How to Build a Dry Creek Bed: Design and Installation Guide

Today we’re going to talk about dry creek beds, which consist of different types and sizes of non-organic rock, making them a hardscape element. Plants can be added to and around a dry creek bed, and usually are, making for a visually complementary hardscape/softscape combination.

Landscape is a term that refers collectively to the two smaller components that comprise it, which are softscape and hardscape. Softscape refers to the organic (or living) parts of the landscape such as:

  • Trees
  • Plants
  • Turf
  • Flowers

Hardscape refers to everything else, which are all the non-organic parts:

  • DG (decomposed granite, aka rock mulch)
  • Any other decorative rock like river rock and boulders
  • Pavers
  • Stepping stones
  • Retaining or gabion walls
  • Fences
  • Water features
  • Gazebos
  • Pergolas
  • Planters
  • Lighting

2. This design marries softscape and hardscape in an intricate
This dry creek design marries softscape and hardscape in an intricate combination. Several different elements, and different styles of the same element, are incorporated. It is a highly detailed design and is well-suited for those who like to keep the eye busy. The amount of rock and plant material put it on the higher maintenance end of the scale.

Terminology

Dry creek beds are also known as dry river beds or dry streams. In some areas, they go by arroyos, and you will often hear swale or landscaping swale as well. Back in the day, in Arizona, we used to call them river runs. So, if I was building a river rock or rip rap dry creek bed, it went in the proposal or estimate as a “rip rap river run” (or “river rock river run,” depending on which material we were using). It’s worth noting that for all intents and purposes, the terminology refers to the same element. Today they are most commonly known as dry creek beds.

Japanese Origins and Symbolism

In ancient times, garden artists of Japan began creating mini-versions of famous landscapes from their country. They were made strictly for their beauty, meant to be decorative and admired from specific vantage points.

A veranda is an ideal place to view smaller gardens, and they keep this vantage point in mind.

More expansive representations produce the desired effect from a specific point along a path located within. As with the dynasties that marked specific periods of monarchical regimes, gardening styles follow suit and coincide with defined historical time frames.
3. Todays dry creek beds are inspired by

Today’s dry creek beds are inspired by ancient Japanese dry gardens, which use various kinds of rock to mimic the appearance and flow of water.

In the Japan Heian period of 794-1185, when Buddhism was at its height, early Japanese rock gardens came into existence and rose to popularity. The style is known as Karesansui in Japanese, which means dry landscape or dry mountain stream, depending on the source.

The gardens are commonly thought of and referred to as Zen, but that is not quite right; Zen came to Japan after the Heian period as the 12th century was winding down.

At the end of the 11th century, Sakuteiki, the first manual on Japanese gardening (and likely the oldest manuscript about garden planning in the world), spoke of these gardens for the first time. The author wrote:

“In a place where there is neither a lake or a stream, one can put in place what is called a kare-sansui, or dry landscape”.

The style uses large boulders, placed upright, to represent mountains, smaller boulders to represent islands, and even smaller rocks laid out to represent rivers and streams. Also symbolizing water is sand, which recreates the rippling effect of water with a stylized raking technique.

The Tsukiyama Japanese garden style followed Karesansui, and it continued the use of rocks and dry creek beds to mimic the look of a meandering stream.

4. A current shot of the first rock garden in the U.S.
A current shot of the first rock garden in the U.S., constructed at Smith College Botanic Garden in Massachusetts in 1890.
Winter rock garden by Lorianne DiSabato / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

It would take hundreds of years for the concept of rock gardening to reach America; gardening of any sort did not start until the 1600s. The country’s first rock garden would not be constructed until 1890 at Smith College Botanic Garden in Northampton, Massachusetts, so rock gardening was unknown here until the early 1900s. It remained largely decorative until the “dust bowl” era of the 1930s when soil erosion became a bonafide issue.

In the 1950s and 60s, we began in earnest to modernize and improve upon methods to repair and prevent surface runoff and soil erosion. That’s when the dry creek bed concept began to evolve from form to function.

The Dry Creek Bed Form

Dry creeks are one of my favorite design elements. I incorporated them into many designs over the years, whether they were needed or not. If you like how they look and want one in your yard, go ahead with building one. You do not have to have an existing issue to repair, nor does there need to be runoff to divert at any time. A dry creek bed does not need water.

