Introduction: Three Week Dry Creek
This project can be completed in a couple of weekends if you have ALL the materials ready to go, you have help (plenty of help) and oh most importantly, you really know what you're doing - which I did not. I was, ahem, learning on the job. The entire project could even be completed in a single weekend, Yard Crashers style. But I worked at this alone. Also, I preferred to give myself time to decide what features I liked and what I thought needed to be changed. Accordingly, I kept going back to the rockery to pick up more materials as I felt the need for them. And I am still not done - so it continues to be a work in progress (like most of my projects)...
Step 1: Planning the Plot(ting)
We have a fairly square side yard that gets the full blast of our zone-9 afternoon sun, and where nothing landscaping seemed to work. We planted a ring of roses in the plot but they were plagued with disease and had become massively overgrown of late... At one point I had attempted to create a giant chess board on the lot. The plan was to make the main board out of cement pavers, interspersed with the ground cover dymondia. There would be a matching border of smaller pavers and Korean grass. The idea sounded great but when I tried to implement my plan, the dymondia outshone my large pavers and the Korean grass didn't have much Seoul...
Years later we had a pile of pavers sitting there, abandoned along with my last attempt at taming the beast. Not only had the dymondia survived, but it had climbed up over the pavers so aggressively that they were barely visible. And when I pulled them out, this tough as nails - or should I say diamonds - dymondia held its position in the air as though it were a concrete creation. It was then that I decided to embrace and work with what obviously knew how to survive, rather than keep fighting nature.
Step 2: The Inspiration
The dymondia skeleton sculpture gave me the idea of using it as a base for a rock garden. I filled my d.i.y. potting soil into the openings left behind by the pavers, then planted it up with succulents and miniature roses. We also had a bunch of river-rock in the area. It had been temporarily moved there from the base of a tree that needed to be replaced. I’m not sure when exactly the inspiration came but it suddenly hit me that a dry creek would be perfect for the spot. It would complement my rock garden and could bake in the afternoon sun all it wanted without appearing any the worse for wear! In addition, I would be able to use up all that river rock. There was just one small problem, I had to do some digging - some big time digging!
Step 3: Some Background About the Materials
If you already know this stuff or have neither the time nor inclination to get into the finer details of rock-talk, then you can skip this section/step and go straight to Step 4. While I am no expert on the subject I will be speaking of rocks and boulders and so I thought I should include a bit about them here. The content below is mainly from eHow, Wikipedia and geology courses that I’ve taken.
- Rocks are collections of minerals that make up the earth’s crust.
- Minerals are inorganic elements &/or compounds (as opposed to material that was recently living such as that which makes up compost).
- Rock is the raw material so to speak. It is in some ways a generic term. Some rocks are massive, and in certain cases, an entire mountain is considered to be a single rock. They get progressively smaller, all the way down to the powdery stuff we call clay.
- Boulders are large pieces of rock. Geologically speaking, any rock fragment slightly larger than 25 cm (10’’) is called a Boulder. In general usage, boulders are not only large but tend to be weathered (worn) and consequently, somewhat rounded.
I bought all my materials from a place called South Bay Materials (SBM). I will reference these materials on their site, but it does not reflect everything that they carry, as such I will reference similar products from other websites. And no, I don’t own stock in any of these companies, nor do I get any special rates for advertising for them. Though it wouldn’t be a bad idea if they decide to do so after reading this (hint, hint ;).
Step 4: The Purrr Chase...
For the Base, You Will Need:
- Enough of what most rockeries call base rock (crushed rock with fines) - to cover the surface of your trench about an inch deep. (If you want to know more about base rock, then 'Read All About It'! on Canyon Rock’s website.) Also see base rock (cheapest), crushed rock and drain rock (rounder) at U Save. You’ll want to keep the scale of your dry creek and its main intended purpose, as well as their pricing in mind while making your purchase decisions.
- About the same volume of concrete sand (it could be any coarse sand). You will use this over the crushed rock, and to fill in all the little pockets that remain after you have positioned the larger decorative rocks (boulders and cobbles) and leave some exposed on the creek bed. This could be yellow or grey.
Most rockeries sell bulk/loose material by the bag, where you fill the product in their standard sized bags. You can also buy this material by the yard, where they either fill it into your truck or deliver it to your home - for a price.
Now for the Fun Part...
