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Building an Artificial Stream

What’s so hot about cool waterfalls and streams? Well, besides looking good, they help to oxygenate the water, filter out debris, dissipate chlorine, and provide audio-visual drama.

Best of all, you can build streams and waterfalls nearly anywhere with the aid of an efficient pump and that miracle of aquaculture, the pond liner. Streams can be a mere foot or two in length or meander around for hundreds of feet. They can incorporate a small pool or two plus a waterfall, spillway, or just about anything else your own imagination can conjure up.

Waterfalls can be as simple as a thin bead of water trickling a mere inch or two over the lip of a rock or as dramatic as a wall of water free-falling several feet or more. Although streams and waterfalls often appear rustic, many ornate formal gardens incorporate them, as well. To build one yourself, read on.

Designing a Stream
Before building your stream, study the way natural creeks, brooks, and streams run. Visit a local park. Spend time looking at pictures. Pay attention to how a stream cuts its course, how the banks are situated, where rocks lie, and how plants grow. Notice that some rocks are in the stream, and some line its banks. Notice, too, how nearly all rocks are only partially exposed, the balance of them being buried.

Take a close look at the plants, too. See where they grow, whether they’re alone or in bunches, and how they look.

Observe where small falls and pools develop. Nature, remember, is our best teacher.

Naturalizing a stream is the key to making it look as if it were part of your original landscape—as if you bought a house in which a stream ran through the backyard.

Before you actually begin construction on your stream, sketch it out on paper. Take into account the contours of your landscape. Remember the obvious: water flows downhill. Buck that dictum, and you’re inviting trouble.

If your yard is sloped, you’ve won half your battle. If not, you’ll have to build up the stream bed. You’ll need at least a 1-to-2 inch fall minimum for each 10 feet of stream in order to keep the water flowing. Otherwise, it could pool up and back-flow or overflow the sides.

Since your stream will be covered by pond liner and disguised by landscaping, you can use anything to build up the slope that’s handy and relatively stable. That includes rocks, stones, compacted soil, sand, lumber (something that won’t rot over time), etc. Stay clear of organic materials such as hay and straw since they will biodegrade, causing the stream to settle.

How long and how wide are you going to make your stream? That’s another consideration. While no hard rules apply here, you should use some common sense. Sketching your yard out on a sheet of paper will give you a good birds-eye view of how your stream will fit in with the rest of your landscaping. You want it to look natural and inviting, not overwhelming or inconspicuous.

As a rule of thumb, if your stream is going to tie into a pond, the total length of the stream should be a minimum of twice the length of the pond in order to be in scale with each other. Don’t put a three-foot-long stream together with a twelve-foot-long pond and expect it to look real.

As for the width of the stream, common sense again prevails. The wider the stream bed, the more leisurely its current. The narrower the bed, the faster the current. Of course, current is also determined in part by the size of your pump. A unit that pumps 4,000 gallons an hour will move water four times faster than one that pumps 1,000 gallons an hour; so, you can have a rapidly flowing stream in a wide bed, for example, if your plans—and your budget—allow for a large pump.

If you’re looking to emulate nature, include a series of short, shallow depressions in the stream bed. These sections, which are actually small holding ponds, should hold some water even when the pump is off. You can connect the sections by drop-offs of just a few inches, resulting in a natural-looking series of stepping pools.

Don’t forget to vary the lay of the stream. Most streams in nature bend and weave around boulders, trees, rocks, and other elements, and so should yours. Avoid running your stream straight downhill. Large rocks in the stream create rivulets as they divert water around them. Small rocks and pebbles produce ripples as the water moves over them. Both produce beneficial oxygen and negative ions.

Once you’ve designed your stream, mark out the watercourse with spray paint. And get ready for the fun—putting everything together!


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