Category Archives: permaculture

Addicted to P

We have an addiction to P in our home. (Note: In no way do I mean to diminish the real problem of P addiction in NZ – indeed, in our neighborhood – or in the USA known as “meth.”) The P addiction in our home is all about permaculture. Please be aware that permaculture is not the only ecological design system that exists on this glorious planet, but some say that it is the most comprehensive. To that, I add the most documented. Permaculture has over 30 years of books, magazines, and even a few peer-reviewed papers, as its chronicle. This is particularly useful for those (ie, me) writing doctoral theses on ecological design in science education.

The P addiction in our home results from an approach to permaculture not as a set of principles to memorize and apply in a formulaic manner, but rather as a way of seeing the world. In other words, permaculture as systemic, not systematic. This perspective, for me, results from decades-long involvement in ecological design and a learning disability that was misdiagnosed (ignored) in my youth. In other words it is a combination of nature and nurture. I was born with a brain that is better at seeing at the space in between things than the things themselves. While this may have contributed to my success as an All-American lacrosse attackman (ie finding my way between large defensemen), it also inspired my second grade teacher to alert my parents that I would never read. Luckily, they were both teachers themselves, and sent me to a tutor instead of to the meat works (to work, that is, not to contribute my flesh).

Ethical note: NOT my second grade class. This looks like 4th grade. Wait, maybe 6th grade.

Regarding nuture, I’m not referring to the 17 years of private school or to the amazing support given to me and my brother by our parents. If anything, the rigid, traditional schooling I experienced for much of my life suppressed my potential for systems thinking. The main lesson I learned from school is that it was all a game, and the playing field was tilted in favor of certain brains and away from others. My brain was an other, and I struggled mightily not to drown (below C-level) through primary school, middle school and into high school. Around the time I hit my stride in lacrosse, I also figured out how to play school. Interestingly, some psychologists suggest that certain people outgrow their ADD after going through puberty. I don’t know if that was the case for me because I’m definitely still ADD. Instead, I think that I figured out how to succeed in a reductionist paradigm by taking a systems approach. Although I considered earning good grades a game, I never took it as seriously as lacrosse because I did not respect it. It was more of a joke, where sport is serious business.

It was not until I had graduated from university (Magna Cum Laude, now that is a joke) until I came to the unfortunate realization that I hadn’t learned how to do anything in all those years at school. I could not grow a garden. I could not prune a tree. I could not build a house. Seventeen years of private education and all I got is this lousy scroll! No, the nurturing of a more holistic perspective did not occur until I began learning how to grow food, prune trees and build – ok, renovate – houses. A garden, a tree and a house are not things. They are systems, and we can never hope to understand them from a reductionist perspective. And for me, luckily, the seed I was born with was not terminated by a “Round-Up Ready” education. I’ve heard that certain seeds can remain viable for decades and even centuries. By those standards, 17 years appears fair to middling.

But I reckon that was good enough because it germinated in the humus of a pumpkin patch and the dust beneath a crosscut saw. And during the ensuing 17 years (and then some) I’ve nurtured a holistic perspective by actively practicing systems thinking. It was not easy at first, but with practice strides came. As I took up running marathons I made the easy connection between exercising my body and exercising my mind. At the same time, as a professional science teacher (go figure) I began to develop systemic pedagogies. In other words, teaching ecology in ecological ways. The release of creativity inspired me as a teacher and inspired many of my students. (Some still preferred reductionist approaches to teaching and learning. Most likely because they were familiar to them, and that they had found numerical and alphabetic success under them.)

And around that time I found a Masters program developed and delivered by the amazing Coleen O’Connell and Cloe Chun. Mind you, I had no intention of ever going back to school as a student. But they were willing to embrace a different paradigm for education that resonated with me. I can vividly recall Coleen selling the Masters in Ecological Teaching and Learning to me at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests building in Concord. I listened politely and told her, “I do all those things already.” She replied, “And you should get credit for them.” I was sold, especially because my employer paid for the degree.

I really must thank Coleen and Cloe for helping advance my education practice, which has lead me here to this computer in this foreign land and an email address that ends in And I must thank the New Zealand government for offering affordable tuition to international doctoral students and very reasonable health coverage. And most of all I must thank my supervisors Chris, Kathrin and Richard. But especially Chris for being an awesome colleague and friend.

