AMERY — Permaculture may look messy to the untrained eye, but it’s actually nature at its finest, according to Chris Kerrschneider, who led a talk on “The Roots of Permaculture” on March 19 at the Amery Public Library.

“What you have assumed to be very bad for your garden maybe isn’t,” he said.

Permaculture calls for a paradigm shift, according to Kerrschneider, who grew up in Missouri and lived in Iowa for seven years before moving to Baldwin last April. He has a college degree in communications and a minor in biology and did social work before discovering his passion for permaculture and educating others about it.

“It was the sweet spot of where liking plants met serving people,” he said.

In 2004, he took a permaculture design course at an “off-the-grid” educational center in northeastern Missouri, where he lived in a tent for two weeks and learned more about permaculture, which promotes a biologically diverse ecosystem.

Permaculture is about ecological design, Kerrschneider said. Ecologically healthy systems can meet all human needs, not just food. Towns, governments and more can work together to foster interconnected ecological systems.

“We can look at nature, patterns in nature, and apply it to our garden and our life,” he said, adding that it can be beneficial to look at a property not just in terms of the woods, the pasture, the garden and the yard but as a single ecosystem that constantly interacts.

“We’re participating in it; we’re part of an ecosystem, whether we’re urban or suburban or in the country,” he said.

In terms of biodiversity, “the more, the merrier,” he said, and “it’s not just different types of plants but also genetic diversity.”

Permaculture systems go beyond being just sustainable; they’re also regenerative, according to Kerrschneider.

“It’s great that there’s this move toward sustainability, but it’s important to question what are we sustaining?” he said.

He encourages a more hands-off approach to growing food. Where humans don’t intervene, biodiversity increases and “fertility happens without us doing anything,” he said.

Kerrschneider encourages people to begin their journey into permaculture by performing a site assessment, viewing their property through different lenses and determining the various ecosystems present. Look for trends in biodiversity, wind, sun/shade, soil interaction (including neighboring properties), soil types and wildlife.

“It’s a process. The first year you’re on a property, don’t plant anything permanent,” he said. “Just observe. The best thing you can do is observe and interact.”

Landowners should consider general zones on their property and keep one zone untouched so they can learn from it over time. He said it’s important to understand how succession works and “why it makes gardening feel like a lot of work.” It doesn’t take long — typically, just a few years — for the land to reclaim itself after being cultivated.

“If you’re tilling your garden every year and starting off with bare dirt, you are fighting succession. You are fighting a process that’s trying to happen. Your garden is trying to Band-Aid itself,” he said. “Where is your garden on the scale of ecological succession?”

The scale of succession begins with annual weeds and moves into perennial weeds/grasses to shrubs to a young pine forest to a mature oak-hickory forest. As far as growing a “food forest,” somewhere in the middle is ideal, he said.

Dig deep

Kerrschneider said everything starts with the soil, which not only is the easiest, most practical place to begin but also where gardeners can have the quickest influence vs. planting trees and other practices.

“Soil is the foundation of any ecosystem,” he said. “If you seek the improve the soil ... the plants and everything else will follow. You’re feeding it.”

Strategies for improving the soil should focus on encouraging biodiversity, water and structure, Kerrschneider said. The power of mulching, especially sheet mulching, often is underestimated, he said, and others’ leftover Halloween decorations (i.e. straw bales) are his “goldmine.”

Sheet mulching provides a leaf litter for the soil, he said. Forest and prairie floors are not bare but consist of a build-up of decaying plant and animal matter. The presence of worms, toads, mushrooms and the like are a good sign of healthy soil, he said.

“It means there’s life there,” he said. “I saw that after one year. The habitat changed just by leaving straw and leaves and mulching a lot.”

Kerrschneider also recommends a practice called “chop and drop,” in which plants such as dandelions and burdock serve as a living mulch. Their deep taproots boost nutrient cycling for other plants. He purposely blows dandelion seeds across his gardens to encourage this.

“Dandelions really take hold in ecosystems where they can be a pioneer species,” he said. “Over time, they don’t increase as much as they used to.”

Dandelions also are good for honeybees, he said, and gardeners can’t have too many of those.

Comfrey is another common plant for “chop and drop,” often around fruit trees, where their leaves break down and provide nutrients to the trees, he said. Comfrey should be cut two to four times a year.

“Like anything, you really want to be sure that you’re getting it where you’re getting it; it will be there for a while,” he said.

Hugelkultur, or mound/hill culture, is another soil-building method. Dead wood is buried in the garden to create a raised bed that acts like a sponge as the wood breaks down. This can be used in both vegetable and flower gardens, Kerrschneider said.

Over time, the fertility and water-holding capacity of this kind of system increases, he said. “If you can’t put a ground cover on them, be sure to mulch really well so rain doesn’t wash them away” in the first year or two.

Kerrschneider also recommends creating swales, or ditches on or slightly off the contour, to help slow the flow of water through fields, especially during heavy rains. With swales, a berm is built on the downhill side to stop the rush of water and allow some of it to seep in.

“Your soil is the best water retention container on your property,” he said.