Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Addition to Retro #21: More Yard and Garden

Eco-design is holistic, cooperative and adaptive. But still, sometimes emails go missing. Somehow the ‘After’ shots of our section got lost in cyberspace last week somewhere between our home in Castlecliff and the Chronicle offices in the city. (Darn you, Gonville!)

Yet despite the ‘Before’ pictures of weeds and rubbish that accompanied last Saturday’s column, we still had about 40 people turn up for garden tours on the weekend. They must have been really amazed to find over 80 fruit trees and berry bushes in the ground along with extensive annual vege garden beds. Ross and I have saved the rest of you the trip by including before and after pictures this week, but I’ll fill in some of the highlights of what makes an eco-thrifty foodscape.

This transformation took less than 4 months. 

The elements that determine our decision-making are: sun, wind, water, soil, materials and time. Of these, sun and time are the non-negotiables. In other words, wind can be tempered, water can be managed, soil can be amended and materials can be changed or replaced. By materials I mean garden infrastructure like edging, posts, fences, irrigation, etc.

 This transformation took 12 months.

But the sun only follows certain paths in the sky and time waits for no man, woman or child. We cannot change them, so we have to design around them. The sun shines on certain parts of our section at certain times of year. Understanding solar patterns, and summer and winter sun angles have allowed us to achieve both a warm, dry, low-energy home, and a compact productive foodscape.

For example, in one corner of our back yard we have what I call ‘stadium seating’ facing northeast. At ground level we have a large strawberry bed and annual vege garden. Behind and above those are five blueberry bushes, and then four dwarf apples and a plum. Behind and above those – trained on galvanized wire along the fence – are three grapevines and four raspberry canes. 

Although the perennials have not leafed out yet, you may be able to see the blueberries at the center of this picture, and apples, raspberries and grapes to the right. 

And in the corner is a red guava that is just loving its sun trap: fruiting three weeks earlier than my friend in Hamilton’s guava of the same variety! All this is in an area of about 15 square metres.

Strawberries in the foreground, grapes and raspberries on the fence. You'll have to have good eyes to pick out the apple and plum in this shot. The guava is in the corner in front of the post.  

Wind management means we planted fruit trees in the lee of the few native trees that were on the property or wind netting that we installed ourselves. Water and soil management go hand-in-glove, relying on a combination of purchased topsoil and generous amounts of compost. Since we are on sand, the silt and clay particles in the topsoil are better at binding both organic matter and water longer than sand alone. But instead of top dressing the entire property with topsoil, we concentrate it only around our food producing plants. This means all of our annual vege beds have 70 mm to 100 mm of topsoil, and perennial fruit-bearing plants are installed with 5 to 10 litres of topsoil in the hole around their roots. Although we have rainwater collection and mains, our primary water management tool is this targeted soil / compost mix.

In terms of materials, I’ve already mentioned wind netting, which we use liberally. In some cases I have attached it to both sides of posts for double protection. Other materials we use are concrete fence posts (free from the dump), reused garden edging (online auction) and bricks (various second hand sources). We chose these materials because we did not want to use treated timber for organic gardens, and we could not source inexpensive untreated, long-life timber.

Finally, although we cannot stop time or change it, we can design in four dimensions. Time is the fourth dimension. Designing in four dimensions means crop rotation in annual vege gardens, and may mean using nurse trees like tagasaste (tree lucerne) as companions for fruit trees. We also use timing with our chooks and ducks to mow our grass by ‘tractoring’ them in 2 m by 1.2 m wire mesh pens that we move every day.

In the examples above, we are working with nature not against it, to minimize inputs and maximize productivity. You can learn more from a pair of workshops coming up the weekend of the 6th - 7th October. 

6th October, 1 – 4 pm: Low Input / High Productivity Gardening
Whanganui Environment Base, 256 Wicksteed St., Wanganui.

7th October, 2 – 5 pm: The Practical Application of Permaculture
10 Arawa Place, Wanganui.

Registration: 022 635 0868 –

Peace, Estwing

Friday, September 21, 2012

Retrospective #21: Eco-Thrifty Yard and Garden

Until now this column has focused on the application of our seven design principles to the physical structure of our dwelling. Over the past 20 weeks I have explained how we have applied those principles: solar gain; thermal mass; insulation; draft-proofing; reduce; reuse; and, recycle.