5. This is a more naturalistic dry creek using small and medium
This is a more naturalistic dry creek using small and medium river rock with small boulders as accents. 

Properly installed and detailed with plant material, dry creek beds add visual interest and appeal to any landscape…and if that’s all they do, that’s perfectly fine. They are suitable for any location in the yard and seamlessly adapt to even the most intricate customization. Every part of a dry creek bed is buildable based on your desired specifications. If purely decorative, you can choose:

  • Starting point
  • How wide or narrow it is at any given point; it can vary or be uniform
  • Edges that are natural or that are more stylized and defined
  • Type, size, and color of rock material(s) used; this can also vary or be uniform
  • How many turns and the degree of the turns
  • Implementation of features such as bridges, stepping stones, or pots
  • Ending point

We’ll look at each of the above characteristics in more detail when we talk more about design.

The Dry Creek Bed Function

Over the past few decades, dry creek beds have become the go-to method for repairing minor erosion and runoff issues in landscapes. Erosion and runoff are landscaping terms you often hear lumped together, sometimes interchangeably, but they are different issues.

  • Runoff: water that flows freely and uncontrolled along the surface of the ground because absorption into the earth is not occurring; runoff flows until it finds an endpoint, which is often natural streams, rivers, or lakes, taking debris, pollutants, chemicals, and toxins with it
  • Erosion: caused by runoff; the displacement/removal of the upper layer of soil caused by erosive agents like water, ice, snow, wind, animals, plants, and humans

6. The beginning stages of erosion caused by water runoff
The beginning stages of erosion caused by water runoff.

7. How erosion starts and progresses
How erosion starts and progresses.

In the case of runoff, dry creek beds function as a barrier. The water flows over the rocks instead of the soil and thereby prevents erosion. Furthermore, functionality also includes that of a controlled pathway to the desired endpoint. You are now controlling where the water goes and how it gets there.

Minor cases of erosion turn into major issues quickly if not repaired right away. Installing a dry creek bed right where the erosion has occurred is an efficient way to control the existing problem and prevent worsening.

Dry Creek Bed Guide to Design

Designing a dry creek is typically approached from one of two angles: purely decorative or to correct a problem. Your process will vary depending on your situation.

Design Tips: The Decorative Dry Creek Bed

Determine if you are installing a dry creek bed that is naturalistic with undefined edges or more stylized with clearly defined edges. Both have their place. Pick whatever best compliments the rest of the landscape, the house, the overall “feel” of the street or neighborhood (if there is one), etc.

Choose your starting and ending points. The endpoint needs to be somewhere on your property. Even purely decorative versions may catch and divert water so it’s important to ensure water is not unintentionally routed to a neighboring property or the street.

8. Dry creek beds dont necessarily need to be linear
Dry creek beds don’t necessarily need to be linear; circular designs can function just as well and enhance the look of the landscape.

Do a mock layout using landscaping paint. Begin at the chosen starting point and use the paint to mark out a rough outline from start to finish. How many twists and turns there are is entirely up to you, as is how sharp those turns are. You can also increase or decrease the width in certain spots for added interest.

For inspiration, look at pictures of actual streams. Dry creek beds that follow a meandering path as streams do look the best.

You can also find a dry creek bed installation that you like and copy that. Sites like Pinterest and Flickr are full of great visuals.

Once you have a final design mock-up, get your measurements. Follow the entire length, inclusive of all turns, and get the linear footage. That number multiplied by the width will give you the square footage. The square footage number and depth will determine how much material you need. For example:

75′ length

4′ width

12″ depth*

= about 18 tons of material, based on using river rock, cobble, or beach pebbles; tonnage will vary depending on the material used

18 tons x $33/ton = $594 cost for the rock

If you’re doing a stylized design with defined borders, the border can be done in the same material as the bed or a different material. Your linear footage number (doubled) will be sufficient to determine the quantity needed for the edges.

  • Determine if you will be adding any additional hardscape features such as boulders (good idea), pots/containers, bridges/stepping stones, etc. If so, indicate on your design where those elements will be going, along with quantities.
  • Determine if your bed will be accented with plants or rock only. Dry creek beds that are strategically peppered with clusters of plants make for a great look.
  • Create two- or three-tier groupings and incorporate around boulders, if boulders are being used. Hint: boulder clusters at turns look nice.
  • At each boulder placement, add a couple of Penstemon for color and height. Use Verbena to climb in and around the boulders, and onto the river rock.

