Dennis Shaw

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since Sep 28, 2014
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Recent posts by Dennis Shaw

I just finished the book Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. Made me think about permaculture a lot while I was reading it. You should read it too. I think you'll enjoy it.
5 years ago

A practical, do-able, kid friendly tree house that doesn't even need to touch the tree!

Lots of other great reads at Dorothy Ainsworth's website.

I think lots of permies would lover her website.
5 years ago
You can't feed one person with permaculture because one person can't eat that much food!

The belief that alternative agricultural systems will cause mass starvation is the biggest most giant load of horse shit propaganda that has ever been uttered by either the uninformed or those with an agenda. To see the shortcomings of the current system we need only to open a newspaper.

Do they have ways to utilize all the wasted capacity, the back yards, the road sides, the green strips, the rooftops? No
Do they have ways to keep from degrading their resource base on the land they are currently using? No
Do they have ways to heal land that has been destroyed and then abandoned by earlier agricultural practices? No
Do they have ways to use land that most wouldn't even consider to produce food? No

I could go on and on and on but if someone doesn't get it or doesn't want to get it, just move on. Fuck the naysayers and don't waste your precious time arguing with them. There's just too much shit to do and they're always going to be there. You are in the right place and you know what needs to be done. That's all that matters. Most people aren't so lucky.
5 years ago

Xisca Nicolas wrote:About what works good here, is to use climbing plants in trees.
I have an air potatoe in a lili pili tree.
This tree is there for its quick growingm and its fruit is small and not the best, so I have a second crop in it.

I also have passion fruit in a legume tree (tagasaste).
I also have a mini cucumber climbing in trees.

My best "works" are the importance of planning paths (my place is steep and very variable),
and the use the the third dimention.
Then I would say the observing and using of the shade zones, and their creation when needed.
You can say the same for your sun zones if you lack sun!

About not too big not too fast, I think that the "out of season" and the "out of climate" stuffs should be kept last.
Let's do what work best 1st, and keep the more difficult last.

Hi Xisca,

Finally got a chance to reply to this great post and give it the attention it deserves. Just the phrase "I have an air potatoe in a lili pili tree." That's probably the coolest thing I have heard anyone say in a very long time.

I like what you say about using climbers and the third dimension. I could be wrong but I think I see more tropical/subtropical forest gardens utilizing climbers more. It seems that the cold temperate forest gardens have just a grape vine here or there. Maybe there is more going on there than I know but I want to go crazy with climbers. I remember seeing a picture of a "garden" I guess you could call it. It was just a narrow lane kind of going uphill with mature trees on either side. Hanging from the trees were wisteria, and at the end of the lane there was some sort of house. The sheltered lane with the overhanging flowers and the lighting of the picture made it seem enchanted. The design was purely one of aesthetics but the effect was magical.

Great advice about out of climate and doing what works best first. (I confess there are a couple of things I am scheming to grow that are slightly out of climate. One I might just start of potted right away so that it has a better chance before I put it in the ground.) It's just that one of the areas I will be able to access early on might be a good place for a microclimate. It is a barn with a nice patch of land on the south side.


Also, path design is good to plan ahead on. I love having wide paths that are comfortable to roll a loaded wheelbarrow around.

Matu Collins

My best "works" are the importance of planning paths (my place is steep and very variable)

Ok, ok. I'll admit it. I was honestly thinking of not using any paths at all. I just pictured myself weaving around the plants and trees with a small basket collecting berries and fruits. That's probably not being realistic.

Xisca, had a chance to look at your projects and pics. First let me just say you live in a very fascinating and unique place. I would love to learn more about it. When I first saw your photos my first thoughts were Very Dry! Very Steep!. I should probably post this over there but I am afraid if I don't say it now it might be too long before I get around to it. I thought Beijing was dry at 24 inches a year but only 14 and in a drought too!?
Muchas gracias por su ayuda. Le puedo pruguntarle a Ud. de donde es Ud. originalmente? Estudie en la Complutense de Madrid por un ano pero hace muchos anos que no uso el Espanol. Perdoname por los errors de gramatica y la falta de accentos y tildes.

5 years ago
I can hardly keep up with all the great responses!