But recently my attention has been drawn out of doors to our nearly complete landscaping efforts. Although the design principles do not fully apply to our yard and gardens, they have still guided us through the process of turning a section full of rubbish and weeds into an abundant foodscape. For example, the principles of solar gain and thermal mass helped us design and build a number of ‘sun traps’ and ‘heat sinks’ where we planted sub-tropicals such as banana, tamarillo, Tahitian lime and pepino. We are also very conscious of seasonal sun angles in relationship to our deciduous fruit trees like apples, peaches, apricots, and our evergreen fruit trees like feijoas, guavas and citrus. But most of all we are conscious of the wind and sea spray.


You may recall my praise of the New Zealand Building Code in previous columns for its high standard of weather-tightness and structural stability. In other words, the first step toward a sustainable building is one that does not leak or fall down. Along the same lines, the most sustainable fruit tree is the one that does not die from exposure or thirst. For those of us who live close to the coast that means wind protection. For those of us who live on sand that means soil and compost.

In our case, that increased the cost of our landscaping because we have to buy wind netting and topsoil. But without those investments, we might as well not even try growing fruit trees in Castlecliff. With those investments, we have planted 100 edible perennial fruit-bearing plants on our standard section. Along with the perennials, we have extensive annual gardens where we can apply the last three of our design principles constantly: reduce, reuse and recycle.


Like any adherent to common sense, we compost (ie, recycle) our food scraps and yard clippings. We reduce the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides by managing a diverse, healthy polyculture of plants. In other words, we let nature do the fertilizing and pest control for us by using nitrogen-fixing legumes and beneficial insects. And we have reused heaps of concrete fence posts and edging to frame in our raised annual gardens.

As with the villa renovation, the eco-thrifty mandate in the yard and garden is low input and high performance. Additionally, in both cases the design is holistic and four-dimensional. Holistic means that we consider the interaction between different elements of the design. Four-dimensional means that we consider time – the fourth dimension – as we interact with our home by opening and closing curtains at different times of day, and interact with our gardens by rotating crops and staggering plantings and harvests.


If you are a keen gardener, interested in eco-design, or simply a fan of this column, you are invited to a garden tour to celebrate the spring equinox. We are offering the same tour both today and tomorrow afternoon. A koha is suggested to support the ongoing writing of this column by this unemployed graduate student with an infant child and wife on maternity leave.

Saturday, 22nd September, 2:30-3:30 pm (This time corresponds with Saturday bus service in Castlecliff).
Sunday, 23rd September, 2:30-3:30 pm. (Sorry, no Sunday bus service.)
10 Arawa Place, Castlecliff.

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Two-Hour Community Garden

Question: What can you accomplish in half the time I takes to golf 18 holes?

Left: 2:30 pm.  -   Right: 4:30 pm.

The key to running an efficient working bee is being prepared. This means having all tools, materials and food at the ready before anyone arrives. The transformation seen above is the result of 4 people working less than two hours. But three months earlier the site looked like this...

... before I scythed the grass and then...

... laid roofing iron to weaken the couch and kikuyu grasses.

Three months is barely enough to weaken these grasses enough that they won't come up through the cardboard and soil. But three months is all I had in this instance because I wanted to hold the working bee near the spring equinox. Here are some pics of the workers after we finished. We were too busy to take any pics while we were working.

Thanks to these awesome workers. Chur Chur!

Special thanks for donations to Loaders Landscape Supplies, Wanganui Garden Centre, Bristol's Seeds, Sustainable Whanganui Trust, Jergens Demolition, and Mark Christensen / Central Tree Crops.

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Retrospective #20: More Lessons From a Long Dead Yankee

Last week I made the claim that eco-thrifty renovation is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. The mandate of ETR is low cost and high performance, but how to achieve that mandate is not predetermined. Some times it means reusing materials. For example, last week I wrote about reusing windows during our renovation, and the week before I described turning an old deck into a fence.

But sometimes it means buying the highest quality, longest lasting products. For example, because we are in the sea spray zone, we replaced out leaky roof with the highest quality roofing iron. Although the initial price was higher than lower quality roofing iron, over the long run this decision will best meet the low cost / high performance mandate. The same can be said for compact fluorescent light bulbs: they cost more at the shop, but save money over the long term.

