Category Archives: no-dig gardens

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Following the flooding of last year most of our time, energy and money has gone into protecting our stream sides from further erosion, which appears to have accelerated since the flood. The process involves fencing off the streams from stock and planting lots and lots of trees, shrubs, flax and native grasses.


All of that work means I have spent hardly anytime in the annual gardens, except getting all of the garlic in before the end of July. We sold out last year and have about 2,000 in the ground this year. We are establishing new beds on an ongoing basis – converting an old horse property to annuals production is not easy.


Somehow a few months ago I quickly put some broccoli and cauliflower in the ground. It has thrived in the cool weather with heaps of great compost. Now we are reaping the benefits. This is my favourite variety – Marathon.


As per my tradition, I also planted Early Girl tomatoes on the 21 of September to ensure ripe tomatoes before Christmas. Can’t wait. These have been interplanted with garlic as a space-saving staggered planting technique.


Just this week the peach stones have started germinating. They have been in damp sand for about 4 months. We expect around 100 to germinate.


Here is an example of a yearling Black Boy peach trees, which are selling nicely at the moment. We sold out last year and expect to sell out again this year.


These were a great surprise this morning. In the years to come we hope to branch out into organic strawberries.


And these two arrived last week.


Never a dull moment and never a lack of jobs to do.

Peace, Estwing

Growing Great Garlic

I’ve been growing garlic organically for well over a decade. The product is second to none. We have marketed it as “The World’s Best Garlic” for the last five years. Nobody has disputed the claim.

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There are a few essentials of growing great garlic. First of all, you need the best genetics – ie, seed garlic. We save ours from season to season. After storing for six months, we divide it in the evenings inside where it is warm and dry.

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Another essential component is abundant high quality compost. We make ours by the cubic metre.

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Planting involves generous amounts of compost. It serves to feed the garlic for the six months while it is in the ground as well as retaining soil moisture.

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Once the garlic is up about 150 – 200 mm we mulch with newspaper and hay.

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The mulch suppresses weeds and retains soil moisture.

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The planting design and management relies on these resources: stirrup hoes, newspapers, mulch and compost. See here for detailed description:

Harvest usually occurs in late December.

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The garlic is cured and stored…and the cycle repeats.

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We have a very limited supply of seed garlic left for sale. It can be planted up to the end of July. Contact me if you’d like some.

Peace, Estwing

Preparing Annual Beds: No Motors Required

Converting pasture or lawn to annual beds is never easy. The most critical element is to eliminate perennial weeds. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and is lost on ‘Facebook permaculturists’. But any market gardener knows this.

We do our conversions without the use of a rotary hoe/rototiller. It takes time but the end result is far superior.

First step, kill off most existing plant life. We use plastic for four months.

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Next involves forking…

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…and removing any leftover plants.

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Forking is very important because it decompresses and aerates the compacted soil. Again, it’s difficult to understate the importance of this process.

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A broad fork can be purchased in New Zealand for around $300. We made our stainless steel broad forks for $100 each.

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Fairly straightforward process involving some welding…

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…and some threaded rod.

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All ready to plant 2,000+ garlic over the next three weeks.


Peace, Estwing

Holistic Land Management: Permaculture Design in Motion

One year after arriving on this piece of land we are well on our way to developing a premier permaculture property. Like our model suburban permaculture project – the Eco-Thrifty Renovation – we intend to use this as a model for resilience education in our community and worldwide.

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We call this property Kaitiaki Farm. In Te Reo Maori, kaitiaki means guardian. It is the weightiest word I have ever come across in my life, and I do not take using it to name the farm lightly. If our first child had been a boy, Kaitiaki would have been his middle name.

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This extraordinary piece of land has all the makings of a textbook permaculture property and an excellent way to teach best practice in low-input / high productivity land management. It is also a great opportunity for those who want to learn by seeing a ‘work in progress’, I reckon there may be no better place in the world.

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From big concept ideas to specific details, Kaitiaki Farm is a living, breathing permaculture textbook. Most of us learn by doing, so why not consider coming along to the Whanganui Permaculture Weekend 12th-13th September (more details to follow) or coming to a full-day workshop on Sunday, 27th September.

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We believe in offering the highest quality resilience education and that money should not be a barrier to attendance. The Permaculture Weekend is free to attend, and all of our workshops run at half what others charge. When it comes to excellence in community resilience education, there should be no compromise.