@Levente I guess until I get back home it's all just kind of distant and hypothetical. Once I actually "break ground" I am sure many delusional notions I am entertaining at the moment will come crashing down. In the mean time I'm just trying to learn as much as I can. For me right now it is this insatiable thirst for knowledge that is keeping me up at night. Also I have two small children so any real thinking has to be postponed until after their bedtime. I get a lot of the "big picture" stuff through my reading and it is probably the most important information to keep in mind at all times, but I just don't have the practical experience yet. I think I have a better understanding of the "whys" than the "hows". Nevertheless I think my persistent quest for knowledge has already paid of even without having actually done anything yet. I think in these last two months I have reached a new level of understanding, kind of a breakthrough to a new level if you will. Anyway in an attempt to keep me a bit on track I have begun in my mind to vaguely assemble a list of general first year "goals" for myself. They are a bit more qualitative than quantitative but this is permaculture so maybe that's ok.

1) Health Take better care of myself and my family. There is a lot to be said here for sure which is why it is #1.
2) Get settled From past moves I find it usually takes about 3 years to really get settled into a place.
3) Observe And write down what I observe with an emphasis on water issues.
4) Increase Plant Diversify Obtaining seed/plants for annual garden/ starting trees from seed/ seed saving wild and domestic/ inventory existing species etc.
4) Food preservation My mom has always canned and we have a small food dehydrator but it is time to scale up.
5) Annual Garden Although I would love to grow all my own food I want to keep this smaller than I want the first year. First year will be about learning and saving seeds. Looking for a lot of diversity here.
6) Find Allies Friends, family, like minded people and fellow growers. Would do this anyway but am putting it on the list so I will be a bit more organized and proactive.
7) Animals Just enough hens to lay eggs for 6 people. Nothing more.
8 ) Collect materials Check w/ local nurseries for pots and flats etc. Side of the road. Thrift store. Anything cheap or free I can use.
9) Inventory Woods Take inventory on plant and animal species living in scrubby successional woods. This is where the food forest will be. Mostly mulberry and maple. Not as diverse as it used to be since it has formed a canopy. This might fall under the category of observe but this is a special area.
10) Collect hard facts Need to begin collecting information about what is under the ground. Drainage tiles, phone lines, gas lines etc. and the legal aspects of these things so I can figure out how to solve the water problems. This is very technical and complicated but needs to be done before a "master plan" can emerge. I will have plenty to keep me busy in zone 1 and 2 while I slowly move forward on the water plan.
11) Clean up junk You can't begin to imagine.

I think out of all this I am going to focus on health, getting settled and just trying to get some plants in the ground. I am not sure if I feel better having written that or just more overwhelmed. Now I know how I must take advantage of this winter to move forward.

Everyone's advice
"....small and manageable. A very successful forest garden will be a lot of work to harvest! " Matu Collins
"Let's do what work best 1st, and keep the more difficult last!" Xisca
"Like the elephant, you eat it one bite at a time." Peter Ellis
"A mistake I have made is in starting too big." Blythe Barbo
"let nature lead where you can't / don't have the time or resources." Anni Kelsey
" Don't sweat the bigger picture of the farm until you get started and have some progress to enjoy.There is no reason you cannot have everything you want, if you keep taking one step at a time." Zach Muller

Whew! Thanks guys. I feel better already!

5 years ago


I see permaculture as the science of design, which therefore is not a collection of methods, but a collection of principles. Methods are many (infinite, I would say), principles are only a handful. If you master the principles, you will understand which methods to choose to fulfil your design. Hence the "it depends" type of answer. The "guilds" that you mention are the methods, not the principles. Before you even ask yourself what to plant in a guild, you may want to ask "do I need to plant a guild?"; "why should I plant a guild?"; "what will the guild do for my design?" And if the answer is convincing, then you go on and think about what to include in your guild.

That's why permaculture - if understood and applied correctly - is the antithesis of the reductionist way of thinking, which is unable to deal with the infinite ramifications of the multiple factors at play in complex natural systems. "It depends" is the answer LauTzu or the Zen master would give you, because LaoTzu or the Zen master understand the fluidity of nature and the uniqueness of each situation.

By the way, if you need ideas of methods - what may work in a certain situation, what may not - there is plenty of information on the Web. Don't restrict yourself to searching for permaculture cases / stories, but rather look for any type of success story or inspirational story. For example, in China - where you currently live - I saw many exciting TV documentaries about farmers who experimented successfully with difficult-to-grow plants (e.g., one found a way to propagate an endangered medicinal tree from cuttings, AND to farm that tree AND extract the medicinal component), or innovative cropping systems (e.g., rotation of rice and potatoes in terraced fields), and so on, and so forth. BUT none of these claimed to practice permaculture - they just practiced common sense. (Many of these films can be found on the Chinese movie sharing sites like or

Good luck !



