Urban Homesteading and Radical Home Economics

Setting the Context

Dr Ottilie Stolte from the University of Waikato sets the scene for understanding how our households have shifted from productive to consumptive units, and how that affects us as households and as a society in general.

She suggests that neo-liberalism values have led to a shift in how households operate/live: where profit is the measure of success and the market is seen as the best way to achieve profit, there is a push for work that was traditionally outside the market economy to be made into a marketable good or service.
Neoliberalism - Ottilie Stolte countering neoliberalism - ottilie

What this has meant is that work that doesn’t contribute to the economy is under-valued, and a lot of this is work carried out by women (and ironically, a lot of this is under-paid even when it has been made into a marketable service – care work, cleaning, and so on).

Here is a media review talking about what can happen when neo-liberalism meets feminism:

The Work-Spend Cycle

The work-and-spend cycle is a phenomenon in which people in affluent nations remain trapped in a pattern of long hours of work and increasing consumption spending that fails to generate lasting improvements in well-being and plays a major role in ecological degradation.

Dale Southerton, Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture

For example, many work long hours and so rely on childcare services, but then need to earn more money to pay for the childcare, and so end up working longer hours.

But how can we break out?
How can we reduce the amount of outsourcing we do?

Can we shift our view of the system, so that money is a means to an end, rather than an end itself?

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Can we reclaim some of the jobs, and skills we have outsourced, that we now pay for? (But while reclaiming it, throwing in a bit of gender equality, so that jobs are shared – check out Çiçek Göçkün’s TED talk).


Can we borrow, share and swap more, to reduce our reliance on money exchanges for goods and services? (This post on Alternative Economies has more info.)

Eight Forms of Capital

Ethan Roland of Appleseed Permaculture puts forward the idea of 8 forms of capital, which are often inter-related and can sometimes be exchanged for each other. Working out which we are richer or poorer in can help us identify opportunities to holistically develop/build assets in a variety of different capitals, and also engage us in shifting away from the dominant paradigm that only values financial capital.

Consumption to Production

To be more productive and less consumptive we need time (and skills). Spending more time on home skills means less time to earn money. But it’s OK! Because you don’t need as much money to start with, as you are making things that you would otherwise have to purchase.

And while we are looking at living with less money, you might want to check out the book Frugal Hedonism – a guide to having fun without spending money. Our group of Permaculture Students came up with some of their own ideas and the general consensus was nature, friends, food, drinks, a little risk (fire, mild law-breaking, etc.), or combinations of several/all have the making of an excellent time with very little financial expenditure.

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Getting Started

Some good resources for people starting on their homesteading journey are:

And here are some links to some fun activities that may well change your life if you don’t already know them:

Beeswax wrapInstructions from My Healthy Green Family (using oven), or video below (using iron).

Keeping productive animals

  • Bees are a keystone species. Our food systems, environment, and life as we know it is directly dependent on bees. So keeping bees is great for the Earth. And you get honey and more! In fact, read 16 Reasons Why Beekeeping is Awesome for a comprehensive and highly convincing article about why beekeeping is amazing.
  • Chickens and ducks, on the other hand, offer weeding and waste management services, as well as giving eggs and making (sometimes) very loving pets.

Preserving and fermentingCommon Sense Home have a excellent guide to food preservation for beginners, including cool storage, drying/dehydrating, canning, freezing, fermenting, pickling, and preserving in salt, sugar, alcohol or oil.

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The Love Food Hate Waste website has instructions, videos, recipes and more for food preservation. It also has resources for food planning, storage, waste minimisation, and more!

Home made cleaning products – there are hundreds of recipes available online, from simple ones with ingredients you’ll probably already have in your cupboard, to ones that focus on reducing environmental harm and ‘nasty chemicals’, to what might be a nearly comprehensive list of all the options, and everything in between.

Reusable padsAnne-Marie, if you are reading this, please create a link about the reusable pads you make so that we can share and celebrate the story behind your products that look after the Earth and people. Thank you! 🙂 In the mean time, the How to Make Your Own Reusable Menstrual Pads page on WikiHow will do.






Sustainable Backyards

Why grow our own food?

We always hear that we should be growing our own food – but why? Here are some of the ideas gathered from permaculture students who were given 4 minutes to think:

Earth Care

  • attracts beneficial insects
  • gets people outside … leading to increased appreciation of nature
  • knowing inputs and processes of the food system (including energy and chemicals used)

People Care

  • good for mental health
  • superior taste and nutrition
  • know the history of the food, include how it has been grown (e.g. if/which chemicals have been added)
  • gets people outside … leading to increased appreciation of nature

Fair Share

  • greater self-sufficiency in the case of disasters and in general
  • sharing food with neighbours contributes to greater sense of community and community resilience


Using our space well

To get the most out of the garden/space we have (whether that is in terms of productivity, beauty, or any other function and/or use), there are some things to consider.