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The workshop will cover many aspects of permaculture, including: designing for wind and water; tractoring birds; improving soil structure; composting; swales and drains; nurse trees; slope stabilisation; trees as fodder; pollarding firewood; alley cropping; drought-proofing; market gardening; developing and managing a food forest; scything; and more.

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Peace, Estwing

Good Design & Great Garlic

When it comes to housing and garlic, good design is more important than hard work. In both cases, the core decisions that ensure quality can be counted on one hand. Everything else are details.

In the case of housing, we can look around the world and observe examples of low energy and high performance homes. For the most part, the design principles are universal with the exception of the tropics where important tweeks must be made compared to other regions.

For example, the main goal of good tropical house design is passive cooling that relies on cross ventilation. From this perspective, homes should be rectangular with the long axis running north-south to catch breezes. For almost all other locations around the planet a home should be rectangular with the long axis running east-west to catch the winter sun and exclude the summer sun. In all cases the basic design objective is a passive structure that heats and cools itself as much as possible using natural energy flows.   Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.12.51 pm

Beyond passive design, another wise choice to make with housing is to place fixed heaters on internal walls rather than external walls. Placing a heater close to the centre of a home and surrounding it by living spaces would appear to be common sense until you take a trip around Whanganui and see the preponderance of chimneys built on one extreme end of long rectangular and L-shaped homes. It appears there was an era in our city where both common sense and good design were sorely lacking when it came to home building. Some would argue it continues.

Fixing bad design is more expensive than engaging good design from the start, but the good news is that in Whanganui it is far more affordable to buy an existing home and do it up rather than build a new home. For example, our renovated villa ticks the boxes for good design for less than half the cost of building new.

Similarly, growing great garlic can be more a matter of good design than hard work. Again, the principles can be listed on one hand: good seed; great compost; plenty of moisture; minimal weed competition. Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.12.59 pm

Like racehorses and livestock, genetics matter with garlic. Buying high quality seed garlic is the best place to start. I was in a big box discount store recently and noticed the so-called “Garlic Seed” they were selling and had to stifle laughter at both its size and price. The best seed garlic is local and organic.

Compost provides multiple benefits to garlic while it is growing, including feeding, moisture retention, and microbial activity. High quality living compost is always better than a sealed 40-litre bag that probably lacks helpful aerobic soil organisms.

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Garlic, like all alliums, grows better with more moisture. A combination of generous compost and heavy mulch can ensure soil moisture remains high even trough extended period without rain. Mulch also doubles as a weed suppressant and encourages worms to be active closer to the soil surface.

For more information on Growing Great Garlic, come along to a workshop on the 21st of June at 3 PM. Registration essential. 06 344 5013; 022 635 0868; theecoschool – at –

Simplest Crop Rotation on Earth contracted me to write an article on crop rotation. I suggested a four-year rotation, but they thought three years would be easier for beginner gardeners to understand.

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With the word limit I was working to, this is the best I could do, although the editors added sections on nutrient cycling and carbon cycling.

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FYI, here is what a stirrup hoe looks like.

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Here is the link to the article: Here is the cool infographic they made. <a href=””><img src=”; border=”0″ /></a><br />Source: <a href=””></a&gt;     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!




Drought-Proofing is a Matter of Eco-Design

Editor’s Note: One of our District Councillors recently made statements to our newspaper about his concern for the volume of water our city was using while we have had essentially no rain for a month. By why did he have to say to the reporter, “I don’t want to sound like a greenie…” This is my response in the same newspaper.


“I don’t want to sound like a greenie…”

Why is it that many people in our community – especially elected officials – feel it is necessary to preface common sense statements with this phrase? Is there such antipathy toward the so-called “greenies” among us to warrant this fear of association with them? It is such a constant theme in our local politics that I often wonder how and why it came to be.

Lets take a common sense, conservative concept: wasting a resource is bad. Does anyone disagree with this left, right or centre? But as long as we associate common sense, conservative issues with the left-wing, the farther Whanganui will fall behind progressive councils around the country that are ahead of us already and stretching their leads. If we were truly a “Smart!” city we would embrace eco-design thinking fully and unapologetically to improve the lives of our residents, save money and conserve valuable resources such as water.

Water conservation in the home comes in two forms: efficiency and behaviours. Efficiency can take the form of low-flow showers and taps, dual flush toilets, and appliances that are Water Rated. Behaviours include closing the tap while brushing teeth or shaving, taking short showers, or washing dishes like an Aussie.