Centre for Science and Technology Education Research community garden great potato harvest of 2011.

To his credit (and maybe his regret) he encouraged me to do my research “in a permaculture way.” This half-sentence of advice has made the process of PhD research more dynamic, more enjoyable, and hopefully more robust. For example, the methodology chapter in most theses is direct, dry and formulaic. In other words, dull to read and boring to write. Thanks in part to Chris’ advice, a holistic permaculture perspective, and drugs (not P), I have had a lot of fun writing this chapter.

Three a day keeps distraction away.

I have engaged with the material and, in my opinion, created something entirely original. Many synergies exist between permaculture and education research. It is just a matter of creating a guild.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Oh, that was exhausting. For you too? This post takes a different approach than previous posts. If this is your first read, take some time to explore others. There should be something here for everyone. Maybe not Rick Perry.

For a snippet of the methodology chapter, see below. Please note it is an unedited first draft that I wrote this morning on 3 pots of organic fair trade coffee. I’d appreciate any insights or feedback. I may even acknowledge you in my thesis.

Peace, Estwing

The P of METHedology

4.7 Validity and Reliability

Many tables have four legs, but stability requires just three. A guild of three complimentary plants – such as the Hopi “Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash – provides a stable cultivated ecology for growing food. A ship lost at sea can find its way using three beacons by a process called triangulation. In research, triangulation allows for stable (robust) findings and locates conclusions out of an ocean of data. Stable research is said to be reliable (Cohen et al., 2007).

But triangulation in every case described above is not a linear progression. In other words, two plus one does not represent the same incremental increase as one plus one. For example, a table with one leg benefits little from adding one more leg, but hugely from adding a third. Corn and squash planted together do not thrive like they do when beans are added to fix nitrogen in the soil to feed them. And a lost ship is still lost with only two points for reference. In all of these cases, there is a tipping point of integrity reached by triads when symbiosis turns to synergy. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and the system punches above its weight. Three, it appears, really is a magic number (Johnson, Year?)

In the world of research, triangulation is defined as the use of two or more data collection methods (Cohen et al., 2007). Campbell and Fiske (1959) contend that triangulation is a mighty way to demonstrate concurrent validity, and the process is deemed more or less essential for those doing qualitative research. Mixed method, or multi-method, approaches in social science research provide a number of advantages. For instance, blah blah…more here…

While major advances in validity and reliability occur between one and two, and two and three forms of data, subsequent improvements tail off quickly thereafter. A more-the-merrier attitude turns to four’s-a-crowd. That said, redundancy is bad neither in research nor permaculture. If one plant in a guild succumbs to an insect pest or disease, or if one method is found to lack validity, then an extra component in the system suddenly proves helpful. In fact, ecological validity in education research requires the consideration of as many characteristics and factors involved in the subject of study (Cohen et al., 2007). Brock-Utne (1996) promotes ecological validity when studying the adoption of new educational policies in actual classrooms. I submit that, when politics and scale are removed, that is essentially what I did in this case. In other words, I developed a new approach to teaching science, provided it to a teacher, and then attempted to chart what actually happened in his classroom. However, ecological validity can run up against boundaries determined by ethical considerations such as anonymity and non-traceability (Cohen, et al. 2007). These considerations were paramount for this study, which took place in a small school in a small town in a small country.

To be continued…

and continued…

and continued…

Times for Permaculture

There is a fantastic article on permaculture in the New York Times that is well worth reading.
I especially love the Lexus ad at the top of the page.

Of particular interest to me as an educator are the many references to transformative learning experiences that tend to accompany peoples’ discovery of permaculture. Permaculture is a holistic, regenerative design system that can be applied to rehabilitating degraded land…
Transformed from a weed-infested yard full of rubbish.

…a falling down house…
Transformed from the verge of collapse to a warm, cozy home.
…or a dysfunctional, unsustainable culture.
The belief in perpetual growth without consequences must be overcome.
For learners of all ages, permaculture can be both the journey and the destination. And the truth is, we never really arrive. It is all about embracing certain levels of sustainability, peace of mind, and joy. Here are a few gems I picked out of the article that just might make their way into my dissertation. (See link above for source.)

“It’s an ecological theory of everything,” Mr. Cody said.

The ethic of permaculture is the movement’s Nicene Creed, or golden rule: care of the earth; care of people; and a return of surplus time, energy and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people.

