Transforming a Barren Landscape into a Permaculture Farm

Alanna Moore
Thursday, 1st May 2003

Alanna Moore describes how Joe Polaisher and Trish Allen transformed a barren, weed infested valley into one of New Zealand's best examples of permaculture - Rainbow Valley Farm

New Zealand is a lush land of green pastures, youthful volcanic soils and plenty of rain. It is an idyllic image of paradise for the tourist, especially one coming as I was, from Australia, a brown parched land of drought and bushfire. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the mantle of intense green when I visited recently.

But all is not well under the veneer. Much of New Zealand has been devastated by the alien farming practices imported by the English, its integrity lost amidst choking weeds and feral animals. An estimated 80 million Australian possums, for instance, are wreaking havoc on native forests and gardens.

Fortunately permaculture is a vibrant force, well evolved to provide solutions in this Pacific nation, and I got to meet one of its most well known exponents.

Becoming Self-sufficient on the Farm

Joe Polaisher and Trish Allen have created a little bit of permaculture paradise in a once weed infested valley near Warkworth, north of Auckland. Their Rainbow Valley Farm has become just about self-sufficient, producing sub-tropical fruits, meat, eggs, timber, vegetables, dairy products and fish. It is now something of a icon and a centre for permaculture teaching.

"The soil is one of the poorest you can find. It was once temperate rainforest here dominated by the kauri tree," Joe told me when I visited. "But once the forest was logged, its shallow soil got washed away into the streams and ended up in the sea."

Joe has made it a major task to increase the soil nutrient levels with the bulk biomass of thick vegetation.
"My neighbours called it rubbish land, but for me it was ideal as it had so many different microclimates, plus we are lucky to have a spring, from which we can gravity feed all our water," Joe explained.

There were indeed many challenges to overcome. A subsoil of heavy clay means winter waterlogging lasts for five months of the year and phytophthera (fungus) can be rife in this high rainfall area. Without building raised beds for crops everything would be rotting in winter.

Starting out, Joe met Trish when she was working in London and Vienna for the United Nations. Trish, who is now one of the managers of the local pottery works, provides the income necessary for developing the property. When the couple moved onto the property they were not into borrowing money and lived for a time in a house truck, later moving to a cabin and eventually building their fabulous house, which has featured in many magazine articles. It's been a whole lot of hard work getting started from scratch but Joe was highly motivated by the problems of global environmental degradation.

"We're really running out of time," says Joe. "Water is such a crucial problem and the weather is so unpredictable. In one area of Japan recently, they had three once-in-a-lifetime floods." Climate change in this area has brought an absence of frosts for the last three years.

"With climate change the sub-tropical plants here are doing better and better, so I'm hedging my bets with high biodiversity." The climate here has been getting wetter too. The usual 1600mm (63in) per year rainfall became 2200mm (87in) in 2001, and in that year they had the biggest flood.

A Prickly Problem - How to get rid of Gorse

The 20 hectare (50 acre) block of land was affordable, as 8 hectares (20 acres) or so were covered in that most prickly European weed – gorse – with just a few native trees, plus a few patches of kikuyu. 'Kike' is a tough South African grass that is very difficult to eradicate if you don't want it, a brilliant soil protector if you do. Areas now abundant with crops were all gorse covered and there were no paddocks. (Gorse can run riot in NZ to devastating effect. Ed.) But at least the weeds had kept the hillsides together.

"Many steep hillsides that have been burnt off and farmed unsustainably are now held together only by the strong root systems of gorse. New Zealand already loses an estimated 400 million tonnes of topsoil every year. It would be considerably higher without this pioneer plant," Joe explained in a positive light.

There was a lot of hard work ahead, as traditional clearing techniques were not on for Joe and Trish. Slashing just creates a lawn of gorse, burning off isn't atmosphere friendly and bulldozers disturb the soil too much. Joe's favoured method is to cut the gorse down with a small chainsaw. This is ideally done in winter before it seeds and the birds start to nest in it. The biggest stems make good firewood and the rest is composted down in big 3 metre (10ft) high piles. "So long as there are no seeds in it, the gorse breaks down into beautiful compost," Joe enthuses.

Where the gorse once grew the ground will be covered in seeds that can stay viable, Joe has heard, for some 50 years. So an important strategy he has developed is to sow grass seed and apply fertiliser when the soil has just been bared. In this way the grass will outgrow the gorse and 'dampen off' some 80% of gorse seedlings. Anything sprouting is also mowed off, while sprouting stumps are cut three times a year until they get the message and die. So far about 5 hectares (12 acres) of gorse have been cleared permanently.

