Category Archives: permaculture

New Years Permaculture Update

Here are some pictures of our pumping permaculture property.

Good eats
A lettuce crop where I harvested garlic just 2 weeks ago. 
More on the vine
Bawberries, as Verti would say.
Looking forward to our first grapes this year.
Mo bawberries pwees.
Pumpkins forming.
Another cubic metre of compost.
Spuds in the ground.
“Wild” purslane.
Kittens next door.
A little colour.
Bean blossoms.
Bean blossoms.
Bean blossoms… fooled you. Apples.
Melons in the ground. Hopefully it will be hot enough for fruits to form. 
Red hot chilly peppers – blossoming.
Our first oranges.
Guava fruits forming from fertilized flowers.
Dinner tonight.
Dinner tonight.

Peace, Estwing

Swales and Rain Gardens for Water Management

It is encouraging to see the number of people engaging in meaningful dialogue about important local issues through the Letters page of the Chronicle. Sadly, too often these letters include references to failed attempts to work with Wanganui District Council on strategies that work with nature instead of against it.
For some reason, our Council appears stuck in the past on many issues of infrastructure and economic development. From most accounts, the 1950s were a great time to be alive, but in many cases ‘50s thinking no longer applies.
All of this makes it particularly significant that WDC Chief Water Engineer, Kritzo Venter, has been active and vocal about promoting progressive water management strategies that ‘mimic’ those that nature itself has developed over millions of years. (That is some investment in R&D, ain’t it?!?)
Small swale and rain garden. 
One of those water management strategies – swales – has been in use for decades in some places around the world. A swale is a long, narrow earthwork that runs perpendicular to slope. They slow the flow of surface runoff and facilitate infiltration into the ground. They are perfectly level, unlike ditches, which are sloped to drain water away like a river. Water in a swale soaks into the ground instead of running over it. A carefully constructed swale includes a level-sill spillway that gently allows it to be overtopped in a controlled manner in the event of extreme rain.
The use of swales is the type of win-win-win situation I write about in this column because it: 1) reduces stream and river levels during flood events; 2) increases groundwater reserves that can be called upon during periods of drought; and, 3) significantly reduces the overall cost of infrastructure. Eco-thrifty at its best.
For example, two years ago I was asked to consult on a proposed residential development in Kaiwhaiki that had significant drainage problems. I was told the 10-year-old quote to ‘solve’ the problem the ‘old way’ using pipes and culverts was for half a million dollars. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I told them that good eco-design, which would include cluster housing and the use of swales, would significantly slash that price. WDC Chief Planner, Jonathan Barrett, appeared supportive of those ideas during one meeting held at Council.
The other strategy promoted by Kritzo – and praised by Chronicle assistant editor, Anna Wallis – is the use of rain gardens. A common use of rain gardens is to absorb and filter runoff from new parking lots or other such impermeable surfaces. In this way, rain gardens function like wetlands: sponging up excess water and cleaning it through natural processes.
A series of mini-swales and vege gardens make up this garden.
I first learned about rain gardens in 2005 while taking a certificate programme in the States on Organic Land Care. Shortly thereafter I advised a school to install rain gardens in a number of locations where they had persistent drainage problems. This was particularly meaningful in the context of the school because it became a relevant learning experience for students.
In 2009, while living in Raglan, I built a small management system to control an excess of runoff coming from the roof of a newly built outdoor kitchen at a campground. The system consisted of a swale, a level-sill spillway, and a rain garden. We planted the swale with feijoa trees and the rain garden with plants that tolerate periods of wet and dry.
Swales and vege gardens soak up water and keep it from flooding this lawn.
While in Raglan, I also used swales as a metaphor for eco-design during a Pecha Kucha night, where artists and designers share their work through 20 slides with narration of 20 seconds per slide. That presentation, “Thinking Like a Swale,” became the inspiration for a programme I offered at the Josephite Retreat Centre earlier this year to acknowledge the UN year of water. Hopefully, when River Week 2014 comes around next year, I’ll get a chance to present it again to compliment and support the education efforts Kritzo has already made in the community.
Us ‘swale-thinkers’ gotta stick together. It’s a watershed out there.

Multiple Functions

One of the more popular permaculture principles is known as “multiple functions.” Put simply, every element of a system should serve multiple functions. I have posted previously on this principle and will probably do so again. We embrace the idea of multiple functions often on our section. But we have recently acquired an element that surely excels at it. Our Aussie cuzzies will be especially interested in this.
It can be a thermal curtain…
…a sarong…
… a scarf…
… a doo-rag…
… a shower curtain…
… a blanket…
… a surfboard cover…
… a cape…

… a grudge…

… or a prayer.

Go the All Blacks!
Peace, Estwing

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