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Brianna Williams

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since Oct 14, 2018
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Recent posts by Brianna Williams

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!
1 month ago

Deb Stephens wrote:I think your yard looks like a lush oasis waiting to happen. It has a LOT of potential and it shouldn't cost more than sweat equity to make it into a beautiful productive space. But ... first things first.  Before you get started, you really have to consider several things.

#1 -- Where are you? Not just what state, but what USDA plant hardiness zone (for example, I am in 6b to 7a). Knowing that will help you narrow down your plant choices. You can't plant tropical fruit trees in Montana and apples won't do well in Florida, so it is important to know what your weather extremes may be.

#2 -- What is the aspect of your front and back yards? (Meaning which way do they face?) Sun isn't always full sun and there are many types of shade (light, dappled or full) and the amount of sun or shade each day is more important than the mere fact of having one or the other.

#3 -- What kind of soil do you have -- acid or alkaline? (You can take a soil sample to your local extension office to have it tested or buy a home pH testing kit and do multiple tests in different parts of the yard -- it won't be as complete or accurate, but it will give you some idea.) Do you have clay, sand, loam or some combination? There are some really simple ways to get a general idea without spending money. For example, clay soil can be rolled into a pencil shape and then bent into a thin donut -- if it bends easily and doesn't crack too much, you have clay. The easier and quicker it crumbles or breaks, the less clay it contains. If it feels gritty, it contains sand -- the grittier it feels, the sandier the soil. If it looks really black and contains bits of leaves and bark or other vegetation (and usually smells the way you'd expect a forest floor to smell) its loam. Most soils are some combination, but in general, sandy soil drains well, clay soil retains water and loamy soils are just right (like In Goldilocks and the 3 bears).  Any soil can be worked (and improved) but you need to know what you have in order to know what you need or what you can expect to do well in it.

#4 -- What sort of things do you need to do in your yard? Do you need a play area for kids? Do you have pets? Will you be entertaining (i.e. backyard BBQs with the neighbors)? Do you want to relax and sit in the yard or do you prefer to turn it all over to edibles? How about a water feature or rain garden for the wet spaces? Do you want to create habitat for birds, bees and butterflies? There are loads of things you can do no matter how you use the spaces, but you should spend some time identifying your needs and desires before planting something you will regret. (Blackberries or nettles near a play area, for example!)

I would love to contribute plant ideas, but it would be a waste of time at this point -- until we know the answers to the questions above, it is all too speculative. One thing you may want to look into though, considering your drainage problem, is a rain garden. That way you can turn something that is a problem into something beautiful, functional and attractive to both yourself and the animals who will appreciate a place to drink, rest and forage in the heat of summer. You may want to look at these links for some ideas ... EPA: Rain Gardens, How to Build a Rain Garden, This Old House: How to Build a Rain Garden to Filter Runoff

Another thing you may want to look at is a plant database for your area to get ideas of things that will do well under your exact conditions. If you live in the south, The Ladybird JohnsonWildflower Center has a great online database you can use. You plug in your requirements for sun/shade, water conditions, height of plants,  whether you want annuals, perennials, etc. and it retrieves plants that fit all your parameters. Start on this page ... LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database. If you live somewhere else, look for a database for your state or region -- such as these ... Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database, Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder. There are so many. Just do a search with your state's name and the words "plant database" and I'm sure something useful will turn up.

When we know more about your situation, I'm sure you will get more good ideas than you can possibly use. It sounds like a fun project!



Hello!  I am so encouraged to hear you see the potential!  Lush oasis sounds amazing.  

1) I'm in south central Wisconsin in zone 5a.  

2) My front yard faces south and my back yard faces north.  I have lots of partial and dappled sun, but just very little full sun for more than a few hours per day outside of my one spot in the back and my one spot in the front.

3) I definitely need to get my soil tested but I believe it leans alklaline.  The soil type is Miami silt loam.

4) I would like a decent sized play area for the kids.  Outdoor dining/BBQ area.  And some type of little relaxing nook.  We definitely want to do a lot while we are outside beyond devoting it all to our plant friends :) We love nature and observing and identifying wildlife so the more the better there.  

Thanks for those ideas.  I had the exact train of thought as you about turning the problem into a solution but I got really overwhelmed.  I live in zone 5a (already fairly limited based on what I could find online), with nearly full shade in that area of the yard.  I also don't deal with any standing water or slow drainage.  It's purely run off.  I wondered if the rain garden made the most sense there and whether plants suggested for such gardens, which seem to focus on addressing standing water or slow drainage, are really the best fit.  I looked up ideas for erosion as well and had too many conflicting ideas about what to do so I just planted some pachysandra to try to get some more stability and groundcover.