  1. Start by drawing a plan of the garden/space you have, including any existing features you do not plan on changing (e.g. buildings, trees, etc.).
  2. Identify north. This helps identify the path of the Sun, and also the direction of prevailing wind(s).
  3. Identify any areas that are very dry or wet.
  4. Identify any wind paths or corridors, and any sheltered areas.
  5. Consider the path of the Sun (including seasonal variations) and shade.  The Andrew Marsh 3D Sun Path shows sun paths for around the world and across the year.
  6. Identify frosty spots (they are good for killing some bugs, but also good for killing some plants!)
  7. Identify slopes and other topographical features.
  8. Understand soil type and fertility.
  9. Identify zones. Here are some useful links to understanding zones from a permaculture perspective: Zones and Sectors by Deep Green Permaculture, and Zones from permaculture.wikia.com.

Whatever the weather

Understanding and knowing what to expect (kind of, at least) from local weather can be helpful when designing your garden/space.

Some useful websites include:

  • yr.no – said to be very accurate
  • Ventusky – app for interactive maps of real-time weather systems
  • MetService – New Zealand specific and probably most well known
  • MetVUW – New Zealand specific, lots of detailed information
  • Earth.nullschool.net – mesmerising maps of real-time winds and currents

So, for example, in the Waikato Region there is highly changeable weather, high humidity, frequent frosts during winter (because we are in a basin), and not a lot of wind (leading to a lot of fog).

Wherever you are, it is worth considering your local weather and climate conditions. It is also important for us to start considering how different climate change scenarios might affect our local climate and weather.

Planning and designing a garden 

Tania Ashman (gardener, permaculturalist, inspirational friend, and more) has come up with some ‘top tips’ for creating a productive, biodiverse, resource-efficient, ecologically considerate garden:

Keep a diary so you can organise, observe and interact. You can look back on what you did when and learn from successes and failures. A gardening calendar can be useful so you know when to sow and when to harvest different plants.

20161002_134819Choose plants that complement each other. Different plants have different needs, so planting those that have similar needs together. For example, planting ones with similar watering needs together means you avoid over- or under-watering.

You can plant in guilds to help promote the health and productivity of the different species.

Practice crop rotation. Try not to keep growing the same thing in the same year season after season, as this is not good for the soil (upon which your whole garden depends). Check this page for really easy-to-follow information on how to crop rotate.

We are wanting to create ecological systems, so letting some plants go to seed means they can self sow for next season. Also, even if there are ‘weeds’ growing… unless you are going to put something else where they are, consider just leaving them there because anything is better than bare soil.

Don’t leave soil bare, as it strips it of nutrients and life. The only time soil is bare in nature is after an ecological disaster… we don’t want this in our gardens.

Tania Ashman

If you want to start actually loving ‘weeds’, you might want to check out this post by Tenth Acre Farm. Or if you would still like to get rid of weeds, but without dangerous chemicals, try salt, vinegar, or boiling water.

Closing the loop

Nature is amazing in that it naturally composts everything biodegradable for us. By having a compost heap/bin/system in our garden it means we can actually collect the compost and obtain a yield. It is a great way of managing our kitchen and organic waste so that it does not end up in landfill, where it causes many environmental problems.

Animals in the garden – why and how?

Bees are a keystone species. Our food systems, environment, and life as we know it is directly dependent on bees. So keeping bees is great for the Earth. And you get honey and more! In fact, read 16 Reasons Why Beekeeping is Awesome for a comprehensive and highly convincing article about why beekeeping is amazing.

Or if you prefer melodic creations by Flo and Jean (with some adult language)…

Chickens and ducks, on the other hand, offer weeding and waste management services, as well as giving eggs and making (sometimes) very loving pets.

Tania says that no matter how we design our gardens, it is good to remember that they aren’t just for us. Gardens provide nature spaces for us but also other species. So when we are creating these spaces, how can we encourage other species to enjoy them?

Here are some ideas:

How are permaculture principles expressed in your garden?



Your Home: Cold and Damp, or Warm and Dry?

As someone who was raised in Germany and now lives in New Zealand, I’ve got to say I love this videoclip!

