How to Build a Dry Creek Bed
Credit: Opensource

There is an area in my backyard that is a natural wash. During heavy rains, water tends to drain in that direction. I remember when I first moved into the home, I built up that area with old lumber and logs, then covered it with dirt to try to get rid of the natural gully.

Before my neighborhood was developed, I speculate that this area used to be a small creek that ran through the area. Just a few decades ago, this area was nothing more than a rural country farm.

If you have an area on your property that drains during heavy rains causing erosion, one option you might want to consider is building a dry creek bed. If done properly, these rock landscaping ideas not only add function, but create the illusion that a creek once flowed right through your yard.

Let me be clear, dry creek beds are not water features. That is a totally different landscaping idea.

Dry creek beds offer a natural looking landscape similar to a rock garden. And you can be as creative as you want, creating a winding path with a mixture of plants around the edges along with medium sized rocks and river rock to form the creek bed. Varying the sizes of the rocks will make the bed look more natural.

  • Large Rocks – About a foot thick
  • Medium Rock – About 8 inches thick
  • Smaller River Rock – About 2 -3 inches thick

Examples of Before and After Dry Creek Beds

Dry Creek Bed Design

If you are dealing with an area that has erosion issues, you already know where your dry creek bed will be located. If you are planning it for another area of your lawn, these same planning steps should be used. 

First, map the direction of the direction of the creek one of two ways. You can use landscaper spray paint, or simple take a water hose and lay out the edges of your creek. Do not create straight lines. Straight lines do not exist in nature.

Where should you start your bed?How to Build a Dry Creek BedCredit: Opensource

Well, if you have a real drainage issue, start where the erosion is occurring. If there are other consideration such as runoff from a drainage pipe or a sloping grade from a neighbor’s yard dumping water onto your property, begin the creek bed design in that area.

If you have no real drainage or erosion issues and you just designing the creek bed for a landscaping feature, you have a lot of flexibility to put it anywhere on your property where it will be the most visually appealing. However, do not make the beginning point of your dry bed obvious. Try to disguise its origin to maintain the illusion. You can do this by making the stream appear to originate from under a large boulder or a large plant or bush.

When you end the creek bed depends on several factor. If you truly have a wash area, direct it off your property toward the street if possible. However, in most circumstances, this is not going to be possible because of location and grade. Your only option will be to redirect it to an area of your property where it will not be an issue. Make sure you are not dumping it into someone else’s yard.

If you have a major issue and are planning a large redirection of water, check with your local codes first to make sure there are no issues with your plan before you begin.

For homeowners that are just looking to build a hardscape feature on their property, extend the dry creek to a point where it appears to end naturally such as disappearing into rocks or brush.

Now that the plans are set, it is time to get to work.

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Plenty of hardscape ideas for your garden

Building Your Dry Creek Bed

Build a Dry Creek Bed
Credit: mjpyro

You will need the following materials to get started:

  • Landscape fabric
  • River rocks and boulders of varying sizes
  • Shovel and stiff rake
  • Tamping tool
  • Wheel barrow

Remember, you are not actually building a creek with flowing water, so it is not necessary to excavate a large amount of dirt.

You should only dig out a trench about 8 to 10 inches deep and vary the width of the sides to make it look as natural as possible. No straight lines. You can do this part of the project with a shovel or rent a tiller to churn up the soil. Either way, plan to use some muscle and get dirty. Hopefully you will not run into too many buried large rocks and roots from nearby trees.

When you remove the soil from the trench use it to build up the sides of your creek bed. You can use higher and lower banks to create illusions. Tamp down the soil to form a firm base along the sides.

Once you have dug out the trench, lay down landscape fabric that covers the bed and each side of the creek bed. Eventually rocks and plants will cover all of this, but the fabric will keep weeds from sprouting in your new dry creek.

Begin by placing about an inch of pea gravel along the bottom and up the sides of the creek. This will form a base that covers the landscape fabric in case you have gaps in the larger rocks that will follow.

Next, place your largest rocks strategically within the bed and along the sides to hold the fabric in place. These are the rocks that can be as big as a foot wide. You can purchase these types of larger rocks at specialty landscaper materials outlets. Yes, they are heavy and you will need someone to help you get them into place. Make an impression into the soil and pea gravel for the larger rocks to look like they have been in place for a while.

If you are creating a deeper creek bed with steeper sides, consider mortaring the larger rocks in place. However, if you live in a climate that is subject to hard freezes often, try to avoid using mortar because it is susceptible to frost heaves.

Next, pack soil around the sides of the larger rocks on the sides to keep them in place. Remember to mix up the look of the larger rocks to keep in natural.

Finally, add river rock all along the length of the creek bed making sure to fill in all of the gaps. River rock should form most of the base for your creek because it looks like it belongs in a natural waterway because of its round shape.

Remember, even if you end up with small spaces between the river rock, you still have pea gravel underneath it so your landscape fabric will not show.

How to Build a Dry Creek Bed
Credit: Opensource

Installing landscape fabric

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Place landscaping fabric one the ground before building your rock bed to prevent weeds from entering the dry creek bed.

Creek landscaping ideas

Finishing Touches

How to build a dry river bed
Credit: Opensource

After you have your dry creek bed in place, you should add some finishing touches to complete the natural look. Locate various shrubs and plants along the edge of the creek bed to add interest. If you have small children or pets, be careful that with the type of plants you place in your garden as some are poisonous.

If you really want to complete the look, you can build an arching bridge over the bed to further the illusion.

Finally, if you want to encourage peat moss to grow on the larger rocks along the sides, apply buttermilk on them and place them in a shady area of the creek bed.