Dream Stream

from Garden, Deck & Landscape
Of all the ways to water garden, a stream, complete with rapids and waterfalls, may be the most extensive. See one Iowa family’s backyard water garden design.

The genius of water is that it always knows where to go — downhill.

Harness this law of nature by creating a stream that meanders down even a modest slope, tumbling over falls and trickling through turns before being pumped back to its point of origin.

Woodland streams are often thousands of years old, but the stream pictured here has existed for only several months. It was built in one day by a contractor with an experienced crew. “It’s an Eden-like environment,” says property owner Doug Jimerson, who had the stream installed on his Iowa property.

Any site with a slope of 1 inch per 10 feet will support a stream, but more slope expands the possibilities for building waterfalls. If you need more slope for your stream, you can create it, as long as you don’t get carried away. “Sometimes people make the stream and waterfall too high, which looks out of place. It’s important to keep it in scale with the property,” advises Ed Beaulieu, vice president of construction for Aquascapes, a leading manufacturer of water garden products based in Batavia, Illinois.

Also scrutinize drainage patterns. A heavy rain can add more water to your stream than your facilities can handle. Raise the stream’s edges with excavated soil and stone to direct rainwater runoff away from the stream.

The stream can be a source of runoff as well. Power outages that stop the pump will cause the stream to overflow at the bottom. Beaulieu suggests locating the stream so that overflow water runs into a drainage easement or a dry well — a pit lined with gravel — just beyond the low end of the stream. Shallower streams hold less water, and therefore have less potential overflow volume. But they also need more frequent refilling. In normal conditions, Doug adds water to his stream every three weeks; in hot, dry weather, it needs replenishment every week.

Stream Planning Checklist
Professional installation means most of the work will be done for you; regardless, you should consider the following from the beginning:

Identify underground utilities and easements. Build the stream on your property, not in easements, and know ahead of time where utilities are buried.

Check on building permits. In most areas, building codes for swimming pools apply to water features.

Think about wiring needs. In addition to wiring for a pump, decide where you want nighttime lighting. Plan ahead to enjoy your stream after dark.

Plan truck access. A large dump truck will need a place to deliver several tons of gravel and stone.

The Process
Building a stream is a major project for most do-it-yourselfers, so consider hiring a pro, at least for parts of the project that may be beyond your abilities. Either way, the basic steps of building a stream are the same.

Digging the stream run and the end pond is the first phase of construction, and is usually done by hand. The banks of the stream must be level with each other, but the width can vary, as can the number of drop-offs. “In a stream, each cascade, fall, and riffle becomes a unique work of art within the composition,” Ed Beaulieu of Aquascapes says.

When the digging is done, the stream is lined with spun-polyester underlayment, topped by a 45-millimeter rubber liner. Both have a 20-year life span.

Next, the largest rocks are set in place to sculpt the stream and stabilize its edges. Small rocks and gravel are then used to cover the entire surface of the streambed or liner. In addition to hiding the liner, the rocks and gravel host beneficial bacteria and algae that help keep the water clean.

Flexible PVC return pipe, which carries water from the bottom back up to the top, is buried about 8 inches deep along the outside of the stream.

According to Beaulieu, the final step — arranging rocks to form falls and ripples — is the part homeowners enjoy most. It’s what gives a stream its overall character. Even out of view, its presence is heard. “We can open up our windows and hear it 30 feet away,” homeowner Doug Jimerson says. “The relaxing sound is more important than anything.”

Though homeowners often choose to simply shut it down until spring arrives, in most climates, the entire stream system can continue to operate through winter. The biggest danger is the formation of large ice chunks, which may need to be broken up with a sledgehammer if they block the flow.

The Plants
Once the stream is finished, it’s time for the final touch: establishing streamside plants. Spaces between stones form planting pockets for a wide assortment of plants, including annuals, perennials, bulbs, and shrubs that may eventually arch over the water, as they would in the wild.

To preserve views of the stream, avoid large, densely growing shrubs. But be sure to include a range of sizes for natural appearance. Also, select plants for various bloom times so that you’ll have streamside color for most of the season.

Numerous established perennials survived the renovation for Doug Jimerson’s stream, and he’s since added a diverse collection of ferns, hostas, and other shade-loving plants that help the stream blend in with its environment.

The water also attracts birds and other wildlife, which constantly visit, as do the Jimerson family pets.

Streamside Palette
For streamsides, choose a mix of plants for season-long texture and color. Here are a few examples.
Astilbe (Astilbe arendsii), spring to late summer, Zones 4–8.
Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), spring to summer, Zones 3–9.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), late summer to fall, Zones 4–8.
Columbine (Aquilegia spp.), spring to midsummer, Zones 3–9.
Daffodil (Narcissus spp.), spring, Zones 3–8.
Dogwood (Cornus spp.), year-round, Zones 4–9.
Ferns (many species), spring to fall, Zones 3–10.
Foamflower (Tiarella spp.), spring to fall, Zones 3–8.
Heuchera (Heuchera spp.), spring to fall, Zones 3–9.
Hosta (Hosta spp.), spring to fall, Zones 3–9.
Lamium (Lamium spp.), spring to fall, Zones 3–9.
Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp. and hybrids), year-round, Zones 4–9.
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), spring to early summer, Zones 4–9.

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