This kind of thinking is not new. It was around when Mark Bachelder built my former home, Trollbacken, in New Hampshire (USA) in 1782. When I bought the farmhouse in 2000, the home inspector that I hired to report on its condition told me, “This structure is in better shape than a house I inspected last week that is only 20 years old.”

One of the most sustainable buildings is the one that lasts a very long time. Still, even the best old homes need TLC now and again. That was the case for Trollbacken in 2007, when a seven-metre section of sill finally gave in to ‘powderpost beetle’ (borer). By sill, I mean a 300 mm by 200 mm timber beam upon which the entire post and beam structure rests. But to remove and replace it I would have to take the weight of the entire farmhouse off the sill. How do you jack up a 225 year-old home? Very carefully.

I hired my neighbor and ZZ Top impersonator, Rick, to help me. He had never done anything like this before, but he was willing to give it a go. We fixed heavy blocks with carriage bolts into the top of each post, and then carefully wedged 100 mm by 100mm poles underneath the blocks at an acute angle to allow enough space to work. Then we used ancient screw jacks that I bought at an auction to un-weight the sill by the slightest amount.

With one quarter of my home hanging by its shoulders I took a chainsaw to its ankles, cutting the sill out in sections. Once this was done, we made forms and poured footers. While Rick and I mixed 38 bags of concrete, we sent Dani into the cellar to ‘tamp’ the wet mix to remove air pockets as we shoveled it into the forms. Although she emerged from the chore hours later speckled, at least she was in the cool shade all day. I remember it was 38 degrees with bright sunshine, and it was difficult to determine who had the worse of the jobs. Although Dani did take a ‘wicked cool’ photo from her subterranean perspective.

Once the footers were poured, Rick and I went to a local mill to pick up a replacement sill we had ordered. Back at Trollbacken, we cut mortises into the sill to match the tenons at the end of each ‘half-round’ floor joist. It was close to 40 degrees the day we installed the new sills and unscrewed the jacks. But it was worth it knowing the Trollbacken might last for another 200 years. 

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Learning What Works in Community Sustainability Education

An Ecological Model for Whole Community Sustainability Education

In the last five months, our small city has had the privilege of hosting two of the most outspoken voices on the Internet regarding peak oil, climate change and financial collapse. In April, Nicole Foss spoke to an overflow crowd on debt deflation and building ‘lifeboats.’ In July, Guy McPherson spoke to a capacity crowd on climate change and some predicted consequences. Both talks had the following in common:

• the dominant hair colors of audience members were white and grey;
• most audience members left scared shitless;
• building community resilience is important in the face of climate extremes, energy price volatility, and financial collapse.

Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer at our home in April. 

Raul Ilargi Meijer had some interesting back-of-the-house commentary on the first two of these during Nicole’s excellent talk, and shared the story of a community project in Australia that had recently impressed him. But like James Howard Kunstler and other Cassandras on the web, Guy, Nicole and Raul are much better at providing detailed commentary on the potential problems we face than detailed descriptions of how to respond to those problems. I do not see this as a flaw in their approach, but simply as outside their niche in what might be called the resiliency movement. Where these talented thinkers and writers leave off, others pick up. Like any natural ecosystem, diversity in the resiliency movement contributes to robustness and integrity.

But still the question remains: If building community resilience is a sound prescription, what does it look like and how does one make it happen? The Transition Movement offers some frameworks, but the Transition Town model failed in our city four years ago, and most people involved in it avoid talking about what happened. For our community, some different approaches to community resilience appear to be needed. One can find an endless stream of ideas and suggestions on the web that could theoretically work, but few case stories of actual successful initiatives or replicable models based on real experience.

With this in mind, we set out less than two years ago on a project to learn what actually works in our community, and to develop a replicable model for other communities to use as they see fit. The journey has been one of discovery and humility. Many of the ‘sure things’ we thought would work turned out to be complete failures, but other ‘shots-in-the-dark’ found traction in the community. Theory does not equal practice, and pre-conceived notions appear to be less useful than remaining open to any possibility. Ours is an ecological model for whole community sustainability education that is holistic, cooperative and adaptive.

Our first eco-thrifty renovation open house.  

The model is holistic in that it seeks to include every learner in our community from age one to 101, from unemployed to wealthy, from liberal to conservative, in formal and informal settings, and on multiple levels. The model remains open to any possibility that presents itself in a cooperative and adaptive manner, and to any potential partnership no matter how unlikely it may appear on the surface. So far, partnerships have included religious groups, health organizations, adult education centers, Maori groups, private businesses, community groups, newspapers, athletic organizations, schools, permaculture groups, and even the YMCA.