Most of New Zealand’s houses have poor thermal performance. In winter, most of them are cold and damp. The remainder are warm but expensive to run. Ian Mayes says the problem is most Kiwis have not lived in warm, dry homes; poor quality homes have been normalised. It is so common, that  parts of the Census is dedicated to asking whether your home is cold and whether these is mould growing in it.

Thermo-Hygrometer: Modell HM 16We should all have thermo hygrometers in our homes. If everyone had one, there would be riots as people realise they are paying so much for cold, damp, poorly performing homes.

Ian Mayes, 2018

Making our homes warmer

Our homes can be made warmer by heating them well and reducing heat loss.


There are different ways we can heat out homes, and EECA has created a great resource to compare the options, depending on the size and use of the space you want to heat.

Reducing Heat Loss

Tips on insulating and reducing heat loss can be found in this blog post but here’s a little bit of extra info about my favourite topic – windows!

A single pane of glass only has an R-value of between 0.15 and 0.19. Standard double glazing is around R 0.26 and the fanciest double glazing might reach R 0.6.

Because even the best double glazed windows still have low insulating abilities, curtaining is very important.

The 4 rules for good curtaining are:

  • Cover ALL glass. Windows. Doors. Funny glazed spots. The lot.
  • Always 2+ layers. It is the air around and between layers that insulates, rather than the material itself. A single layer doesn’t trap nearly as much heat as a double layer.
  • Energy saving curtains should close off airflow over the window glass
    Image from http://www.green-energy-efficient-homes.com/energy-saving-curtains.html

    Stop reverse convection currents. By having curtains touching the floor, or  pelmets, or both!

  • Good behaviour. Close curtains in the afternoon, to stop daytime heat escaping. Open curtains in the morning to allow heat in during the day.

Making our homes drier

Ventilation and moisture control can help us make homes drier.

Note: Ventilation is different to draughts in that the former is a chosen air exchange, while draughts are uncontrolled air exchanges and heat leakages.

We want less moisture in our homes because it makes them healthier and less prone to mould. Good ventilation combined with other moisture control practices can reduce relative humidity.

Once again, EECA have created a great resource for tackling dampness and reducing indoor moisture, which can be found here: www.energywise.govt.nz/at-home/dampness.


Plastic Free July – Reflections

In July, our household attempts the Plastic Free July challenge. I can’t say the whole house (comprised of myself, my daughter, my partner, and our boarder) embraces the challenge with the same level of enthusiasm or commitment, but we do try.

There are a number of variations of the challenge, with our (ahem… my) goal to be avoiding all single-use plastic. I shall say it straight away – we were not successful. It is darn hard avoiding plastic. It is sneaky and pervasive, and sometimes it seems to just take a moment of distraction for it to find its way in.

Here are some of my reflections from the challenge:

  • 20170703_162634
    Furoshiki wrapping for presents – one way to avoid plastic Sellotape and (often plastic wrapped) wrapping paper.

    It gets easier with time. This is our third year doing it, and now that many plastic free habits (started in previous years) have become part of our everyday routine, the change required for the July challenge is not as major as before.

  • There are sometimes ethical compromises. I found that sometimes going for plastic free options conflicted with other ethical factors we take into consideration when purchasing. For example, we usually buy a fair trade organic coffee but it comes in packaging containing plastic. During the challenge we bought a different (non-fair trade, non-organic) brand in a glass bottle, but this is not a change we have kept up beyond the challenge because overall for this product we prefer supporting fair trade and organic over plastic-free-ness. But we find we assess each item/conflict on a case-by-case basis, because there are often multiple considerations to factor in.
  • Not being prepared can contribute to plastic sneaking in. A number of occasions when ‘plastic happened’ was when plans changed or I wasn’t prepared. For example: leaving the house without snacks for my daughter; not doing groceries and having to use something containing plastic that was already in the cupboard/fridge from before the challenge. Having said that, I am not one for meal plans and organisation when it comes to food, and mostly I was still successful with the plastic-free lunch boxes and snacks. And even a few take-aways!



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    Tattoo plastic

    Sometimes things are more important than the challenge. For example, I am on medication and it comes in plastic packaging. I need to take the medicine, and my health comes before the challenge. Basta. Another example is one night when my partner prepared a ‘home date night’ for us which involved a film and (plastic wrapped) popcorn: I could have rejected the popcorn and avoided the plastic, but it was more important to accept his gesture. The popcorn was delicious.