In its effort to be universal, permaculture espouses no religion or spiritual element. Still, joining the movement seems to strike many of its practitioners as a kind of conversion experience.

As a system, permaculture impressed him as panoptic and transformational. “It shook my world,” Mr. Pittman said.

“I don’t know that anyone has ever done a double-blind study of permaculture,” said Mr. Pittman of the national Permaculture Institute. “Most people in permaculture are not that interested in doing those kinds of studies. They’re more interested in demonstrating it. You can see the difference in species diversity and yield just by looking at the system.”

As Mr. Weiseman observed, permaculture may be a “leap of faith.” But not leaping might have its own consequences.

“We know what’s right,” Mr. Weiseman said. “We know what’s best. We feel this thing in our bones and in our heart. And then we don’t do anything about it. Or we do. And I did. And it’s bearing fruit.”

And I thought all the NYT was good for was mulching the garden…
Peace, Estwing


I was reminded recently that I have now spent three full years living and studying in New Zealand. I came to pursue PhD research in permaculture education at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. Before I enrolled in December, 2008, Dani and I spent 3 months house sitting in Wanganui. We liked the city and our friends here so much that after 2 years in the Hamilton area (2009 & 2010), we moved back to Wanganui and started this project while I write my dissertation. But those aren’t the memories I’m talking about.
Just before flying into Auckland in June, 2008, I just missed my 15 minutes of fame back in New England. As I was sitting in the LA airport waiting to catch my connecting flight, I got an email from a TV news reporter from Boston. He wanted to do a story on my farm based on a recently published article in the Concord Monitor.

With gas at $4 per gallon, most people in New Hampshire can feel their wallets draining along with their car tanks. Not Nelson Lebo. He doesn’t have a car. He’s not worried about the cost of home heating oil either. And soaring food prices? Not much of a problem.

Lebo, 40, lives in a 1782 farmhouse in the woods of Andover that he has dubbed Pedal Power Farm. He heats it with wood cut from the property. He gets around on a bicycle. He grows much of his own food and buys locally otherwise. He gets his electricity from solar panels.

Lebo is no typical homesteader, content to stay tucked away in the woods, living off his land. He thinks he has ideas the rest of us could use. And he’s ready to share them.

“I’ve been living in a post-petroleum world for the last 18 years,” he said. “Everyone else is going to start living in a post-petroleum world next year.”

Lebo has been a fixture in Andover since he was hired to run Proctor Academy’s environmental program in 1991. He stopped working at the private school last year because of a herniated disk, but he still manages the organic gardens there. He was a part-time dorm parent this year.

But his teaching days are far from over. Let Lebo talk, and he will engage you for hours – he verges on ranting – about energy policy, American consumerism and the design principles around which he has built his life. One thing you won’t hear much of is a holier-than-thou attitude.

He said he doesn’t want to make people feel guilty about how they live. (He pointed out that he wears his hair in a crew cut and used to coach football, evidence of his own mainstream credibility.) He wants to encourage people to live differently. That, he said, is his “duty and obligation.”

He and girlfriend Dani Lejnieks are moving

to New Zealand this summer, where Lebo will pursue a doctorate in environmental education, looking at how to apply permaculture principles – which say that human societies can be designed to mimic natural systems – to education.

Lebo thinks people should have less of an impact on the Earth as they become better educated. The way he sees it, most people become bigger consumers as they become bigger earners.

During his last few weeks in Andover, Lebo has been holding seminars at the farm, inviting a few people at a time to see how he lives. He has gone to some attendees’ homes afterward, charging $40 per hour, to help them find ways to conserve energy. Some of his clients have been focused on living greener. Others want to save money.

Lebo said he used to call himself an environmentalist.

“Now I tell people I’m an economist,” he said. “And not only that, I’m a conservative economist.”

After years of being perceived as “just the kook at the end of the road,” he said, his ideas – his way of living – are in high demand.

“It feels like my whole life has come to this moment,” he said.

A ‘lazy farmer’

Modern society has been designed around fossil fuels, Lebo said as he stood in front of his home on a recent sunny afternoon. But those fuels are running out.

“We, as a culture, will look back in 100 years and curse the designers,” he said.

A moment earlier, he was praising one designer: the man who built his Old College Road home 226 years ago. He noted that the house, which he bought eight years ago, faces southeast, so the first rays of morning sun hit the front windows. The chimney in the center of the Cape-style home heats the whole house and is insulated from the cold.