Joe considers gorse a useful species – but only if it is kept under control. It can fix its own nitrogen for one thing, and be used as a 'nurse' for young plants. A young tree will be protected from marauding possums if it is planted in a little clearing within the gorse. Although it'll need regular trimming, which is a prickly job, the advantage is in the creation of a safe and cosy microclimate.

In the early days of the farm gorse was all they had to make fences with. As they cleared gorse away they made big long piles of it to fence in their cows, pigs and chickens. These had to be topped up fairly regularly as it rotted down so fast. Little walls of gorse mulch have also been used to help protect young fruit trees and flowers and vegetables in the gardens from poaching possums and scratching fowl.

Edible Landscapes

Since 1988 Joe and Trish have planted some 600 mixed fruit and nut trees that have been mostly grown from seed or cuttings. In true permaculture fashion the north facing tropical plant hothouse where many have been propagated is heated by chickens. The fowl house occupies one half of the structure and birds provide body heat to the plants when roosting at night. The two are separated by netting. The fowl side of the building, facing the cold south, has a sod roof to keep birds warm in winter and cool in summer.

Orchards at Rainbow Valley are very experimental, with bananas growing next to olives, Russian prunes next to figs, and many rare plants being trialled. Plant stacking* is impressive, with some seven storeys defined.

The understorey begins with underground crops – sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke, yakon, potatoes and comfrey – while salad greens, herbs and flowers provide the first level of above ground cropping. Above that second storey are berries, while the fourth layer has dwarf bananas and hazelnuts growing (although it hasn't been really cold enough to keep the hazelnuts happy). These are sheltered by the fifth storey above, made up of various legume, fruit and nut trees, such as almonds, pecans and chestnuts.

Above this grows a sixth layer of tall shelter and timber trees, such as macrocarpa, palms and acacias acting as an umbrella, and keeping any frosts at bay. Growing up the trunks of these tallest trees are many climbers and ramblers, comprising the seventh layer. These include grapes, passion fruit, choko, pumpkin and beans.

An earth cellar enables long-term storage of produce such as tubers, fruit, wine and vinegar. There's plenty of surplus too, and a little roadside store sells produce to passers-by.

The orchard has many varieties of apple growing well, untroubled by the codling moth which is usually a major pest in this country. This is put down to the animals – chickens, ducks and pigs – which forage under the trees and eat apples which contain the moth grub.

"This is why integrating animals with plants is so important," Joe explained.
To attract beneficial insects the orchard is vibrant with a range of umbellifer species but there is still a small problem with green shield beetles and cicadas. Biodynamic peppering has been undertaken with only mixed success. So they have just resigned themselves to living with a little insect predation on plants.

Joe and Trish use other biodynamic methods on the property and they make a biodynamic fertiliser using fish waste from local processing plants, although they plan to use fish from their own ponds one day. "We're also trying to improve the soil's mineral balance by applying rock dust," says Joe, who has found a source of good volcanic rock dust in Rotorua.

Mulch crops are widely grown at Rainbow Valley, with many varieties such as fast growing acacias. The leaves of the Ethiopian bananas provide an excellent substitute for newspaper mulch.

In the aquaculture area, ponds hold fish fingerlings, native trout, eels and the like. Edible aquatic plants, such as taro, water chestnut, Kang Kong, lotus flower and watercress are also grown here. Inspired by Fukuoka, Joe has also been experimenting with rice growing since 1995. He has a lot of trouble with marauding birds and was anxious to know how the Japanese dealt with the problem. When asking around about it in Japan he was told, "We don't have many birds".

In another area he has started to grow shiitake mushrooms under a graceful canopy, a living tunnel of woven willow trees.

Selection Of Livestock

The highly productive edible landscapes are animated with populations of ducks, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, guinea fowl, pigs, cats, dogs, bees and house cows.

Livestock at Rainbow Valley have been selected for specific purposes. For excellent slug and snail control there are Indian Runner, Khaki Campbell, Cayuga and Swedish Blue ducks, whilst the Muscovy duck is the principal producer of meat and eggs. Around the orchards, grass and weed control is performed by the Pilgrim and Chinese geese, helped by a few Kuni Kuni pigs, a naturalised miniature breed introduced by the Maori.

For fowl eggs and meat the Rhode Island Red, Australorp and Leghorns are preferred. Orchard pests are controlled by bantam breeds, plus pheasants, guinea fowl and turkeys.

Tamworth pigs used to be kept for meat and bacon, but they proved hard to manage. Now they just have the Kuni Kuni pigs and an occasional 'pink' pig. These are friendly and easy to keep, while also providing wonderful manure.