My husband (who is the typical American to my hippieness LOL!) amended the soil and seeded the front yard in an attempt to deal with the patchiness (I'm not sure how they had it look so lush before moving out) and due to heavy rains this year, the half of my yard nearest my house is patchy to barren.  It looks terrible and I know there has to be some greenery that would love it there, while also being able to have some space for the kids to play or at least handle the foot traffic.  

I'm rambling now.... let me know if you have any ideas based on this info!  I'm a very sensual, aesthetic person so I'm drawn to rich colors, fragrant flowers, contrasting textures, seasonal interest, flowers and berries... interesting combinations.  I must admit I am a bit averse to many of the shade loving plants that are commonly recommended like hostas (I grew up with them everywhere, all of my neighbors have them everywhere, but I am open to anything atypical and eyecatching - I really like the really light and really dark foliage too).  But I am also very open to plants that I don't love the looks of if they serve a purpose beyond aesthetics!


THANK YOU!!! I appreciate all of your insight and helpful questions!  
6 months ago

Dc Brown wrote:I see leaf litter for mulch. Lots of leaf litter talk to the neighbors and get theirs too. This is very good you can garden with little to no weeding.

I see a large conifer. You might get away running some berries at the dripline of this the soil will be more acidic there.

If the ground is rocky - rocks make excellent walls, garden retainers, thermal mass...

You are in the right place. Now you have a property to play on, try those books again, your level of interest will be magnified, you might find yourself engaged.

Keep asking questions, the folk here love to help.




That is a great way to look at my tree "problem!"  I love that idea.  Interesting idea about the confer - I've never even thought about that.  Right now I have some bleeding hearts and jack in the pulpit there so I will investigate what else I could try in that spot.  

I don't have many rocks besides the landscaping rocks under the soil in the garden beds.  But I may look at doing something different with the steps and the bed retaining stones so I will definitely consider repurposing them.  I just checked out a book and am much more engaged.  The first one I read was the Resilient Farm and Homestead which was pretty intense, although incredibly cool and inspiring.  Thanks for the encouragement and ideas!
6 months ago

Mike Jay wrote:Hi Brianna, welcome to Permies!  I hear burr oak makes for really good firewood  Just kidding.  

Which compass direction does your back yard face?

One book I thought was a good beginner read is Practical Permaculture by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein.  Maybe your library would have a copy.

Approximately where in the world are you located?  That might trigger some ideas for people.

For your numbered questions, here are my $.02
1)  Shade sucks but partial shade can still work.  There are a number of fruiting shrubs that can handle shade (elderberry, currants, gooseberries, etc).  Hazelnuts can also handle some shade.
2)  Where is the runoff happening?  In the front view of the house is it to the right or left of the house?  
3)  That looks like a fun back yard.  Is the rock staircase something you want to keep?  If it works, from there on down I'm imagining you could do a windy path that makes the grade more flat.  Kind of like switch backs on mountain paths.
4)  I'm not sure what to do about mosquitoes.  I live between a lake and a swamp and we hardly have any mosquitoes.  1/2 mile down the road they are horrible.  We do have dragonflies for a month or two in the first half of summer but I'm not sure that's the secret.  I wish I knew so I could bottle and sell the secret.

Pruning the canopy - I'm guessing it wouldn't be cheap but it depends where you live.  In my part of the world there is something called "oak wilt" and it's spread by cutting oaks when their sap is flowing.  In that case you'd only want to do oak trimming in the late fall through early spring.




Thank you!  And haha!  I am tempted to go that route at time buts I will do my best to observe and try canopy trimming first!  I will definitely check out that book.  I will say immediately after posting I checked out Gaia's Garden.  I am enjoying it so far and look forward to learning more.  

I am located south central Wisconsin, in zone 5A.  My backyard faces north.  

1) That gives me some hope.  I'm also thinking about working my way up to trying some espalier trees in one of my little sunny spots.  
2) In the front view, looking at the house, it runs to the left.  
3) I'm not sure about the rock staircase.  It is incredibly slippery so I need to find out if I can make it less slippery or what other options may exist.  I should mention that 2 things I really want in my back yard are an outdoor dining area (which I'm guessing will require a flat space) and a play area for my kids.  I'm wondering how I can cost effectively do that - either by building something into the environment (I am not very handy so this would be challenging) or by bringing something into the space like a climber.  Outside of that, I do really like the idea of a windy path as an alternative to completely decimating the yard.  
4) That's okay!  I am somewhat resigned to this reality but hoping I can even slightly impact them!  