Teaching the science of sustainability to a home school group.  

As implied by this list, the model is cooperative in that it seeks out partnerships within the community for initiatives. It is designed to mimic mutualistic relationships between organisms in nature where both parties benefit. It seeks synergy in relationships where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Working together shares the load, and also surrounds us with positive people working for genuine change. Where mutualism and synergy do not exist, initiatives are abandoned, or as described next, modified.

 Aberfeldy School visits The Little House That Could. 

Finally, the model is adaptive in that each initiative must meet the above criteria for cooperative partnership or it will not ‘survive’ in that form. In an evolutionary sense, each initiative starts as the seed of an idea that is shared with members of the community. If the idea finds a partnership, it may proceed to become an initiative. If it does not, it is unlikely to be initiated unless revised. We recognize that in the process of evolution the vast majority of genetic mutations fail. This failure is not necessarily bad, only natural. Looking to nature for our ecological model of community education, we accept a high failure rate of ideas because we know that those that succeed and proceed as initiatives are the most robust in practice, not just in theory.

Sister Noelene talks worms on a community permaculture tour. 

We feel our model and the findings from applying that model may be useful to members of other communities on two levels. The first level involves using ecological design thinking to design an approach to whole community sustainability education as discussed above. Because this model is holistic, cooperative and adaptive, it can be applied to any community in the world. The second level on which others may be interested in this model is through the stories of the many successful community educational initiatives we have implemented over the last 18 months. The case stories illustrate the processes by which different initiatives went through, as well as describe the initiatives themselves. At present we can count over a dozen educational community sustainability initiatives, as listed below.

Connecting with teens at the Youth Forum. 

Over the coming months we will describe many of these initiatives, and in the process shed more light on our ecological model for community education. As always, we seek feedback and mutually beneficial partnerships to advance the model further.

Donated topsoil for the community garden in our front yard. 

Current community sustainability education initiatives:

Eco-Thrifty Renovation
-       Blog (
-       Open Homes
-       Garden Tours
-       Workshops
-       Newspaper Articles
-       Weekly Newspaper Column

Sustainable Schools Programme – In partnership with the Sustainable Whanganui Trust and funding from the Wanganui District Council.
-       The Science of Sustainability
-       Solar Sausage Sizzle

Whole Community Holistic Approach to Conservation, Health, and Education Now (WCHA RCHEN – Wacha Reckon?) Network of professionals working in these fields.

Whanganui Youth Sustainability Leadership Project (aka Keen Green Teens) – In partnership with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust, with funding from the municipal Waste Minimization Levy.

Castlecliff Conservation Club – Supported by the Port Bowen Trust.

Kaitiakitanga Community Garden – Supported by Loaders Landscape Supplies, Wanganui Garden Centre, Central Tree Crops Assoc., Bristol Seeds, and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

Zero Waste Events – Partnering with the YMCA and the New Zealand Master’s Games, with funding from the Positive Futures Trust.

Wanganui Permaculture Tour – In conjunction with the Australasian Permaculture Convergence 11, and Permaculture in New Zealand.

Wanganui Monthly Permaculture Gathering – In cooperation with the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

Kaiwhaiki Eco-Village Planning – With the Kaiwhaiki Pa Trust

Community Education Evenings – In cooperation with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

Contact Nelson Lebo via

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Retrospective #19: Pragmatic, Not Dogmatic

Last week I introduced the last of the design principles that guided us through our renovation: reduce, reuse, recycle. In practice, reuse accounts for 90% of this trio because there is only so much recycling to do, and the act of reusing reduces waste, material use, and costs. While the New Zealand Building Code allows materials to be reused in some cases, it does not in others. If you are planning any work that involves the structural integrity or weather-tightness of your home, please refer to the building code. The friendly folks at Building Control are helpful, knowledgeable, and pretty well awesome to work with.

One example of reuse that saved us thousands of dollars and did comply with the building code was installing second hand aluminium windows that had been stored in the villa along with mountains of rubbish. We looked at the rubbish and saw resources. The real estate agent said the sale came with all chattels, implying it was a necessary evil given the piles of old carpet, broken plasterboard, paint cans, and boxes full of random effluvia. We agreed, thinking ‘Oh boy!’