Thank you for your encouragement and advice. You may however have gotten the impression that I am looking for a simple solution to apply to an open system full of infinite variables. This was not my intent and is probably a result of my inability to communicate well through a written medium. Also, I suck at typing. I guess what I am trying to say is that there may be a need for some sort of a more focused open forum regarding plants and their interactions (either good or bad) when placed in proximity too each other (for whatever reason) with an emphasis on anecdotal (or scientific) evidence gained by the experiences of members of the permaculture community. These successes and failures may serve as a source of ideas for further experimentation and adaptation or discussion. There is a lot of information out there but it seems so scattered about. I think collectively the permaculture practitioners are doing more research either consciously or by happy accident than any university or government agency could ever hope to do.(and not in just this one area of course).Maybe we need the "plant interactions data base" or something. I dunno maybe Google would be willing to organize this information. There is probably a good chance I don't even know what I'm talking about. Maybe it is like the Polynesian saying; and I'm just "sitting on a whale fishing for minnows."

Anyway, you make some very good points and I will take them to heart and I thank you. Permaculture seems like information overload sometimes and I guess you just got to step back, take a deep breath and smell the comfrey. It seems to me you are a fan of LaoZi and eastern mysticism. Maybe LaoZi would embody the principles and CongZi the methodology. The principles are eternal but the methodology changes making one timeless and the other a bit irrelevant. I often think of the Tao or Zen in regards to design. Trying to get the right balance of all the elements etc.
I guess in the end it's all supposed to be art, everything has it's GongFu.

If you want a broad search for videos on Chinese servers go to Baidu and click on 视频. This will search all kinds of sites that have video. Searches in English are just about useless on Baidu so you might want to translate into Chinese first. If you are looking for a specific film and want to know the Chinese name go to "mtime". The film or video name is always between the double carrots << name here>>. just copy and paste if you don't know Chinese or don't have pinyin input on your computer. I don't know if you have ever seen cctv7 but it is half military and half farming. That channel perplexes me, I either love it or hate it.

Thanks again, Dennis

5 years ago
Wow, really overwhelmed by all the great feedback! So much to think about!

@Blythe Love the spreadsheet idea! A nice efficient way to keep track of all the endless little facts about plants. I guess I might as well start that now. It will be like a wish list, and instead of making a separate spreadsheet for the plants I obtain I will just dedicate one column to tell me if I have it or not. Also if I don't have a certain plant but want to obtain it, I could note where I might find/buy/steal it.

You said that starting too big was a mistake. Thank you for saving me from making that mistake! I have filed this information deep into my brain so that in the future, when I'm standing out there with a shovel in my hand, an alarm will sound to remind me no to do that. There are just so many issues on that farm to begin with that I just sometimes have to put it out of my mind. It could lead to a mental state a friend of mine once described as "gridlock". I will spare you all the details here, that will have to be reserved for a later post. Also next month I am uprooting my family (wife and 2 kids) and transplanting them back in the U.S. I have lived in Beijing for almost 9 years. We are very settled and comfortable here so this is a bit like holding hands and jumping of a cliff together. I tell people here that I am going back to America to become a farmer. The word farmer in China is synonymous with peasant so I sometimes get strange reactions. Not everyone though.

Regarding the "chaotic" nature of your garden, it's like Anni said earlier that people are used to "conventional" ways of doing things. They want those straight rows. If I decide to have a market garden for a CSA or farmer's market I might opt for that kind of pattern for ease of manageability. I would try to mitigate the risks of the monoculture row by arranging the right rows next to each other and maybe go with a little tighter spacing. But I think the forest garden is the ideal and as time goes on more people will recognize their beauty and importance. I wish you guys were my neighbors, that would be really cool. But instead I am going to be out there all alone in my foxhole deep behind Monsanto lines.