  • During a plastic free challenge is not a great time to get a tattoo. I did try to say I didn’t want to wrap it up, but it was company policy to cover it before I left.
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    Plastic free meat: frozen fish, free-range eggs, tinned beef, glass jar of meat spread (I did not know that was a thing!), tinned tuna, byo container of ham.

    Plastic-free eating seems to lead to healthier eating. By eliminating plastic, suddenly lots of packaged, more processed food is eliminated. We ended up eating a lot more fresh, simple food, with less sugar, salt and other additives. Meat might be the exception to this though, see below!

  • It can get you thinking outside the box. My partner eats meat but his usual choices weren’t options during the challenge. Yes, there was some compromising on the free-range front 😦 but all in all I was very impressed at what he managed to find!
  • Being conscious of the things we buy and consume is part of ‘the solution’, but it doesn’t solve all the problems. The article Conscious Consumerism Is A Lie Here Is A Better Way To Save The World is probably one of the best articles I have read recently, and definitely puts everything into perspective. In a good way!

So how did we actually do? Well, as our boarder and my partner we ‘less actively involved’, I didn’t rigidly monitor their plastic. My daughter and I generated this much:


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If only I didn’t get two colds, there would have been no Lemsip sachets and only half the medicine packets! 


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A month worth of plastic. And almost all of it we were able to send to recycling.

Yes, there was plastic I could have avoided if I had planned better.

Yes, there was plastic I could have avoided if I had more energy/patience/will power.

Yes, there is plastic I could have avoided if I had more time.

But actually we tried really hard. We did our best at the time. And something I started telling my daughter when she started worrying about any plastic we happen to get, which I now also tell lot of people I meet who ask about ‘living sustainably/ethically’, and I even remind myself on a fairly regular basis:

We do what we can, when we can.

We can only do our best. And sometimes our best-at-that-time is super, and sometimes there is room to improve/learn 🙂


Some of the things I have found relatively easy to do in order to reduce the plastic in my life:

  • Purchase food in glass, paper, tin or no packaging whenever there is the option.
  • Not buying food that is in plastic packaging (or only buying the item occasionally).
  • Not using plastic wrap/Glad Wrap/cling film (beeswax wraps make good alternatives for sandwiches, for covering food I use a tea towel, and if all else fails I use baking paper).
  • Using a bamboo toothbrush
  • Using reusable items instead of disposables, for example cloth face wipes, handkerchiefs, menstrual products, and cloth nappies when my daughter was little.
  • Avoiding disposable items in general and especially ones that are/have plastic (straws, cotton buds, bags, cutlery, bottles, containers). For most items there are plastic-free alternatives.
  • Bringing my own containers, bags, coffee cup and/or refillable bottle.

Things I changed this July that I will be continuing throughout the year:

  • Using loose tea instead of tea bags.
  • Getting homemade soya milk from my colleague (in a glass bottle) whenever I can.
  • Making my own toothpaste.
  • Making my own deodorant (which has incidentally been the most effective deodorant I have ever used!).

There are some really great resources for going plastic-free. Some of my favourites are:



Future Living – Reduce your Energy Bill and Live Better

This article will be most helpful for people living in Aotearoa New Zealand, or areas with similar climatic conditions.

If you live in Aotearoa New Zealand, you can have an Eco Design Advisor come to your home and carry out a free and impartial Home Performance Assessment. It supports people reduce their resource use (energy, water and waste) and improve their home’s performance.

Bigger Picture

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the majority of homes perform to a very poor standard. They are cold, damp, expensive to run, and making us sick. Each year there are 1600 deaths caused or contributed to by poor housing conditions.

According to the World Health Organisation, the following temperatures lead to health implications:

  • Less than 16oC affects respiratory system
  • Less than 12oC affects cardiovascular system

(These values are for healthy adults. Children, elderly and people with illness or disabilities require at least 2 degrees warmer than these values.)

Living areas should not fall below 18 degrees and bedrooms should not fall below 16 degrees. Yet in New Zealand, 17.9% of living rooms are colder than 18 degrees during winter months (despite active heating), and 13.6% of bedrooms are colder than 12 degrees. In addition, 55% of our homes have visible mould.

This is making people sick, but we can do a lot to avoid it.

For example, it has been calculated that for every $1 you invest into insulating your home, you save $6-10 through direct cost savings (e.g. power bill) and indirect savings (e.g. lower medical bills, better school attendance and education, etc.).

When designing or retrofitting a home, it is important to consider 3 factors:


If you try to cut on one, you will end up cutting on the others as well. We spend 55% of our lives in our home, so it is important to make sure we make it good.

energy use

Our energy use is divided roughly equally into

  • Spatial heating
  • Lights and appliances
  • Water heating

If we can reduce the cost involved in any of these, we simultaneously reduce our energy bill and impact on the planet.