But at this time of year, in many cases more water is used outside of the home than inside. I don’t want to sound like a greenie, but there are many ways in which eco-design can be used to develop and manage a drought-resistant property of any size from residential section to lifestyle block. Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 6.43.41 AM

A drought-resistant section in the middle of a drought.

Eco-design as applied to lawns and gardens is about mimicking nature. In other words, we observe how nature is so successful at providing the conditions for life to thrive, and then we copy it.

Any good farmer will tell you that growing plants is all about the soil, so that’s where we’ll begin. Undisturbed, natural soils consist of 50% particles (sand, silt, clay, and humus), 25% air, and 25% water. Put another way, it is half particles and half empty space.

By contrast, most paddocks, lawns and gardens are more like 80% particles and 20% pore space because they have been compacted over many years. Compacted soils do not readily absorb water during rains and result in excessive runoff into streams and rivers, which adds to flooding danger. On the other hand, because the water has flowed across the earth’s surface instead of soaking in, there is less groundwater available during drier months. Groundwater works like a bank account with deposits and withdrawals.

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A swale can help drought-proof a lifestyle block. 

Additionally, compacted soils are largely devoid of life due to the lack of air and water. Where soil life is marginal, many types of plants struggle to survive and require additional inputs of fertilizer, “weed killer”, and irrigation.

From an eco-design perspective, drought-proofing a paddock, lawn or garden is about bringing the soil back to life. Living soils have both good drainage and good water retention. In the long term, healthy soils maintain themselves. Yes, nature will do it on its own but we can jump start the process by breathing life into soils in three simple ways.

First, compacted soils need to be mechanically aerated. A farmer might use a chisel plough where a homeowner would choose a broad fork or sturdy garden fork. Next, the application of lime – one handful per square metre – will raise the pH of soils, which increases microbial activity. Finally, top-dressing with organic matter in the form of composted manure for a paddock or finely sieved compost for a lawn will feed soil organisms.

The same three principles – aerate, raise the pH, add organic matter – can be repeated for vege gardens and perennial beds. Additionally, with regards to water conservation, these can be heavily mulched to reduce soil evaporation.

Both vege gardens and perennial beds can easily be managed as no-dig/no-till areas with healthy soils that maintain themselves, but lawns and paddocks will inevitably receive a certain level of foot and hoof traffic. For these areas a more regular programme of maintenance is required to promote healthy soils, but it all can be done within the realm of eco-design.



Drought-Proof Your Residential Section

Wednesday, 4th February, 5:30-6:30 pm.

Drought-Proof Your Lifestyle Block

Sunday, 8th February, 9:00-11:00 am.

Limited spaces. Registration and deposit essential.

theecoschool – at –

Four-Dimensional Eco-Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have faith in eco-design.


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

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

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

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

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

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Preparing the beds.

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Sprouting spuds.

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Garden taking shape.

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

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

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

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


Peace, Estwing


Prepping for Tomatoes Before Christmas

I have had great success pushing the season outdoors by planting tomatoes on the vernal equinox and reaping ripe fruit before Christmas Day. This year is no different although it has been a struggle to do so.

This is what we started with: a sodden, compacted, clay lawn with poor drainage around the house foundation.

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I started by preparing to improved the drainage while also building more garden beds.

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This process took a while as there was lots of soil to move. Simultaneously I was making a cubic metre of compost where one of the garden beds would go.  Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.25.12 PM

The hot compost we make takes about 30 days to mature.

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I had a helper for part of the job.

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Finally ready by September 21st, the vernal equinox, to put in the tomatoes.  Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.26.34 PM

I had some plastic sheets that our new ceiling insulation came wrapped in. I used it to suppress some of the grass before cutting it to an X and then skimming the turf.

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As the soil was severely compacted, I forked it to help with aeration. These will be no dig garden beds once established.

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I always plant my seedlings with a litre or more of compost. Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 5.27.12 PM

Fold back the plastic…

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…and cover with mulch. Mind you, the plastic will only be in place for this one growing season. After the sod is killed and the tomatoes have done their dash, I will remove the plastic, fork the bed again, add compost, and then just treat it as a no dig garden bed.

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These first six plants are Early Girl. They will bear ripe fruit around the 10th – 15th of December.

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The next six plants are Money Maker. I have good luck with them as a consistent, heavy cropper and relatively good a resisting plant diseases.

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Peace, Estwing