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Micro-Climates Large and Small

An amazing ‘teachable moment’ occurred recently regarding the concept of micro-climates. The “Black Boy” peach stones have been in sand – black sand from the west coast of New Zealand – for the winter. This is our germination strategy.

About four weeks ago, due to changing seasonal sun angles, morning sun reached under a shed roof and struck one small part of the beds. The resulting warmth caused early germination of five seedlings in one little spot. Only now are stones germinating in the rest of the beds.

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That teachable moment gives way to larger discussions on micro-climates and how they can be embraced, designed and improved. While our market gardens are out in the open and often take heavy winds, we have a smaller ‘kitchen garden’ protected from the prevailing winds that also benefits from the ‘sun trap’ effect created by the home and carport.

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We shifted the herb garden to this north-facing location in the car park. Most herbs love hot and dry conditions, as does the dog.

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Similarly, these grapes grow in a north-facing sun trap that is also protected from the prevailing winds. Additionally, most of the leaves are kept dry by the shed roof, which reduces the chance of moulds and fungus growing on them.

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Plants in the nursery receive morning sun but are protected from midday and afternoon sun in the summer.

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The potting bench also receives morning sun but nothing else. This is good for transplants and hardening off purchased seedlings grown in hot houses.

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With heavy soils we have struggled with where to plant citrus. The solution was to build up a “hugel-mound” to improve drainage and increase soil carbon, and to site it in a spot protected from the prevailing winds by existing lacebark and recently planted tagasaste.

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While micro-climates often seek to achieve protection from the wind, there are instances when the opposite is desired. Evapotranspiration beds seek to draw moisture out for the soil using plants and a windy location. This from Wikipedia:

Evapotranspiration (ET) is the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the Earth’s land and ocean surface to the atmosphere. Evaporation accounts for the movement of water to the air from sources such as the soil, canopy interception, and waterbodies. Transpiration accounts for the movement of water within a plant and the subsequent loss of water as vapor through stomata in its leaves. Evapotranspiration is an important part of the water cycle. An element (such as a tree) that contributes to evapotranspiration can be called an evapotranspirator.[1] 

Below is a sketch of a mounded ETS bed for grey water treatment using biomass willows and carex grasses. The idea is that the willows grow rapidly in the presence of the  nutrients in the grey water but transpire excess moisture to the atmosphere. In winter when the willows are dormant the grasses take over the transpiration task.

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By understanding micro-climates we can use them to our advantage. These are examples of using the permaculture principles: Observe & Interact, and Design from Patterns to Details.

Peace, Estwing

Estwing

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Water Quality: Designing for Win-Win-Win

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

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

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Published 2nd September, 2019.

Dr. Nelson Lebo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Published 16th September, 2019

Dr. Nelson Lebo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The system addresses environmental challenges in these ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byline: Nelson Lebo practices regenerative agriculture in Okoia.

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

Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Internship: Paying-It-Forward

Interns come to Kaitiaki Farm for 8 weeks at a time to earn a Permaculture Design Certificate. That’s not long enough to grow anything from seed to plate except radishes or maybe salad greens depending on the time of year. As a result, we’ve developed a form of ‘paying-it-forward’ from one group to the next in the annual garden, or even from season to season by making and freezing pesto or broad bean falafal or sliced peaches, loquats and feijoas.

One group plants tomatoes that they will never eat, but enjoys crown pumpkin, spaghetti squash, dried chilis, and dehydrated apples grown and prepared by other interns months earlier.

The most recent group has been able to experience much of the best aspects of harvest season and their work in the annual gardens has been relatively light. But instead they’ve been planting natives along the stream, helping put up firewood, and transitioning the beds to winter crops such as broad beans, brassicas and garlic. They have even helped organise and run a Curtain Bank for the Whanganui community, to help low-income families keep their homes warmer during the coming winter months.

Previous groups have helped with drainage on the land, built animal shelters and chicken tractors, and planted poplar poles, avocados, olives, and around 2,000 native plants. Each group makes compost that will be used by future groups and raises ducklings or chicks that they won’t see as full grown.

Paying-it-forward on Kaitiaki Farm may serve as an example of what is sorely lacking in much of the rest of contemporary human society. Instead of paying-it-forward we see rampant stealing from future generations in terms of biodiversity, climate, and financial debt.

