July 18, 2011


(I wrote this post on July 18, 2011. It has been updated on June 16, 2015 so you can see photos of the changes I made to the creekbed at the bottom of this post --- read all the way to the end if you want to see!)

Original post:
The edges are too symmetrical, too uniform
The dry creek bed I constructed has never looked quite right.  I built it completely by myself, on my hands and knees.  Jim helped remove the sod and cut the shape, but I dug and hauled and moved and placed every rock.

It is decorative, it doesn't carry any water.  My main goal in constructing it was to use up all the rocks that had accumulated around the property every time I dug a hole.

I used them all.  But it didn't look right.  Too symmetrical or something.  The edges had no variation, and it did not look natural.

I kept adding more stones every time I dug in the garden (the supply is endless.  You can re-dig in the same hole you made a month ago and new rocks will have formed.  Lots of them.)  I kept trying to get the stream bed to look better, adding more and more material and becoming more and more dissatisfied.

My neighbor Kit's dry stream bed, professionally installed and running the entire length of her back yard, looked like what I was after.  Really, what was the difference, other than money, materials, depth, scale, an arched granite footbridge, a hired landscaper and a backhoe?  Why couldn't I make my tiny amateur version look like hers using only a wheelbarrow and my garden trowel?  Why not?
Kit's dry stream bed: my model

Finally, after studying constructed stone stream beds at public gardens and in photos, it dawned on me: subtraction.  Not addition.

Take some of the edging stones away.  Leave random breaks in the stream bank.  Let the grass and low plants grow down into the breaks. So I started removing rocks, sighing as I undid a lot of the hard work I had done, one by one, rock by friggin rock.

In the end I took out about a quarter of all the rocks, and left some small breaks along the bank cut directly into the garden or lawn.  I bought some pea gravel and added it for contrast.
The flat oval stone in mid stream is to step across.  I think I need an arched wooden footbridge instead

I made a rock overhang for the trout to hide in on hot days

I'll let the pink dwarf beebalm (Monarda 'Petite Delight') creep into the rocks, but probably will have to edit (weed) it frequently

I like the random edging much better

In all the rework and fussing and adding pea stones, I lost any depth. . . it's a flat stream bed now.  Mmmph.

Garden design involves editing.  Sometimes taking away plants or materials is an improvement.  It took me forever to get that idea in this project.

But even as I absorb the lesson of gardening by subtraction, I am planning to add things to this area --- a creeping mat groundcover that will inch down into the stones, replacing the turf edges.

A little wooden footbridge, more plants to spill over the edges, some irises anchored in the rocks at the margins, and sweet smelling clethra  at the inside curve.  Maybe a few bigger rocks that are more boulder-sized.

And . . . . . 

Subtraction as a design concept is not going to be easy for me.

As of June 2015 -- Here's an update: I did add a curved bridge over the little creekbed in 2013.

Ta Da!


  1. It turned out great after your subtractions. The rhythm was too regular in your first attempt. A lot of work though and I do know about digging and always finding rocks. Not my house, but clients on the escarpment. No fun. Two of them ended up with dry stream beds, but it was installed for seasonal drainage problems, becoming a wet stream bed each spring. We planted them with wildflowers along the banks. So pretty all year.

  2. By golly I think you've got it. It does look much better. This mathematical lesson is never ending in the garden. Always there are additions, subtractions, multiplications. And doesn't it feel good to finally get it right.

  3. Laurrie, excellent post! I know exactly how much work it takes to do this and then to UNDO it just to REDO it later. You have landscape fabric under these rocks, right? I am really toying with the idea of a dry river bed but will need to obsess for a few years about it before I start just because it is SO labor-intensive and I want to get it "almost right" the first time. I liked your first bed and saw nothing wrong with it until I saw how natural the second one looked. Good job... *applause applause*

  4. You have done a great job! Editing is an important part of gardening, and I do think your dry river bed looks as good as your neighbors. I love the trout!

  5. What a great post Laurrie. When you showed your dry bed the last time I thought, what a great idea. Now I know some important points if I ever try this. The stream bed looks great now with the changes.

  6. Laurrie, the project of your new and self designed dry bed turned out just awesome in my opinion.
    Sometimes garden design just takes a lot more work or changes than initially planned or expected. The changes you made, make all the difference in the entire look of this dry bed.
    Thumb up! :)

  7. Aha!! You've improved your dry creek bed and it looks great. Love the trout too. I think once you add the low growing plants it will look even more natural. I could use a little subtraction at the moment in my garden - a few plants haven't survived the drought and heat.