9. This dry creek bed includes features such as large stepping stones
This dry creek bed includes features such as large stepping stones, and small bridges fashioned from those same stepping stones, for a look that is still very naturalistic.

  • Get outside opinions. If you know anyone with an eye for detail, see if they’ll take a look at your design. It never hurts to get outside perspectives and feedback, and new eyes on projects is a good way to ensure nothing is overlooked or out of place.
  • If you have any friends that are landscapers, definitely ask them.
  • A local landscape contractor might even be willing to give you their opinion at no charge or obligation.

*Take note: dry creek bed depth is typically half the width for best functionality. If runoff control or erosion repair are not needed and the purpose is purely decorative, the depth can be reduced.

If 12″ is still too deep, you can reduce it further, provided you’re using a small rock (like ABC or pea gravel) and a thin application. You want to ensure the finished product, with the rock, is concave and does not mound up above ground level.

10. This dry creek bed is straight and uses edging of a
This dry creek bed is straight and uses edging of a different material and height to create a slightly meandering and sunken appearance. It is artfully done and well executed. “Dry creek bed” by Payton Chung / CC BY 2.0

Additional Notes for the Decorative Design:

  • First and foremost: you do not have to use river rock in a dry creek bed. It’s a popular option and therefore commonly seen, but other types of rock accomplish the same thing.
  • River rock is overused, in my opinion, so I usually recommend rip rap instead; to me, it’s visually more interesting, allows for more unique contrasts, and does a better job.
  • Because it is only decorative, smaller rock like ABC, beach pebbles, lava rock, and regular DG all work too.

11. Left unpolished Mexican beach pebble right standard
Left: unpolished Mexican beach pebble. Right: standard river rock

  • Don’t be afraid to mix looks.
  • River rock or pea gravel is a “softer” look when it comes to rock; it is appropriate for lush gardens or tropical themes. Therefore, consider mixing in desert plants such as barrel cacti or agave.
  • If you’re using a “harder” rock material like rip rap, create an interesting contrast by using plant materials that look tropical and pop lots of color. Sago palms, Caladium, and Coleus are great examples of tropical-looking plants. Angelita daisy, rain lily, and candytuft are delicate in appearance with pretty flowers (and they’re all deceptively tough little plants).
  • Remember: early spring, after the last frost, is typically the best time to install any new plants as they have spring and summer to establish before taking on winter.
  •  If you’re adding new plants: don’t forget to consider your current irrigation system and if it will accommodate your needs.
  • Best-case scenario: you have an existing drip system you can tie into and just run 1/4″ poly line to the new plant locations.
  • If you have no irrigation at all, plan to install a system, hand-water, or scratch the plants.
  • The cost of the rock material will vary depending on where in the country you live, and availability of material. In Arizona, river rock is in that $33/ton ballpark. That is for material only, assuming you will be doing the installation yourself. If you want to sub that out, installed pricing will likely be in the high $80s per ton. Be sure to ask if there’s a delivery fee either way.
  • A modern-day design convenience? Materials calculators. If your local rock supplier does not have one on their site, you can go to the website of any provider who does, regardless of their location.
  • In your search engine, search for “materials calculator landscape rock” or something similar. Stay landscape specific because those sites allow you to put in the type of material you’re using, which will give you the most accurate total.
  • Note: the same measurements do not necessarily mean the same amount of material, especially if you’re mixing materials like rip rap and 1″ DG. If online isn’t your thing, just stop by or call up your local supplier and they’ll help you determine quantities.

12. To find a materials calculator just do a basic search for keywords

To find a materials calculator, just do a basic search for keywords…Image by author via personal screenshot

13. ...and select the option that sounds best. Rock Mulch
…and select the option that sounds best. Rock, Mulch & More is a good example of a calculator that lets you choose the specific material being used, which is key to getting an accurate figure.

Design Tips: The Functional Dry Creek Bed

A functional design – one that is meant to correct a problem issue – must consider factors that the decorative design does not.

