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Dealing with Runoff and/or Erosion

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Hi all,

I am new to gardening and permaculture.  I live in zone 5a in Wisconsin.  I've lived in my house for going on 3 years but have done little by the way of formal or thoughtful observations because, frankly, I don't know what to note and this is the only house I've ever lived in as an adult after years of apartment dwelling.  So, I appreciate any patience as I do my best to start from 0.  

My front yard is facing south and the sloped street (I'm at about the middle of the slope).  Across the street, the houses are on a hill in the opposite direction, if that makes sense.  Basically my front yard is at the meeting of two hills and there are no gutters and lots of impermeable pavement.  The water doesn't rush to my yard but it definitely encounters significant runoff.  Combined with the shade from 3 large oak trees, we haven't been able to maintain almost any grass.  The yard is often extremely muddy but not to the point of having any standing water.  My back yard is a huge slope so most of the water continues on its path down there.

My only need from the front yard is a small area that can be walked on next to the driveway (currently a mud pit that requires me to shimmy past).  I'd also like something aesthetically pleasing if possible, versus something solely utilitarian.  

Would it make sense to construct anything to direct the water?  Would you start with just plants?  

I have done a lot of research but I'm very confused because many plantings are meant to address standing water or steep slopes, of which my yard is neither.  I am looking mostly for ground cover or leafy clumpy plants versus larger shrubs or tall plants since my kids will be playing around at least in parts of it (although I am fine with half or more of the yard having plants that can't be walked on.)  

Ramble, ramble.  Tl;dr: my yard gets some runoff but it isn't on a significant slope and there is no standing water.  Zone 5a, mostly shade with some dappled sunlight.  Prefer something visually appealing and something to hold the yard together so I don't have to walk through mud to get in the front door.  I am open to building a simple path but after we spent hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours thinking that the issue was poor soil quality, I'm really hesitant to dive in without making sure I have a solid plan.

Thanks for any help!
[Thumbnail for Front-Yard.PNG]
The front yard (my house is blurred out on Google, not sure how to change it)
[Thumbnail for Neighbors.PNG]
This is the view across the street of my neighbors house
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I think that maybe a moss lawn could help. Since grass doesn't grow well, I think that moss, which can tolerate shade better, might be a viable option.

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Brianna said:  My only need from the front yard is a small area that can be walked on next to the driveway (currently a mud pit that requires me to shimmy past).  I'd also like something aesthetically pleasing if possible, versus something solely utilitarian.  

For a walkway or path to walk on, maybe some mulch would be good.  Since it is muddy maybe a layer of sand then wood chips on top.

Here is a thread on walking paths:
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Location: In the woods, West Coast USA
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Since your biggest investment is your house, check your foundation, basement, garage, and any cement pads; are there any issues with cracking cement?  Is the water affecting any part of the soil under your house, where it's always damp?  That's the runoff or ponding that may not really show.   Are pipes under the house shifting (laundry, blackwater, gas pipes) causing slow exit from the house?  Is anything backing up inside?  If there's any sign of shifting, then uphill from that should have some water diversion.  If it's ground water that you can't really see, then you should consult an engineer who can create a plan with underground pipes that divert the water.

If it's just runoff during a heavy downpour there are runoff creeks that can be established that are "fake creeks," a snaking, garden design kind of gully lined with cobble stones and few big boulders for interest.  That can go off the property, but not onto your neighbors' property, or you might cause them water issues, and then there's real trouble.

Since you've lived there a while, there must be footpaths you use most of the time.  Those can be a foundational starting point, because they indicate how you prefer to get where you're going.  They probably avoid whatever muddy situation is created by the runoff and are in good locations.   Those footpaths are nice to have them wide enough so two people can walk side by side, so 4 feet.  That is also helpful if you put a wheelbarrow or tools on the footpath, you can still get around them without stepping on plants.  Yards around houses can have a bigger scale of design than just a cow path width.  

Then consider the style of garden you want, peaceful Japanese with lots of rock, or English with lots of flowers, or native plantings, or modern with stone walls, formal with cement, casual with brick pathways and walls, vegetables with flowers, etc.  That's easy to research on the internet, find something that makes you say, "Ahhhhhh," and that you keep wanting to find in pictures.   Try not to make everything fit in tightly, so you have room to move when working on plants, it saves your back, gives you room to take tools and glove/clipper containers with you.  

Do you really want all those trees, or is one enough?  There might be more issues with shade and mold, especially on the roof or around windows or the foundation on damp soil.  

Since you've got a southern exposure, there is the possibility for passive solar heat and more light into your house if the trees are not there, unless that's too hot in the summer.  But if mold and droppings from the trees seem like an issue, maybe just one tree for summer shade might work just as well out front, and open up some area for planting.

If you don't really want to garden, then perennial landscape is easy enough, shade plants in front under the big trees like rhododendrons, azaleas, hostas, then add something more structural for interest, like a terraced hillside, a sitting area with a bench made with rock or stone pavers, whatever is appealing.  

It's really helpful to draw out a bird's-eye view plan.  Draw it in as many ways as you can think of, have a plan.  Use colored pencils, and graph paper with real sizes.   I used to like to work off the cuff, spontaneously doing one section at a time, but I usually ended up having to redo it.  A lot of ideas, practical and creative, will come to mind when there are fewer distractions at the table, than out in the garden, in my experience.

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Pennsylvania sedge could form the basis of a nice planting.  Also known as oak sedge, it naturally grows in oak woodlands and savannas.  Can look like lawn but does not need mowing.  Can handle shade or sun.  Also could combine with other plants for a nice garden.

Sedges have fibrous root systems that soak up water like a sponge after well established.
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