As far as the pruning, I would definitely hire a professional.  Good to know that there is importance to when that happens.  

Thank you for all your advice!  Let me know if anything else comes to mind based on the info I provided.  
6 months ago

Lucrecia Anderson wrote:Also regarding mosquitoes, might try putting in a little water bath to attract dragon flies. They supposedly eat their own body weight in mosquitoes and other small pests daily.

Look up how to create a little water area for them (with sticks etc....so the dragon fly larvae can emerge from the water and turn into adults). I want to try that next year as I can't go in the garden in the evening either without getting eaten up alive (morning is fine, but the days are sweltering hot in the summer so morning/evening is the best time to be out there).

Oh and bats are good too if you have any in your area. Maybe put up a couple of bat houses? At dusk our sky fills with flittering little bats scarfing up mosquitoes and everything else they can find. I love watching them they are such neat animals.



I like the idea of enlisting predators to do some of the dirty work!  I'm willing to try anything to make it more enjoyable to be outside in the warmer months!  I love bats, too, so I definitely need to look into this!
6 months ago

Lucrecia Anderson wrote:Can you plant veggies in the front yard too? You can make it look somewhat ornamental if you lay it out and choose attractive plants (peppers, peas, etc...). Might need to add a low fence if you have a lot of neighborhood kids/dogs etc...

Instead of feeling overwhelmed I would just start small. Maybe cover the soil where you want your vegetable garden so the grass dies and it will be ready for spring planting (or maybe even plant a few winter vegetables depending on your climate). Start on the part you are sure about, your 200 sq of garden plot, and the rest will work itself out.

You don't need to do everything at once, baby steps will get the job done and this should be something you ENJOY.



Thank you for the reassurance and idea for starting points.  Right now the only part of my yard that gets full sun for more than a couple hours of day is the bed around my mailbox so I may need to consider that plus the fence.  Thanks!
6 months ago
Hi everyone. I am a total newbie. I’ve checked out many different books on permaculture and related topics and skimmed them but feel so overwhelmed I tend to return them promptly. But I keep coming back. I want to learn!

I dream of an edible, functional yard with native planting’s, storm water management, and general environmental responsibility, sustainability, and aspects of homesteading as well as beauty.

I’m dealing with some challenges. I’m hoping addressing these can be my first step, but I’m struggling to let go of the idea of having a master plan to work from. I would love to have a year by year plan on how to maximize my land (which isn’t much - approximately 6000 sq ft.).

1) So much shade. I love that we have nearly hundred year old Burr oak trees throughout our yard and neighborhood. I’m struggling to love the fact that I have approximately 200 sq ft of my yard that receives enough sun to grow fruits and most vegetables. I have a tiny veggie plot and am almost resigned on dreams of having fruit trees.

2) Run off. Our street has no gutters and I am at the intersection of two hills - our street (perpendicular from driveway) goes down hill and our neighbors across the street are on a hill as well. It runs down the front along the bed and down the side. The back is fine, the front is eroded.

3) Very high grade backyard. It’s perfect for sledding. And that’s about it. I would like to have some seating, rain barrels, compost, as well as safely get to the bottom right corner where the sun shines on my little veggie plot. I want to work with the slope but I need plateaus or something. Professional grading is so far out of my budget it’s not even worth mentioning.

4) Mosquitoes. They are so fierce I literally run to pick tomatoes and run right back in. Not much wind, not much sun, Small marshes nearby. Any tips for how can I tend to my land with clouds of these literal suckers for 8 months of the year?

Anyways this is scattered. Basically I don’t have money or skills and only vague semblance’s of ideas. How can I get started? All the books have such intense vocabulary or advanced concepts that I’m afraid I don’t get much of out them. And all the beginner books seem to be how to keep your grass green or plant tomatoes which isn’t what I’m looking for.

Ideas from my initial reading online.

1) A berm to deal with the runoff. But where would I place it? The water runs over my driveway (long term would like to replace that with something permeable but it’s not in the budget right now), along the side, and down the front of my bed near my house. Horizontal to the street? Perpendicular? One side of the driveway, both?

2) Pruning some of the canopy. Is this viable or worth it? How much could something like that cost?

3) Moving my mailbox next to my driveway from the corner of my lot so I could maybe plant a dwarf fruit tree.

Am I even in the right place? Who can I seek advice from? I’m on a tight budget so I’m not sure I can afford professionals.

Thanks for any advice.

P.S. These are the listing pix, I’ve done a fair amount of planting since then.

6 months ago