Even the feral animals have created their own ecosystem. Wild hedgehogs control slugs and snails; stoats and weasels help control rabbits and hares (although they themselves need controlling as they also devastate the native bird population); while the farm's pet dogs control possums and cats manage the rats and mice. Feral cats, however, cause significant damage to the native bird population and have to be controlled.

New Zealand has only a handful of native mammal species, mainly seals and bats. With the arrival of the Maori, then the Europeans, the land dwelling birds that evolved with no predators suffered dramatically – the giant Moa was wiped out by the Maori and the Kiwi almost was by the Europeans, remaining under threat from their imported cats, dogs, stoats, weasels etc.

Tour Groups & Forestry

Many groups come to Rainbow Valley for tours and thousands of people get to see the farm on designated tour days. Joe was expecting one in a few days' time,

a field day for a farm forestry group, with about 40 people expected. This alternative farm forestry group will be looking at unusual and mixed species plantings.

"The value of radiata pine has crashed, so people are finally looking at alternatives," Joe told me, adding that a few years ago forestry people thought his ideas were nuts.

Joe has trialled thousands of trees, collecting different species with multiple uses. Natives are encouraged to regenerate. A shelter belt was planted early on to protect the property from the north-easterly winds. Some 6,000 timber trees of various species have gone in.

Wood Craft

Joe is a bush carpenter and likes to value add on the timber he has grown. He is reviving the ancient art of the 'bodger', the itinerant crafts people of Europe who worked in the woods making small items, chair legs and the like, with low-tech methods. He has a homemade foot-powered pole lathe set up permanently and likes to demonstrate its use and the utilisation of small pieces of hardwood timber for turnery. It's a popular drawcard for the ecotourism tours and he has presented it on New Zealand television on some five occasions.

The eco-friendly Earth roofed house

Joe had lived in many countries and picked up a vast knowledge of various building techniques. The couple were determined to have the most eco-friendly house that was possible, given their no-debt lifestyle.

The architect designed earth roofed house at Rainbow Valley is a stunning work of art. Natural, non-toxic materials, curving lines, decorative mosaics and a high level of craftsmanship in timber work are a feature. The principles of solar passive design and building biology have created a home of great comfort and delight, while it's also a healthy place to live.

The somewhat egg-shaped mud and concrete block building sits snugly tucked into the north facing hill behind it, the line of its earth roof, a mass of herbs and succulents, merging into the landscape. Several years were taken in building and each time there was an earth building workshop a little more went up.

Walls were designed to stay breathing, so no paint has been used and even oil was used sparingly on timbers in order to maintain their breathing function. Adobe bricks were plastered with old fashioned recipes and lime washes. No polyurethane or formaldehyde based products were used to avoid the persistent outgassing that these products are notorious for.

The roof sports clover and grasses in winter and flowers in spring. In summer the grass dies down and succulents dominate. As the south facing side of the roof goes down to ground level, the various fowl are able to get onto it and forage, even nest in the long grass. Their droppings are the only fertiliser that goes on. The bees are often busy up there too, so the roof is also part of the edible landscape scene.

Massive ceiling timbers of kauri, required for the heavy weight of the roof, were salvaged from a warehouse and are said to be some 900 years old. All the furniture was made by Joe. The dining table is a classic slab of swamp kauri, a giant of a tree which has been estimated to have lain fallen for some 10,000 yeA Wider Picture
ccas Farm used to host WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), but now they prefer to only take in their own students who already have basic know how. It was WWOOFers who gave Joe interested contacts in Japan, and he now go< "There's a huge level of interest about permaculture in Japan," Joe told me. "The people are very insecure, as they only grow about 30% of their food needs there, so they are very interested in eco-villages. Since the war, there's been 50 years of not adding manure and organic matter to soils, so the soils are terrible and heaps of biocides get dumped on them. The average age for a farmer is 65 and there are no young ones interested."

Returning to Australia

Joe was born in Austria and he returns there regularly to spread the word on permaculture. "The Austrians are very interested too," he said, "and I'm involved there on a big project that's government supported. It's a small village designed as an education centre, with permaculture and building biology showcased".

Joe lived high in the Austrian Alps after World War Two. There was no electricity, no fossil fuels and all the infrastructure had been ruined. He started to make tools from the age of five. Now his life has returned to something like that simplicity, albeit now with greater sophistication, and coming with a sense of greater riches and of wealth beyond money

Alanna Moore is an Australian permaculturist, author and professional environmental energy consultant. She has transformed her own farm into a veritable jungle and has been teaching throughout Australasia for the past 20 years. She edits a free quarterly e-magazine at her website ( and is the author of the book Stone Age Farming.

* For a description of plantstacking see, How To Make A Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield