If you are looking to make a dramatic statement in your garden, but are not interested in adding a lot of maintenance, a DIY dry creek bed is the way to go. A dry creek bed gives your yard a natural feel and provides both beauty and function to your space.

Dry creek beds are surprisingly easy to complete yourself. Most beds can be completed in a day or two, but they still have a professional look to the finished project.

A creek bed is a great option for an area that doesn’t drain well, has poor soil, or perhaps has an easement. If you’re ready to add a “wow” factor to your landscape without the upkeep of a true water feature, you’ll love a DIY dry creek bed.

What is a dry creek bed?

A dry creek bed, also known as a dry stream bed, is a gully or trench dug out from the soil, usually lined with stones or boulders and edged with plants to mimic a natural river.

Why would you consider creating one in your yard?

A dry creek bed can serve both function and beauty. If you have a slope on your property where excess water tends to flow and cause erosion, a dry creek bed can direct that water without causing problems on your property. By providing an escape route for excess water, you can protect your existing landscape.

On the other hand, a dry creek bed is sometimes added simply because it’s beautiful and maintenance free. The look of flowing rocks is attractive and adds the ambiance of a rushing stream, even without water. Some homeowners with absolutely no drainage problems in the yard build them just because they like the way they look.

How do you make one?

There are a myriad of dry creek bed ideas and tutorials online. Finding a little inspiration that suits your particular needs or interest shouldn’t be difficult. That said, all creek beds are created in basically the same way. The size and style of rocks may vary, but the installation process is essentially the same.

Step 1: Make a plan

The first step is to plan where your dry creek bed will go. A straight creek is neither natural nor beautiful, so be sure to create gentle curves and turns that resemble a winding stream. Most dry creek beds follow an existing slope. Start at the top of the slope where water tends to fall first, and then meander through your landscape and away from the property for proper drainage. Be sure not to direct the water to a street, towards your house, or onto your neighbor’s property.

Step 2: Map the course

Once you’ve determined the path of the stream, you’ll want to mark it clearly before you start working. You can outline the shape with landscaping paint, rope, or a garden hose. Make sure it’s mapped out clearly so that as you start working, you can clearly see your outline.

Step 3: Dig it up and clear it out.

Once you’ve got a plan and an outline, it’s time to get to work. Start by removing existing vegetation. Usually, this means carving out the existing grass. It may also require you to remove, replace, or replant existing plants and shrubs.

As a general rule, streams are about twice as wide as the depth. If your dry creek bed is 4 feet (1 m.) across, it would be about 2 feet (.6 m.) deep or less. If you make your dry creek bed too deep, you may create a pond instead of a stream.

As you dig, mound the excavated soil around the sides of the creek. This creates a natural appearance rather than a trench. You want to be sure the sides are built up naturally first, then you can use the excess soil in another area of your landscape.

Once you’ve completely cleared the path for your creek bed, tamp the soil down with a tamping tool. If you don’t have a tamping tool, you can simply stomp on the soil to press it down, but proper tamping will make the next steps significantly easier.

Step 4: Line the bed

Before you fill it with rock, it’s important to line the bed with landscape fabric. Use landscape pins to hold the fabric in place. This will keep weeds from growing through your rocks. You want to be careful not to get any dirt on the fabric. Nothing is worse than working hard to create a beautiful dry creek bed only to have weeds pop up throughout the entire surface within months. Don’t skimp on the landscaping fabric. Make sure it’s laid down clean and tight across the entire surface.

Step 5: Place Rocks

Start with the largest rocks first. For most creek beds, there should be a few oversized boulders placed here and there along the sides of the creek bed. Place them first, and then settle them in at least 1 to 2 inches deep.

Once you have your large boulders in place, you can cover the entire surface in a thick layer of gravel or coarse sand, and then spread river rocks of various sizes and shapes down the length of the creek bed.

The bed should look like Mother Nature placed them there, this means they shouldn’t be uniform and perfect. Some people like to mortar river rocks in place, but most find that this step isn’t necessary unless you expect rushing waters to run through your creek.

Step 6: Plants

Your dry creek bed is almost complete and is looking great! Once you’ve finished creating the rock bed, it’s time to add native shrubs, ornamental grass or flowers along the banks. A dry creek bed without surrounding plants looks unfinished. Plants and tall ornamental grasses soften the edges of the dry river bed and help to give the creek an intentional look while disguising the “headwaters”.

Unless you are digging through very fertile soil, you will probably have to improve the ground for planting by adding soil amendments to it. Choosing the best plants to surround your bed depends on the same factors that you would consider for any other planting, with a few additional practical factors taking priority.

Be sure to select plants that do well in wet areas and full-sun plants along edges that receive sunlight all day long. If you’d like, you can also add a large shaded tree to shade part of your bed. This may add a little maintenance by way of clearing fallen leaves, but many gardeners like the look of the branches of a small weeping tree such as a Japanese maple hanging over a stream bed (dry or otherwise).

With any planting, you choose, be sure to mix in some suitable shorter ground covers, as well. As with other garden beds, dry creek planting will look more natural if plants of different heights are combined together in a natural landscape.

Step 7: Mulch

Complete the project by adding mulch around the dry-creek-bed plants, to keep down weeds.  Mulch also gives your project a finished look. Make sure to get a heavy mulch, if you live in a windy area like I do.  

If you’re ambitious, you can go beyond simple plants and install a landscaping bridge, stepping stones, logs, or hanging plants for a knockout focal point for your yard.

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