Planning a Man-Made Backyard Stream
Of all the various creations that bring the soothing or rousing sights and sounds of water into our landscapes, streams most closely follow the model provided by Mother Nature. The forms and the music of these backyard wonders encompass the slopes, curves, dips and growths of the environments they meander through.
If we have a natural and gentle slope to our yard, we can cut the groove of our intended stream out of the existing surface. Otherwise, we can import soil to create the grade we want. It should be well compacted before we begin digging. A typical stream design moves water from a larger body (called the reservoir pond) at the top of the slope to another (called the header) at the bottom. Water is moved from the header back to the reservoir with a submersible pump that will ideally be disguised at its source by rocks or shrubbery and utilize a buried hose.
An ideal depth for a running stream is about 3 inches, but as we plan our dig we must take into account some buffering (of sand or smooth gravel) for the liner, the liner itself, and the bed of stones that will become the visible part of the stream below the water. Large stones will also require sand or gravel bedding. When plotting our stream’s course, we should also plan for the accessibility of electrical lines needed to power the recirculating pump.
We can plot our course with spray paint, builder’s chalk or cat litter. Some ways to vary our streams and make them more interesting include dividing the course with rocks, making curves, and placing edging plants on their banks. We can also vary the width at different points. We can plan these additions, and perhaps even map them out, as we draw our outline on the landscape.
Once it’s demarcated, we begin digging out our stream’s bed in a “U” shaped groove, allowing a couple of extra inches for bedding beneath our liner. The trench proceeds like terraced steps. It’s helpful to use a carpenter’s level to ensure that both sides are even as we proceed, lest the final version of our stream looks lopsided. Topsoil that is displaced in the digging process can be saved for planting areas along the banks, if desired.
A layer of sand should be laid down, for padding, before lining. If we use separate pieces of liner, they should overlap each other by 3-6 inches. Any necessary folds should be made in the same direction that water will be flowing. Stream liners should also overlap the pond liners.
When placing the rocks, we have an opportunity to be creative and think aesthetically. Varying the sizes and shapes of our river stones or concrete pavers, and using uneven configurations instead of straight lines, make for a more natural look that will blend well into the surrounding landscape. Then we can add edging plants, and perhaps ferns for the shaded areas, as a final touch.
Once the water is added and it begins to flow, the magic begins. Man-made streams, when built with care and taste, can be almost indistinguishable from their natural counterparts. We will have, now, a place of beauty that can also serve as a habitat for new plant life, an invitation to birds, and a place of repose where we can go to escape the bustle of the day.