The road in from Route 11 climbs a hill past several large, regal Victorian homes and sweeping green fields. It turns to dirt and narrows once and then twice, becoming bumpy and dark under the thick canopy of trees. The road crests a hill and continues into the small valley where the farm sits.

Story continues if you are interested:

It is not 100% accurate, but it gives the idea of what my farm was all about.
Peace, Estwing

Fossil Fuel Free

As the sound of lawn mowers ringing out across neighborhoods wanes in the southern hemisphere and waxes in the northern, I cannot help but to ask…why?

Why burn limited fossil fuels manicuring a show piece?

Why buy and maintain an expensive, loud, polluting machine?

Why pay $2.10 per litre ($3.60 per gallon in the US) to run that machine?

Why contribute further carbon dioxide to an already overwhelmed atmosphere?

Why spend hours on land care that yields no food?

Problems: Global food prices are at a record high and rising. Oil has been above $100 per barrel for weeks and rose $3 today on increased concerns on the Middle East and North Africa.

Solution: Being “eco-thrifty” means going green and saving money. We use no oil to maintain our 700 square meter section using the following low-maintenance/high productivity techniques.

Growing Food

Once a weedy lawn, now a productive garden and burgeoning food forest.

Tractoring Ducks

Ducks eat grass and turn it into eggs, flesh and fertilizer.


Interns Amy and John learning how to harvest carbon-neutral mulch.

Please people. Stop the mowing madness! For the good of your wallet and the planet.

Peace, Estwing

4 Dimensional Design: Multiple Functions

Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of multi-tasking. In this busy, busy world, it seems to becoming more and more prevalent. While I am not an advocate of texting while driving, I do see merit in being efficient with one’s time, as long as efficiency goes hand-in-glove with effectiveness. William McDonough and Michael Braungart do a good job of explaining the difference between what they call eco-efficient and eco-effective. Their book, Cradle to Cradle, is highly recommended.

I won’t try to improve on their excellent insights, but I would like to give an example of efficient/effective 4 dimensional permaculture design in action. (For those who have forgotten, TIME is the 4th dimension.) This is one of many 4 dimensional designs interacting on our property, but it illustrates the concept well.

Snails love overnighting within the agapanthus but because the caycuya grass has overgrown it is difficult and time-consuming to find them to feed to the ducklings. In this sense, the caycuya is seen as a ‘liability’ because it makes the process less efficient. Further down the page you’ll see how we turn it into an ‘asset’.

Agapanthus overrun by cacuya grass.

Now we could give our ducklings free range to find the snails themselves, but we have dogs in the neighborhood and no fencing out the front. So for the time-being we are offering escargot delivery services.

Escar-to go

Gardeners and physicists know that the process of squatting down and then standing up takes lots of energy. Part of being a lazy gardener (explained in a future post) is designing strategies that don’t require squatting down, and the other part is doing as much work as possible while your squatting before you stand up. With this in mind, as long as we’re squatting down to hunt for snails we might as well pull all of the caycuya we can comfortably reach. The large snails are placed in a pail and the grass is piled beside it. (The small snails are set free to be harvested another day.)

Waste = Food

When 12 to 15 snails have been harvested and all the caycuya within reach has been pulled, the job is done. until the nesting feeding time. The snails – liability to our gardens – are turned in an asset as duck food. The caycuya – also a liability to our gardens – is turned into an asset as a carbon neutral, hand-harvested, organic mulch. As a matter of fact, caycuya can be transformed from a liability to an asset within milliseconds and millimeters.

John the intern hard at work his very first day.

This is efficient/effective design because the snails are harvested on an as-needed basis. They stay fresh and grow best where they are. Why over-harvest and have to store them in a container?

The multi-tasking while squatting makes efficient use of the human component of the system. Since the caycuya poses no immediate threat, the job can be spread over a week or more taking only 5 minutes at a time.

And in the end, we’ll have free food for our hungry trio, free eco-mulch for our garden, a tidier front section, and the stage is set for quick and easy snail harvest the next time around.

Grow little snail, grow!

From a permaculture perspective, this illustrates the principle that every element of a system should serve multiple purposes. In 4 dimensional design, that element is the act of squatting down. As explained above, that single action serves multiple functions.