Even during an 8-week permaculture internship one can only learn so much. So instead of trying to ‘teach’ heaps of ‘stuff’ we take the approach of helping to develop a more holistic vision and four-dimensional design thinking skills. As our interns plant vegetable seeds in the gardens and native seeds in pots in the nursery, as instructors we’re planting seeds of the ethical approach to ecological design that is permaculture. Once interns leave the farm we rely on them to spread out across the planet and pay-it-forward in communities worldwide. We need to make sure they are well nourished for such a weighty job.

Peace, Estwing

Farm Design: The BIG Picture:

Thanks to a drone picture from our interns, I can explain a bit about our farm design from a different perspective. While this image only shows a small part of the farm it does capture an intersection of farm systems.

One of the first major changes we made on the farm was fence off a remnant wetland in 2016 and plant native grasses, flax, shrubs and trees. The aims are to improve water quality, control erosions, provide habitat, and increase biological diversity.

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Next we bisected the valley with fencing and designated one side for goats and one side for kune kune pigs. On the goat side – where you can see the bee hives – we’ve planted around 50 poplar poles to stabilise the slopes. Each of these is protected by a heavy duty plastic sleeve to prevent the goats from stripping the bark.

On the pig side we have planted around 40 poplars, 32 olives, and 60 akeake trees, all of which are unprotected because the pigs eat grass but do not browse trees.

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Next we fenced the rest of the stream, which goes far beyond the picture shown here. Along this stretch of stream we’ve planted primarily cabbage trees and Australian river oak (casuarina). Both are known to have fibrous root systems that are good at holding stream banks.

Part of this area contains a small hillside formerly covered in gorse and thistles, as well as another remnant wetland. We’ve planted more native trees, flax and willows there. This area can be used as an emergency browse block in case of severe drought.

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The area under the pines provides seasonal grazing as needed. We can rotate the goats or  pigs through this area to rest other paddocks.

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Most of the farm has poor soil drainage that does not suit avocado trees. But there is a shelf of land above the stream that has better drainage that will host 30 to 40 trees. We’ve fenced this area temporarily to establish tagasaste (tree lucerne) as a companion to the avocados.

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The olives are on the dry and windy hillside above the avocados.

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We planted 40 ake ake on a dry hillside on one side of the large poplars seen in the middle of the image and another 20 on the other side of them. Ake ake are well adapted to dry conditions.

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In the short term we are having to hand water many of these trees, but in the long term they will contribute to the resilience of the farm. Trees help build resilience to both drought and flood. We’ve planted over 2,000 in the last four years.

At present the bees are managed by a contractor who pays us an annual fee. We have a good diversity of flowering plants that provide more-or-less year-round bee fodder.

Peace, Estwing

 

Kaitiaki Farm Work Study PDC Internship

 

Earn your Permaculture Design Certificate while working on a premier permaculture demonstration farm in New Zealand.

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Our work study internship programme is unique in the world of permaculture education in that it combines best practice teaching and learning with best practice regenerative land management.

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The programme balances content, process and reflection, while nurturing systems thinking skills. It’s about developing a way of thinking that recognizes the connections between diverse elements on the farm and how they interact in four dimensions (over time), along with the hands-on skills required to work effectively with cultivated ecologies.

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Kaitiaki Farm is an exemplar permaculture property that is blessed with a diverse array of microclimates and growing conditions. The 5.1 hectare (13 acre) property is located 4 km outside of Whanganui with a population of 43,000.

Along with holistic land management we also embrace appropriate technology, renewable energy and human-scale solutions.

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Many of our interns come with low or no rural skills. Motivation, a love of learning, and a strong work ethic are the most important elements for success at Kaitiaki.

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We spend a lot of time teaching and talking. This slows down our work but makes the internship what it is – an endless series of ‘teachable moments’. It is also the best way to earn a PDC. This type of learning experience is extremely rare anywhere in the world and would not come from a book or standard PDC course. That said, we have a huge library of great books and lots of connections locally and nationwide of practicing permaculturists.

Interns work three-ish full-ish days and two half days per week, with two days off.

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More details here: http://www.theecoschool.net/workstudy-permaculture-design-certificate.html

The ECO School

Whanganui, New Zealand

 

Inquiries: theecoschool at gmail dot com

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