Lowering energy needed for spatial heating

There are two ways to go about reducing energy needs for heating:

  1. Heat the home more efficiently,
  2. Make sure heat is not lost

Heat the home efficiently

There are many different ways to heat homes. Below are some common home-heating methods ranked according to cost effectiveness. Cost effectiveness refers to how much warmth you get for how much money it costs to run.


  1. Heat pump (converts 1kW of electricity into 5kW of heat)
  2. Wood burners (they emit a lot of heat and are relatively cheap to fuel. They are even cheaper to run if you collect some of the fuel yourself)
  3. Gas heaters (flued!)
  4. Electric heaters (ones you plug into the wall, such as fan heaters, oil column, panel/ecopanel, etc.)
  5. XXX Unflued gas heaters XXX – these should be avoided, as they burn oxygen, release toxic gases (including carbon monoxide) and emit moisture (which makes homes damper). They have been banned in most Western countries, though unfortunately not yet in New Zealand.


Make sure heat is not lost – Insulation

Insulation slows down the movement of heat. Good materials to use for insulating have low conductivity and air pockets (as still air is highly insulating). R values are used to reflect the thermal resistance of different materials. Thermal resistance is the ability of a material to keep cold things cold and hot things hot.

Heat loss is motivated by temperature differentials. The larger the difference in heat, the faster the heat will move. In an uninsulated house, heat can be expected to be lost in roughly the following ways:energy-use1.png

Insulating different places (e.g. ceiling, underfloor, etc.), reduces the overall heat loss speed. However, it is important to think about the whole thermal envelope of the house. It does not make sense to just insulate one area of the house as the heat will then just escape somewhere else. It can be likened to being naked in the cold: it helps if you put on a jacket, but to get truly warm you will also need trousers, socks, hat, etc. 3 jackets but no trousers/socks/hat is not as useful as one of each.

Below are R values according to the Building Code and as recommended by Ian Mayes:


Make sure heat is not lost – Curtaining

Curtaining windows is important because windows allow a lot of heat loss. There are 4 rules to good curtaining:

  1. Curtain all glass (or cover it in some way if it is not possible to put a curtain on)
  2. Have 2 (or more) layers
  3. Stop convection currents through pelmets and having curtains to the floor
  4. Good curtain behaviour – close curtains before heat is lost, around 4pm.

The diagram below illustrates the difference between a well and poorly performing curtain:energy use

Lowering energy needs for lights and appliances

The way we use appliances majorly affects their energy performance, and the average household can save several hundred dollars each year by taking the following steps:

  • Switching off appliances at the wall. Appliances that use a remote or are programmable each use $20 of electricity a year by being in standby mode (this includes TVs, DVD players, internet modems, game consoles, microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, and more).
    Image result for power strip new zealand

    Each appliance that gets switched off at the wall when not in use will save $20 of electricity. TIP: Organise the appliances you want to keep on vs the ones you would like to switch off using a multiplug/powerstrip. 

  • Switch to LED lightbulbs. These are more expensive to buy, but they pay for themselves within the first year and lead to hundreds of dollars worth of savings in their lifetime. TIP: You don’t have to replace all bulbs in one go. Switch the bulbs you use most often first of all(kitchen and living room, then bedroom). You might want to check out this tool to calculate your savings when you replace different light bulbs, created by the EECA.

Lowering energy needs for hot water

  • If you have a hot water cylinder, insulate it with a cylinder jacket.
  • Insulate the hot water pipes leading out of the hot water cylinder as well.
  • Reduce the amount of water used in showers (as showers use the bulk of a household’s hot water). This can be done by:
    • Image result for egg timerShortening shower length. Depending on how long your household currently showers for, and how long shower time is reduced by, there is potential for hot water usage to halve (or more) by shortening shower time. Each minute added to a person’s daily shower adds up to about $70/yr. TIP: Put a 3 or 4 timer in the shower to help keep track of shower lengths. Even switching off the water while lathering and/or shaving helps reduce hot water usage.
    • Reducing water flow. You can check the flow rate of your shower head. If it is greater than 9 litres per minute, it may be good to reduce the flow rate. The video below shows how to do this with a flow restrictor, or you may wish to replace the showerhead to a more water-efficient one.

The Energywise website has many useful resources and tips to making your home energy efficient: www.energywise.govt.nz/at-home

[All statistics from BRANZ and EECA.]