When choosing your rocks & boulders, look for as varied shapes and sizes as possible. The pundits will tell you to use only locally sourced rocks so that they don’t look out of place, but I’m a bit of a rogue gardener in that I do not necessarily abide by that creed. I say if you like the rock and think it will look good in your particular setting (and you won’t be bursting the bank doing so), then buy it! When you think about it, how many homeowners could realistically have a natural creek flowing through their property? Yet some of us absolutely love them and so we install them in our yards. Do they look artificial and out of place to some people? I’m sure they do, but at the end of the day, you have to go with what makes YOU happy. And if that means having a creek flowing across your front yard in the middle of Arizona, then that’s just what the doctor ordered! So look for interesting colors as well, but don’t try to incorporate every color of the rainbow… Initially, I went a little crazy at SBM and brought home some beautiful LAPAZ Mexican pebbles. But they really did look out of place in this particular creek and so I removed most of the very pink ones. These ended up becoming part of the creek that flows under my ‘Not so Rustic Bridge’ since it already had more of a pinkish hue. It helps to have some sort of a color scheme in mind while shopping for materials. I am not sure if it is noticeable, but I went with an overall ochre-beige-coral theme for this particular dry creek.
For the Aesthetics, You Will Need:
- Enough boulders to make a statement! How many of each style? This is a tough one, but it might help to keep in mind that they will be placed singly and in clusters at irregular intervals along the edge of the creek. You could buy a little more than you think you might need if you are in a hurry to complete the project. I believe most rockeries will take back individual items like boulders, but you cannot return bulk material. Alternatively, do what I did and buy a few at a time, going back for more as needed. I used some Sierra, Sonoran Gold and Fieldstone Boulders from S B M, in addition to some moss rock (couldn't find the source).
- Enough mid-sized cobbles to cover half the surface of the creek bed one layer deep. I used two sizes of Sunburn pebbles, two sizes of Mexican buff pebbles, and Lynn Creek pebbles, along with Large and Medium cobbles.
- Enough decorative rock - angular ones to scatter around (mainly on the banks), and rounder ones to deposit in random large patches (mainly on the bed). I used two sizes of Gold, along with Ginger for the angular ones and Salmon Bay for the rounded pebbles.
Step 5: Creating the Creek - Getting Started:
Creating the Creek: We want to create the illusion of a river or stream, complete with headwaters which would be at a higher elevation and typically further away from view.
1) Decide on the rough location
2) Then determine the origin/source. You have two options here - celebrate it with a waterfall or conceal it behind plants and/or large boulders. If the prime purpose of your creek is for drainage, then your source would have to be wherever the water is pooling and needs to be diverted away from. It might be closer to the house, possibly leading away from a downspout, where a waterfall would look lovely when it rains! A purely aesthetic feature works nicely when originating at the furthest corner of the yard/fence.
3) Typically, the direction of descent will depend upon its main function and the slope of your land. You don't want to gift the neighbors with your runoff, rather direct it toward the street (a storm drain - if one is nearby). For a creek starting at the corner of the yard, be sure to direct it away from the house foundation. This is especially important if the house is at a lower elevation than the corner. But if the opposite is true, then you will have to do a little more digging towards the mouth and building up towards the source.
4) Mark out the edges of the creek with a garden hose or landscaper’s (chalk spray) paint. Make it a little serpentine as a straight trench with perfectly parallel sides will make your dry creek look like nothing more than a utilitarian drain… No matter where the creek starts from, keep in mind your high school drawing principles - the ones that help give the impression of perspective. This would be applied here by making the source area narrower while widening the creek as it meanders down. This makes the origin look further away and the creek look longer than it really is.
Step 6: Diggin' It:
We're Diggin’ this Thing: How deep to dig?
Typically, you want to end up with a bed that is twice as wide as it is deep. While digging, pile up the dirt on either side of the trench, creating the equivalent of river banks. As the imaginary water flows downstream, the bed gets shallower and wider. At the same time, you want the source of the creek to be deeper - while being at a higher elevation! How do we achieve this? You do this by progressively increasing the amount (and height) of dirt flanking the trench as you move from mouth to source, effectively deepening the creek bed. Closer to the source, you will barely be digging - if at all. The creek bed will be created almost entirely by excavated dirt along with the largest boulders.
Step 7: NO Barriers:
If you did not find weed barrier on my list of materials, it is not because I forgot to include… I do not find it to be of any use - on the contrary, the sharp gravel will poke holes in it, strategically enough to favor the growth of weeds. And even if that does not happen, over time dirt and decomposed plant debris will pile up on top of it providing just sufficient nutrition for the weeds. It will also start to bury the gravel and the finer rock material. If the barrier were not there, this dirt would get washed down past the gravel. So save yourself the time and expense. If you will be working in what was a weed infested area, and you are concerned that weeds will start popping up before you’ve even completed the project, then spray the area with water and put down some layers of newspaper or grocery fliers. You could also use cardboard, dampened enough to take the shape of your creek bed. This material will eventually decay; by which time, so will the weeds and their seeds.