  8. I think your stream bed looks great! Love the fish! :o) I actually have an idea for one in my garden, although I'm not sure it will ever happen. Sometimes less is so much more. I recently had to edit out a giant plant that was driving me crazy.

  9. Laurrie! How awesome! Your hard work is rewarded and how proud you must be!
    (I love the fishy!)

  10. Donna, thanks. It does have a different rhythm now. I hadn't thought about rhythm as an element in design!

    Lisa, Yes, it feels good to get something right... but I still have plantings I want to add to the edges here, so it's not quite right yet.

    Wendy, I did put landscape fabric under the bed, but not all the way out to the edges. To make the natural breaks at the margins I had to keep the fabric from peeking out. I hope you do put a stone stream bed in at your place!

    Deborah, thanks. The funny thing is that the little wooden trout MOVES... I find it in slightly different spots. I think the rabbits and snakes and vermin that crawl in the stream bed shift its position.

    Marguerite, thank you. Do you think yo will try to put one in? I hope so!

    Paula Jo, I want everything to be just perfect the first time, and gardening is teaching me otherwise. Projects and plants and design need constant editing.

    Cat, the low growing plants will finally finish this look I think. Too hot now to put them in (but not as horribly hot as you are), so I will do that in the fall.

    TS, If you have the idea for a stream bed in your garden I encourage you to do it! As you can see, even a confused amateur can make one and it turns out okay (with editing).

    Sissy, Thanks. I guess I am proud of it, but for the most part I am always critical and wanting to "fix" it!

  11. It still boggles my mind to think you created this all by yourself, Laurrie. I thought the original looked good, but you're right--the revised stream bed looks even better! I think a little footbridge would be the perfect finishing touch. I seem to enjoy addition more than subtraction, too:)

  12. I've never seen a dry creek bed before and do I ever like yours! Your neighbour's is great, but you have all the satisfaction of having done yours yourself. Well done.

    I discovered your lovely blog through our mutual contact, Three Dogs in a Garden, by the way!

    Diane from Ontario (zone four)

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  14. Rose, addition is so much more rewarding than taking things away! I do think I will add a small curved footbridge.

    Diane, Welcome and thanks! I do like knowing I made this bed myself, as opposed to my neighbor's professionally installed one.

  15. Love the edited version, just don't ever edit out the trout!

  16. Beautiful job! I like the idea of letting the plants creep in. Want some hens and chicks and other low growing succulents? They ship easily!
    Let me know :)
    Angie of http://agardenamongsttheweeds.blogspot.com/

  17. Joene, the painted wooden trout will stay!

    Angie, thanks. I do need to soften those edges with some creepers. Hens and chicks get way out of control here though, and will easily take over the whole place, so I'll try some slower creepers, not sure what yet.

  18. I teach waterwise landscape design at a botanical garden where I work. This is such an EXCELLENT example of how to make a nice dry river bed. It's a tough concept to master. Beautiful, beautiful work! May I refer students to your post here?

  19. Cynthia, thanks so much. Of course students can be referred here, the more readers the better, and any other advice on how I can make this look right is welcome!

  20. Laurrie, Thanks so much for the link you left on my post to this one of yours. It looks fabulous, and it is exactly the lesson I think I needed. Your dry stream bed looks fabulous now, I love it! In fact, I pinned it.

    1. Alison, thanks! I am looking forward to seeing how your rock pile experiment progresses. I still tinker with this stream bed and it never did come out looking like my neighbor Kit's does, but there's nothing like playing with rocks on your hands and knees to pass an afternoon : )

  21. Really great lesson. I'm building one currently... before I go too far, I'm looking for answers on how folks keep them 'clean'... do you use a leaf blower?


    1. Maurette, the leaves don't accumulate in mine, they seem to blow away on their own. I do get small weeds, though, that start in between the pebbles, and I have to weed the creek bed. After a good rain I use a propane torch to burn them, or I also hand pull them.

  22. Love your 2015 update! I am building a bioswale (dry stream) in Santa Cruz, CA, and I really appreciate learning from your lesson on subtraction! Your garden looks beautiful:)

    1. Thanks! And good luck with your bioswale.

  23. This is soooooo beautiful! I am a Master Gardener and we are reconstructing some beds around our office. You have just taught me valuable lessons! Thanks you for all of your time learning, writing and taking pictures!!!

  24. Hey Laurrie, this looks great and inspires us to do something similar. Did you put weed paper or rubber liner underneath, or does the gravel handle weeds on its own?


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