  • Starting point: this will be determined by the nature and location of the issue you’re needing to correct. If you get an angry rush of water charging down the same path every time it rains, the beginning of that path (which should also be the beginning of visible damage/erosion) is the starting point of the dry creek bed.
  • Ending point: you will need to find a place on your property that can handle the amount of output you’re going to route there. It needs to be an area of ground that allows the water to safely pool until it can be absorbed. If that’s not an option, you may need to install a catch-basin and route it there. The location of the endpoint is largely determined by the path the water runoff takes.
  • Everything in-between: unfortunately, there isn’t much room here for customization. Runoff tends to take the same path every single time, and that’s the path you will need to follow. When you find and determine that path, mark it out with landscaping paint, making it at least twice as wide as the existing erosion.

14. No design work needed in this case the water has taken care
No design work needed in this case; the water has taken care of that for you. Just follow what the water has already started.

  • Depth: depth is critical in a functioning dry creek bed. The depth should be about half of what the width is, at least. If you live on a slope and gravity moves the water along, you can maintain the same depth throughout the bed. If there are flat areas mixed in when the flow slows down or stops, the trench will have to be dug down deeper in those areas to keep the water moving in the right direction.
  • At this point, steps 4-6 from the previous section can be applied. Only add features and plant material to the dry creek bed if it is safe and makes sense from a conservationist standpoint to do so.

15. Rip rap shown is an ideal rock to use for a dry creek bed
Rip rap, shown, is an ideal rock to use for a dry creek bed, and comes in a variety of colors.

  • The “decorative design notes” from the previous section also apply here. When a legitimate runoff problem exists, I encourage the use of rip rap over any other type of rock. It breaks up the water and reduces the strength of the flow, and provides a better barrier between the soil and the water. In cases of strong water flow, avoid smaller rock altogether as it will wash away.

Now we can move on to executing your design. Get ready for some digging!

Dry Creek Bed Guide to Installation

At this point, along with the design being completed, you should have determined the quantities of all materials being used and set up any deliveries as needed. Unless it’s a very small dry creek bed, you won’t finish it in a day. If you can’t take delivery of all the rock in one trip due to space or HOA restrictions, they can be staggered and spread out into more deliveries of smaller quantities.

If the landscaping paint marking the edges has faded, go over it again just before excavating so you have a bold, clear line to follow.

  • Starting at the dry creek bed’s starting point and working at and within the painted boundaries, excavate (dig out) the entire area, all the way to your endpoint.
  • Keep in mind your predetermined depth as you dig. Trench bottoms are typically in a V-shape, which works best as the bottom center of the trench needs to also be the deepest point.
  • As you dig, place excavated dirt off to the side.

16. The accidental cat in the trench is actually a good reference
The accidental cat in the trench is actually a good reference for size, indicating this trench is sufficient for a decorative application or in cases where runoff is not terribly severe. “Cat in a trench” by Henry Burrows / CC BY-SA 2.0

  • After all of the dirt has been removed, compact the ground within the trench. Compacting makes the trench more stable and reduces the possibility of movement or erosion. The severity of the runoff will determine the degree of compaction needed.
  • Very light water flow may only require compaction by walking back and forth over it a few times.
  • A more moderate flow might require compaction via a rolling tamper. Rolling tampers have large “wheel” basins that can be filled with water or sand which provides the weight needed to perform the compaction.
  • The most severe cases may require compaction with a jackhammer and compactor attachment or a gas-powered walk-behind compactor.
  • Install a weed barrier, if desired; it is optional. Whether or not you do or don’t, the function of the dry creek bed will not be affected. Some people swear by landscape fabric, some never use it at all. I fall into the latter camp and do not use it. I don’t use it at home and I have never once recommended it to a client.
  • Why don’t I recommend it? The cons outweigh the pros and I see it as an unnecessary expense. If you’re that concerned about weeds, I would much rather see you use large, flat stones set down as a barrier instead of weed fabric.
  • You can skip it altogether and incorporate spraying pre-and post-emergent as necessary into your maintenance routine. If your dry creek bed is going to cut right through a turf area (which is a cool look, by the way), then I would use a stylized design with clearly defined edges that are even, thick, and raised. This will aid in keeping the bed grass-free.
  • If you do opt to use fabric, drape it over the entire trench, start to finish, and leave about 12″ of extra material from the edge currently marked.
  • If you’re incorporating boulders, go ahead and set those at this time. A properly set boulder is set in ground that has been dug out enough for the bottom 4″-6″ to sink in. This gives a “nestled” look and prevents movement or displacement.