Step 8: Rockin’ It:
If you think that all you have to do now is pick up an open bag of rocks, hold it as high as you can and let the rocks fall where they may, your creek will not look like much more than a drain. This trick does have its place and works, within limits, for only one layer of the project - adding medium sized cobbles down the center of the bed. But you don’t want your creek to look contrived. So it does not mean neatly lining up the boulders like little soldiers along the edge of the creek either! I’ve seen some like this where one can tell that the boulders used must have been really pricey, but their effect was totally lost by their overly neat row like arrangement. Creating that natural look is counterintuitive and does indeed call for some serious and time-consuming work to purposefully make it look random! It helps to look at LOTS of pics of dry creeks, rivers, and streams. What is better still - if feasible - is to observe/study some natural streams, because you are trying to mimic in a matter of days, what would have taken nature centuries - at best - to accomplish.
Since even after observing and studying rivers and creeks, how and where to place the different sizes, and shapes/textures of boulders might still have many folks feeling a little bebouldered (he he), I’ve put together a list of rules if you will, for their placement.
Placing the Large (Boulders) and Medium (Cobbles/River Rocks):
a) With Respect to Shape and Texture: Water is a powerful tool and it grinds away at rocks, rounding out corners. So the rocks/boulders in the middle of the bed would have rounded profiles while those up on the banks would be more angular since they have not been weathered as much - if at all. Those close to the edges of the creek bed would have a surface texture that is somewhere in between rounded and sharp.
b) With Respect to Size: Since larger boulders would not get tossed around as much, they tend to stay put, which means you can have a couple of fairly large boulders in the very middle of the creek with a slightly smaller (mid-sized) river rock along the banks, just as though they were tossed to the sides by running water. Overall, the largest boulders would tend to be towards the source getting progressively smaller further down due to being broken up and sanded down along their journey! Maintain this pattern throughout the bed with occasional foils for interest.
c) With Respect to Color: When arranging the rocks, try to group similar colors together, even though we want them to vary in size and texture (larger and more angular higher up on the banks). Why does color take precedence over form? If you think about it, when a fairly large rock breaks up a good amount of it will remain in the vicinity for quite a while. Some smaller pieces might get more weathered turning their surface more smooth. But since they were all originally chips of the old block, they will have very similar composition. They will ultimately make their way further downstream so there will be more color variation near the mouth. Understand that they could be multicolored - and many of these rocks are - but they would have the same combination of colors. Follow the same principle when filling in with decorative rock.
Some Finer Details: You could place a couple of fairly large, flat surfaced rocks/boulders along the edge of the creek. Partially bury one edge into the bank and have the rest overhanging the creek like a cliff. Don’t have too many of these and either unevenly stagger the few that you do incorporate or have just one set of three somewhat close to each other so they look like an outcropping from the same source.
Filling in Crevices: There will also be sand &/or silt on the bed, so pour the concrete sand, granite fines or a combination over the larger rocks and water it in so it settles around the base of the rocks. You don’t want the rocks to be sitting on the surface of the bed looking as though you just placed them there - even though that is exactly what you did…
Adding Final Touches: Toss some medium and tiny pebbles AKA pea gravel around randomly creating patches of them. The entire creek bed does NOT have to be covered with gravel, pebbles, river rock or boulders. Again, take a look at a real stream. You will find fairly large expanses of nothing but sand or silt. This is all the more evident as the stream progresses down towards what is called the mouth of the stream (the lowermost and broadest point). I think this is probably one of the biggest secrets to creating a realistic looking creek. And it’s easier on your budget to boot!!
Step 9: It Needs a (Some) Life
Depending on the exposure of your lot and the purpose of your creek, you could either plant drought tolerant material like succulents or water loving plants. Ground covers work really well. Here is some of what I used:
1) Daylily (not currently flowering, but beige to complement the large rose. It has a blackish purple center)
2) Black Aeonium (to complement the daylily. It also stays smaller than the green variety)
3) Calla Lilies (black to complement aeonium and daylily; pink in brighter colored patch)
4) Miniature Roses (crimson, orange and white striped, red and white striped)
5) Echeveria (AKA Hens and Chicks) varieties
6) Sedum varieties
7) The Great Dymondia!
Step 10: Staging
Incorporate Some Decor: You don’t have to do this, but a bridge over cobbled water would make it all the more special. The bridge could be Asian inspired and highly ornate, especially if the creek is part of an Asian-themed garden; or it could be uber rustic. It is, after all, a matter of your personal taste. A strategically placed authentic-looking canoe would also look pretty cool! It could be tethered to a stake or small tree on the bank as though ready for a trip… Someday I’ll get there with this one.
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