Books in sync with nature.

Have Lots of Rain This Summer? Create Your Own Dry Stream! (From Spirit of Stone)

Western PA has been getting a lot of rain this summer. As in, I can’t remember the last day it wasn’t raining! And while my tomatoes are loving it, I’m definitely not. Many other plants and landscapes suffer from this amount of rain. My peppers now have a permanent home in some containers on my roof-covered front porch.

I live on a hill, so most of the runoff I see flows right down my street. But what happens if all your rainfall has nowhere to go? Dry streams, according to Spirit of Stone author Jan Johnsen, are the perfect solution to excess rain runoff and garden runoff. You typically won’t see a steady stream of water in your dry stream unless there’s a serious amount of water. But even a little bit of rain will make your stones glisten, and your garden will thank you later. Plus, dry streams also happen to be a “unique, sustainable way to incorporate natural rocks in the garden.” And Jan really has a thing for natural stone (check out her book)!

Here’s some tips from Jan’s book on how to create your own backyard dry stream.

It is not too difficult to create a dry stream. You must have a sufficient number of fairly large-size rocks (about 12–18″ long), a roll of filter fabric and gravel to fill in the stream. First, lay out a slightly curving trench and widen it at certain sections. The shape and alignment of a dry stream is important in making it look natural. Think of how water moves through a landscape; streams in nature are not straight channels, they meander back and forth. So make your stream a curving line and be sure to include a wider section where the invisible water “pools.” This pool provides a place where you can set larger rocks and maybe an eye-catching plant.

The width of the trench should vary. You can make part of it as narrow as 16″ wide (before placing rocks) and other sections as wide as you want. Excavate the trench at least 10–14″ deep (or more, if it is meant to act as a deep catch basin). Place the soil from the excavated area on the sides of the stream. I place more soil on the far side of the stream to create a higher plant bed there. This creates interest and works especially well with plants that drape over rocks because they will not grow into the stream bed.

Line the entire trench with filter fabric (not plastic!) and extend it beyond the sides. Set large-size rocks along the stream bank atop the filter fabric. The rocks will be partially covered by the gravel and stone, so no need to worry about how their bases look. You can have the stones protrude higher than the outside ground level or plant bed. It depends on the look you want to create. Jutting rocks have a rugged appearance and create a dynamic look, especially in modern settings. Feel free to experiment with the border stones as you place them. There is no incorrect way of doing it! After they are placed, backfill behind the rocks with good quality soil. The soil may be brought up close to the top of the rocks that border the dry stream, if you want. The soil should not be too clayey and be able to sustain healthy plants or lawn.

Fill the trench with 1/4–1/2″ gravel or similar. In very wet situations, add a few inches of gravel, install a 4”-diameter subsurface pipe atop this layer of gravel and connect to an underground catch basin. Then fill the trench almost to the top of the stream. Atop the gravel, carefully install a single layer of rounded pebbles of your choice. The stones contrast beautifully with the rocks on both sides of the stream. You can also use rocks of various sizes as a topper as well. Planting along the sides of your dry stream is the fun part. Purchase Jan’s book to see her selected plantings!

While my own garden space (if you can call it that) is only about 3’x4′, I dream of having my very own dry stream/stone feature. Maybe someday!

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