In my opinion, 4 dimensional design is not well understood or embraced by many permaculturists. It is something small that can make a big difference in a world of rising energy and food prices. What do you reckon?

Peace, Estwing

Willow Update

It has been nearly a month since we started our willow pollarding and pega pega experiment and we thought it might be time to give you an update.

You might remember that our Christmas Willow was a single branch that we had brought indoors and kept in a bucket of damp sand.

About two weeks after Christmas we brought the bucket and branch outside and removed all of the foliage. We were hoping this would encourage the tree to put its energy into creating roots and new buds, rather than trying to heal the older foliage.

We left the branch outside right near our tap, so we would remember to water it regularly. And two weeks later…

Success! We think. There appear to be healthy new buds forming on the branches. We haven’t probed into the sand, but my guess is that if we did, we would find new root buds as well. We’ll leave this little guy in the bucket until it has some more significant foliage and then will transplant it out to form the first part of our living-firewood-shelterbelt-fence.

The mother willow is doing even better than the cutting. In just four weeks the place where we did our major cutting has gone from this…

To this…

That’s a lot of growth! Now we need to decide if we want to keep all of these new branches and have about one dozen small branches, or trim them, to encourage the tree to put its energy into just one or two. My gut tells me to trim the new branches back, and leave two, but I don’t want to stress the tree too much. Any suggestions?

Eating Us out of House and Home

There is an expression in permaculture that goes something like “You don’t have too many snails, you have too few chickens”.

Well, we don’t have a snail deficiency, we’ve got a baby duck surplus.

Our ducklings have just about doubled in size in the week that we’ve had them. Part of the goal of having ducks was to have a protein source that we did not have to buy food for, making small gains in self sufficiency. We thought we had tons of snails. In fact we were crunching them underfoot walking up our driveway after a late night out two weeks ago. But the recent cairina moschata population boost has put a bit of a strain on our small backyard eco-system. Our normal go-to spots for snails have been picked dry by the need to feed our ducklings’ insatiable appetite.

So, after some internet research we have begun improvising some snail traps. Most people use these traps to lure snails away from their garden beds. We are hoping they lure snails out of their summer hiding places, and into an easy collection point.

Here is an example of the bricks and damp cardboard method.

And here is the toilet paper tube cluster method.
From past experience we know that the beer method works well, but we’re a little afraid of the effects of intoxicating our wee babies just yet.

Ducks cannot subsist on snails alone, even when they are eating 20+ per day. So we are supplementing their diet with another resource we had in abundance, seedy grass. We were using grass to line the bottom of the duck’s inside home, an unused bath tub, and found that they really liked eating the grain from the tops of the grass. Thanks to a preoccupied scyther our yard was a veritable sea of waving amber grain, or as the duckies see it, a sea of food waiting to be harvested.

This is pretty perfect since every grain of grass seed is one more future weed waiting to invade our garden beds.

So far the ducks are proving their worth by ridding us of two potential problems, and converting them both to fertilizer. As William McDonnough says “Waste = Food”, or in this case, waste = … more useful waste.

Have you found any good waste = food solutions lately? Pass them on.

Did I mention Permaculture?…

Permaculture has lots of definitions. Many are confusing. None are comprehensive. This is mine:

Permaculture is a system of ecological design that seeks to recognize and maximize networks of beneficial relationships, while minimizing or eliminating harmful or wasteful relationships.

To those new to permaculture, such definitions may be more confusing than helpful, but to those familiar with it, heads nod in recognition.

Permaculture is not a set of ethics to quote or a list of principles to memorize, but a way of seeing the world. It is holistic design in four dimensions. Training your brain to see interconnectedness is not easy if you’ve spent 13 to 17 years in Western education. Certain learning “disabilities” make it much easier if the aforementioned decade and a half have not beaten those ways of knowing out of you. I’m lucky enough to have such learning [dis]abilities.

Left: learning disabled mind, Right: learning-abled mind

It is about time we pointed out that our eco-thrifty renovation includes the entire 700 square meter section that was more or less full of rubbish and invasive weeds when we arrived. The holistic design includes establishing wind breaks, building soil fertility, planting fruit trees and a large vegetable garden, tractoring chooks, coppicing for fire wood, planting native trees, constructing a large sun trap, retaining water on the property, and integrating the indoor and outdoor environments.

Here is a photo gallery of some of these initiatives so far.

-M.C. Estwing