17. The trench has been dug and the outside edge is being set

The trench has been dug and the outside edge is being set. Once that is done, the trench can be filled in with the remaining rock. In this case, I would strongly recommend treating the area with weed and grass killer prior to filling in the trench, if it can be done safely without risk of harm to freely roaming children and animals.

  • Backfill the excavated trench with the new rock material.
  • If you’re doing a stylized design with defined edges, build the edges first then fill in with the rest of the rock.
  • A typical rock layout in a dry creek bed is smaller rocks in the bottom, bigger rocks up the sides, and larger rocks at the edges. You do not have to follow this pattern. The biggest rocks do serve their purpose along the edges but I like bigger rocks in the bottom as well.
  • This step will likely be a process that will require several wheelbarrow trips from your rock pile to the trench. Try to get them as close together as possible.
  • Build/install any added hardscape features. For example, if you’re going to incorporate a bridge, stepping stones, any kind of sculpture or artwork, or planting pots, they can be installed at this time.
  • Install plant material. If you decided to use landscape fabric, you will likely have to cut small circles or sections away to allow for the installation of the plants.
  • Note: this is when you’re going to want 1-gallon size plants as opposed to 5-gallon. The root balls are much bigger on 5-gallon plants and require extra excavating and fabric cutting. In most cases, healthy 1-gallon plants will be caught up to a 5-gallon size by the next growing season.
  • There is no right or wrong plant layout and you can choose locations based on your preferred aesthetic. Take care to avoid areas where strong water flow will wash them out.
  • If the new plants are getting irrigation, run the lines at this time.
  • Trim back the exposed landscape fabric (if applicable).
  • Water in the plant material and water down the dry creek bed to clean the newly installed rock. It can get muddy and be unsightly. You can also use a garden hose to simulate runoff and test how the channel performs.
  • Clean-up; remember to properly clean and store your tools.

Dry Creek Bed Maintenance

Part of the appeal of the dry creek bed is that they are low-maintenance. Here’s a checklist of what to watch.

  • Weeds – a seasonal weed killer application will likely be needed
  • Rock material loss – rock tends to need a top-dressing or good cleaning every so often. Keep on eye out for sparse areas leaving patches of ground exposed.
  • Pruning – only needed if plants were installed. Supplement with added nutrients as needed. I recommend SuperThrive. SuperThrive can be used alone or as part of a fertilization program. I use it alone and it works great.

Dry Creek Beds: A Win-Win Solution

The video below shows how a landscape designer designed a plan to repair a fairly serious drainage issue in the backyard of a home. The designer makes an excellent point about what the goal of the dry creek bed is not, and what it is. She says that the goal is not to mask the problem, and she’s absolutely correct.

Any conscientious designer or contractor knows that merely covering up a problem is not a solution. Homeowners put their trust in these professionals to do far more than just that. Success comes when the problem is repaired, meaning the issue does not continue to recur, and the property and landscape of the homeowner are no longer in danger of severe damage at great cost.

All that said, aesthetics are important; it’s why we invest the time and money into our landscape that we do. There are many benefits to having a beautiful space to look at, and to be in, and it’s the job of the landscape professional to preserve that beauty, or enhance it.

This is why the dry creek bed is a win-win solution, every time. It never masks the problem, it always repairs it, and it just so happens to add a visually appealing element while doing so. Contractors and homeowners alike love it, and dry creek beds will continue to be a fail-safe go-to for many years to come.

A Rewarding Experience

Hard physical work and manual labor can be a rewarding experience if you’re in the right frame of mind about it. And there are few things more satisfying than putting yourself through that and being the proud owner of something beautiful when it’s all said and done.

Every time someone compliments the renovation, you’ll feel that satisfaction even more when you tell them you did it yourself. So if you took on a project such as this and made it all the way through, well done! It is an impressive accomplishment.

If you are not quite there yet, don’t give up! It is hard work, but you can do it. Just imagine yourself somewhere in Japan, meditating in peaceful solitude as you gaze upon a stunning garden, as it was done all those centuries ago. A little something like this:

18. Japan Gardens and Contemplation

Japan – Gardens and Contemplation” by Lawrence OP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

dry creek bed 1 dry creek bed 2 dry creek bed 3

The finished product: a properly executed dry creek bed accented with colorful plants.

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