At some point in the past, the original lounge windows had been smashed by vandals, and roofing iron was later nailed on the inside wall to keep them – but not rain – out. As a result, they broke a hole in the floor and came in that way, and almost all of the studs in that exterior wall were rotted up to 200 mm when we took possession. Looking at the expense of reframing and re-cladding the entire wall, we were eager to save some money by reusing the ‘free’ windows we inherited.

Additionally, we wanted to demonstrate that a drafty, cold villa in Wanganui could be made warm, dry and healthy without going to the expense of replacing all windows with double-glazing. As I have written about on many occasions, we addressed the problem of heat loss through windows with a host of low budget / high performance solutions that match and exceed the insulating value of double-glazed windows alone.

However, contrary to what some readers may think, eco-thrifty renovation is pragmatic, not dogmatic. The mandate of ETR is low cost and high performance, but it can be achieved in many ways. Here are two examples involving windows.

Lounge Window: Left without plastic film - Right with plastic film
As described above, the lounge window is a large, second-hand and aluminium framed. This makes it one of the biggest sources of heat loss in our otherwise well insulated home. The pragmatic solution in this case was to install a pelmet and floor-length thermal curtains, as well as plastic sheet window insulation. From the picture you can see how effective the window film is at insulating the pane on the right compared to one on the left without the plastic sheet applied. That picture was taken in late July at about 8 am.

Left: Lounge window. Right: New kitchen/dining window.

Not far from the lounge window is another northeast-facing window. This window brings morning sun into our kitchen and dining room. Initially we installed another second-hand window that was left in the villa, but we later discovered two things: 1) the hinges were stuffed; 2) that of any window, this would be the first one from which the curtains would be drawn each morning. Both of these reasons drew me to a local window manufacturer to order the lowest cost / highest performance double-glazed window I could. For our purposes, this meant a large, fixed, thermally-broken window. The location of the window is near our French doors, so ventilation is not an issue in that corner of the villa. What we saved on hinges and latches paid for the extra expense of having the aluminium frame ‘broken’ by a thick band of rigid plastic. Although this window cost us about $700, because of its location it serves a special purpose by letting in daylight exactly where we spend our mornings while still retaining warmth.

As I said, ETR is more pragmatic than dogmatic. There are many shades of grey.

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Crisis, Resilience, Relevance and Transformation

This is an article I wrote for the newsletter for our local currency. I have found many similarities between my research in transformative learning in science education and what I read in articles such as the one referenced in the article below. 
In a nutshell, new learning seems to happen most when the learner recognizes the relevance of that new learning. The recognition of relevance can be brought on by a crisis, as in the article referenced below. These combined can lead to a transformative learning experience, the result of which may be - you guessed it, as shown in the article referenced below - a greater capacity for resilience in the learner. 
Peace, Estwing

The warnings continue to come from Internet prophets like Nicole Foss and Guy McPherson. Although they spoke their words of warning in Whanganui in April and July respectively, their presence on the web remains constant. These modern day Cassandras speak of a future yet unseen, yet if we turn to Greece we may be able to see that future happening now. I read an excellent article from Reuter’s news service about a group of young people who fled Athens to start an eco-village/commune in the countryside. The article can be found on the 30th of August, 2012.
For me, highlights of the article include the following passages:
The commune is one of several ecological initiatives that have benefited as the debt crisis forces Greeks to rethink their way of life - especially the big-spending, consumerist urban lifestyle partly blamed for bringing Greece to the brink.
"As a general trend, the crisis for several people was an opportunity to change the way they think and try to be organized in a different way," said Theocharis Tsoutsos, professor at the Technical University of Crete who has studied sustainable energy projects.
"For instance, doing things on a smaller scale, creating their own garden, or trying to promote ecological issues on a small scale, or promoting low-cost agricultural initiatives."
The commune would have found few willing takers among Greeks riding high on an economic boom a decade ago. "People then were more interested in their welfare, making money, the stock market. These people would have been laughed at - Greek society was not ready to hear this kind of message," he said, adding that other, less developed eco-communes have also sprung up in Greece in recent years.
"Now it's really relevant. It goes to the core - every Greek knows someone who is moving to these practices."
My question is, how many people who scoff at REBS now will join it enthusiastically if (when according to Foss and McPherson) high unemployment and austerity come to Whanganui?