans and bottles, bits of plastic, and organic matter for our compost.

Plus, I get to check out the waves so I can plan for a surf after mum gets home.

  Screen shot 2014-03-21 at 10.28.43 AM

Sidebar: TPPA Alert!

We face many challenges ahead, but perhaps the most immediate one is the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) being negotiated in secret at the behest of transnational corporations whose one and only mandate is to return maximum profits to share holders. The likelihood of the TPPA being good for people or the planet is about that of the All Blacks falling to Japan in a test match. Please attend the rally against New Zealand signing onto the TPPA Saturday 29th March at 1 pm. Meet at the Silver Ball sculpture at the River Market and walk to Majestic Square.

Everybody Loves Us…Almost

Editor’s Note: This is one of my weekly columns for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I use it regularly to help facilitate transformation in our city, and to point out some of the wasteful and unsustainable practices of our council.

The last two columns told stories about our first interns, John and Amy, and how they helped us transform an abandoned villa and section full of rubbish and weeds into a little paradise of sustainability. Along the way, the process of working with us provided vital steppingstones for each of their own transformations to more sustainable worldviews.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.15 PM

Transformative learning, as I pointed, is a learning theory often applied to adults that seeks to explain changes of perspective that differ drastically from those held previously.

As I have pointed out in this column with regards to Castlecliff Beach, the potential for change can be scary, and so many people resist it. Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order to undergo transformation, learners must experience a “disorienting dilemma” or “cognitive crisis.”

In a nutshell, either of these conditions present the learner with the perception of mixed messages about the world and their place in it. For example, one message might say, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” while another message says, “Western consumer lifestyles are harming the planet.” Then she or he may choose to seek out learning experiences that help change their perspectives and lifestyles accordingly.

The mixed messages that most of us observe and some of us internalize are also sometimes called “cognitive dissonance.” For example, one can smoke cigarettes while believing it to be unhealthy. Psychologists suggest that those who experience such inconsistency (dissonance) are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Well people, I’m here to say I’m psychologically distressed. No, I don’t smoke. Nor am I living a consumer lifestyle. Here is the nature of my distress.

During any week, half dozen strangers will stop me on the street and say something like, “I read your column. Keep up the good work.” Or something like, “What you’re doing is so important for Whanganui. Don’t stop.”

Additionally, our work has been praised by leading permaculturists across the country and around the world. Our Eco-Thrifty projects have been featured in national and international magazines. We have been invited to other cities to present our work. Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.06 PM

Meanwhile, it appears that certain elements of Wanganui District Council does its best to ignore the work that Dani and Verti and I do to help make our community more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Please note, I have been advised not to make blanket statements about “council”, as it is a large and diverse organization. I recognize that many council staff may feel their positions have little or nothing to do with sustainability, and that they are not the ones making what appear to be unsustainable decisions for our city.

On another level, I suppose an argument can be made that it is not the role of council to help people live healthier lives while saving money and protecting the environment. Indeed, a senior staff member indicated such in a letter rejecting funding for a Community Contract with which I was involved.

Our council cuts heritage trees, dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and spends tens of thousands of dollars pushing sand to windward on the beach while other councils around New Zealand support innovative and successful sustainability programmes that help people and the planet. Does this explain the cause of my psychological distress?

Leading up to the elections last year I asked the question in this column if “sustainability” and “environment” were dirty words in Whanganui because almost nobody standing for office used them. Evidence of council decision-making certainly supports the suggestion that they are. But this begs the question, WHY?

Given the amount of good will that comes my way and the number of people that ask me to stand for office, it would appear there is a quiet majority of citizens – including some council employees – who recognize and appreciate the win-win-win thinking that I share in this column.

Silence over the last three years on our work appears to indicate the positions of those recently re-elected politicians, but the good news is that two of the newly elected councilors have indicated an interest in sustainability: one has contacted me via Facebook and one recently attended a local Green Drinks gathering.

Could it be the early signs of transformation for WDC? Time will tell.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.24 PM