@Anni Thanks again for your help. Would like to get your book and check out your blog when I get back. My mom left me her kindle last time she visited so I might be able to download it but I would rather have a hard copy for 3 reasons. Beautiful pictures, use for reference, and I can brag to my friends that I know you. "Yeah, She's one of my mates at Permie'"

@peter I'm not saying that silvopasture systems have to be that way. It's just that they generally are. Not all silvopasture systems are designed by permaculturists. If you watch some typical video put out by the NCRS or other silvopasture promoting agency, the tree crop is most definitely a monoculture. Mostly they're growing trees for fiber so maybe there is not as much risk regarding pest damage. The restorative agriculture guys were talking about using mechanical harvesting on nut trees. This would imply a lot of nut trees being in a row and you drive the machine down the row. Not saying that all they grow are nut trees, hence the term "monoculturish". When I think of silvopasture I think of the silvo being in a line pattern, either straight or following contour, and the alleyways have pasture for row cropping or grazing. Either way you are getting farther away from the food forest and closer to a more standard agricultural system when making these design decisions in favor of ease of maintenance/harvesting. This is not a value judgment. I don't think these systems are bad. I think that there are just certain inevitable trade-offs that are encountered and need to be addressed when scaling up. I see what you are saying and am just trying to find where at on this spectrum regarding the broad acre would be ideal. I am starting to think no machines and let the animals eat 98% of it does sound compelling.

Re: Joel Salatin's farm, I could be wrong but I think his pasture are pretty open and he uses some portable shade when it's really hot. The other areas are forest, natural or maybe regrowth forest where the pigs run. I don't know if he manages the canopy in the forested area or not.

Anni also mentioned Sepp. So yeah, let the animals do the work. Just too much to think about and I doubt I'll get it all figured out tonight. Would like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

5 years ago
Thanks for your responses to my post guys, I appreciate it.

I kind of envy you Anni for having something small and manageable. When I get back my situation will be a little different.The land that is next to the house that is not being used for anything is enough to have a self sufficient homestead. This would be a lot to maintain in itself, but the whole farm is about 120 acres. Right now my father has our neighbor farm it. It is in GMO corn, soybeans and wheat. I of course have different ideas about what to do. Managing that much land seems to lend itself to some sort of silvopasture / cell grazing system. These larger tree systems from what I have seen tend to be more monoculture-ish. It just seems a logical trade-off when scaling up. This was kind of what I was referring to in the second part of my post. It just seems a little less than the ideal but ahead of any other options I've heard of.

Close to the house there will be a full on food forest garden and it will probably be quite large. In that system I will be more picky about the placement of the larger elements (trees, shrubs, vines) but I think when it comes to the smaller stuff (herbs)I kind of like the option of "random". Well....mostly random. I will try and emulate some things I have seen and like but the rest will probably be random survivability tests.

There are a lot of other issues on the farm that will need to be dealt with. This will be quite stressful, but the food forest however will be the fun part. Maybe I should just try to make 120 acre food forest instead. I love this permaculture shit. I guess when it comes right down to it, I want it all. Maybe an ewok village in the garden of Eden with shimmering koi ponds and the half interred faces of gargantuan mossy covered stone statues that have toppled over, remnants of a once great civilization long forgotten. And a cool outhouse. definitely an outhouse.
5 years ago
What works and what does not work. Failures and successes. I hear a lot of permaculture experts talk about sharing their experiences growing perennial poly-cultures so that others don't make the same mistakes, but I think this specific information is very scattered and hard to find. When someone asks what to plant in a guild they get the answer "Well, It depends." The reason they get that answer is because,... depends. While that is true, we would also congratulate the same person for growing some of the more famous poly-cultures/ guilds/ companions. Also these proven combinations could be a great basis for further experimentation. What other successful combinations are lurking out there that we just don't know about? Sometimes there is a right way, a wrong way, a new experimental way, and a completely random way. All of which are right (except the wrong way of course).

Also there seems to be a lot of questions regarding scalability of these systems. Obviously there are two directions to which you can scale things, up or down. Each have their own set of problems. It is my thinking that when scaling down we have to really prioritize and organize for diversity and productivity. When scaling these woody perennial systems up we come into problems with time constraints on managing the system, especially with harvest. A common strategy that I have seen is moving into a less diverse system to facilitate marketing and harvesting. I think this is perfectly fine, especially if they are not spraying anything at all. There are always trade-offs in design just like everything else. I think it reflects the dichotomy of the universe. As something becomes more one thing it is less the other. A bus can carry a lot of people, but it is not as fast as a race car, which isn't as efficient as a bicycle. Gain something here, lose something there. It's just the nature of things and also explains why many of the creator gods were also trickster gods.

Somehow this post is starting to sound like a manifesto or something. I'm not an expert on anything , just some guy with a computer and an internet connection. Anyway, back to topic. Hope to read this book and check out her blog someday. I live in China and anything with the word "blog" in it is just blocked. I will be moving back to the U.S. next month and hope to practice the permaculture there.
5 years ago