Natural streams are not just about rocks. There is a huge opportunity to use driftwood and plants to bring life and realism to your project. Driftwood can work well within streams if placed correctly. Logs and tree stumps placed in their naturally assumed locations are worth the effort for the value they add. Plants grow in and around shallow waters, so you should consider how to incorporate the gravel in your streambed and surrounding your edges. Again, to do it correctly, you need to know where plants grow naturally — on the inside curves, at the edges of waterfalls, along the slowly moving waters and at the shore where the water splashes. Keep in mind that you want this to look natural, so you will likely landscape your stream with rocks and other materials several feet outside the flowing water’s path, making the stream area complement the surroundings. The artist in you comes to life when it’s time to place your rocks. This is the essence of your stream, because your rock positioning will determine how the water flows and speaks to the listener. As with waterfalls, I recommend that you position your bridge stones first, followed by your edge rocks, creating a raw visual of the path the water will travel. Once that is done, and before you throw the stream bottom rocks around, pour water through your feature and see how it works. Do you like the left-to-right movement and the location and height of the falls? The real question should be: “How do you build a stream perfect for our situation?” You have to let the feature come to life for itself based on the slope, topography, space, landscaping and the native rock and flora. You have to create the stream as you envision it existing naturally, striving to see what is not there — yet. You also have to know how a stream behaves in nature and how the water creates its own flow and direction over time. The more you study natural streams, creeks and rivers, the more capable you will be to imitate this wonder in a controlled, man-made space. For your personal enjoyment, do not miss opportunities to make the stream feel at home with a bench, a birdhouse and statuary or pond lighting in locations throughout the stream. Puck lights do an amazing job at lighting up the streambed and couple nicely with spotlights properly hidden behind rocks and waterfalls to extend the evening hours of peace beside the meandering waters. Multiple trickle streams and short falls enter the large pool together and create a larger flow down the rest
of the creek. Make sure to landscape around the water feature to bring it all together and make it look like it has been there all along. Streams are amazing — they bring their surroundings to life! The combination of water sounds created in a stream stands apart from the sounds of all other water features. You can have a mixture of soothing trickling, playful gurgling, waterfall crashing and relaxed babbling all in a single, flowing water feature, simply by using the proper elevation, curvatures and character rocks. Streams also lure in wildlife like no other water feature can: the deer standing in the shallows while they take a drink, the birds bathing along the surface and the butterflies and hummingbirds absorbing moisture from the wet rocks. In essence, you are creating a new oasis for life by building a stream.
Use Your Slope
The Power of Water
authenticity and “wow” factor. This water feature, found at the Warrior and Family Support Center on Fort Sam Houston, anchors the gardens where wounded military heroes and their families can recover, heal and get reacquainted with each other. The varying sounds of waterfalls from all angles, shallow and deep pools of streaming water, amazing combinations of Texas Hill Country rock and driftwood and endless beauty provide an ideal, tranquil atmosphere to promote healing and relaxation. Our first key questions should center on where the stream will start and how will it finish its course. Perhaps the stream will be an underground spring bubbling up from nowhere with a soothing, babbling-brook effect through the pebbles and down a couple of short, bridge-stone drops. Maybe it will it start as a waterfall that empties into a small pool and then cascades here and there, working around a deck or patio while bringing life and beauty along with it. Or will it pour down from a higher pond, fall over a couple of ledges and drop as a full waterfall into a large koi pond adorned with a dozen of the most colorful specimens of living art? If there is no pond, you can take the stream to its end by falling off a ledge onto a pool of river rocks where it seemingly disappears, or perhaps by gradually rolling it into some gravel, watching it vanish into a dry creek bed or under a walking bridge.
How Do You Build That Perfect Stream?
Every stream has an origin, a flow and an end. So, in defining the stream, we give it meaning, purpose and character. But above that, we define how, where and why it exists. This becomes our building block. Water flows down the hill — it doesn’t get much simpler than that! But we want to take that law of nature and make it beautiful. We want to create the correct topography and elevation for our stream so that it gives us the visual and sound we’re looking for. Each type of stream may call for a different elevation drop, but at minimum you need 2 feet of rise for every 20 feet of land to create enough slope. Keep in mind that falling water creates sound and visual appeal, so how far should it fall, and how many times? You can have beautiful falls that are 4 to 6 inches in elevation, but they are not going to give you much volume. If you drop the water 1 to 2 feet over a ledge, you will achieve much greater volume and a larger visual to enjoy. The more water that flows over the falls, the louder it will be. Carefully choosing your bridge stones and flow-throughs from pool to pool can create that naturalistic look you are going for in your stream. Uneven ledges allow the water to flow in different directions, as gravity naturally draws it downward to the next level. Careful placement of driftwood and plants in naturally occurring locations helps bring this stream to life. This stream spans the length of the back of this home and runs along the slab between the house and the landscaped pool and gardens. This shows how you can use the pre-existing landscape and topography to your advantage. Water is released at the base of the large oak tree as an upflowing spring, which joins the flowing stream alongside the house and then trickles and falls into a lower pool with dry-stacked flagstone. The options are many, but the perfect stream has a perfect beginning and the perfect end. The location and overall purpose help us determine this.
The Supporting Cast
A simple, babbling brook oozes out from under the aquatic plants and landscape, over rock and gravel, and into a small, shallow pool. The use of four falls in three completely different directions and the 3-D effect of the small falls behind the other falls bring this water feature to life in a very small, compact area. Photos courtesy of Mark Maleski, president of Water Features of Texas. Building waterfalls and streams since 1999, he creates water features that are second to none in
The Beginning and the End
Your pump selection should be based on the amount of water you need to move at key points of the feature. Much like sizing-up a pump to a waterfall and using the width of the weir or largest bridge stone as you guide, you must both fill the stream with flow and create its character. A babbling brook, which is shallow and soothing by nature with minimal, soft sounds, will require 100 to 150 gph per inch of width at your widest key point; however, a creek or stream may require 250 to 500 gph per inch of width, especially if you have to contend with some depth where much of the water flow is hidden from view. If you want to create a Rocky Mountain-like glacier flow, you could be in the range of 750 to 1,000 gph per inch of width to create the gushing effect and white water you desire. Also consider in your design where exactly you want to drop your water. Water falling on rocks will create a higher-pitched sound than water falling into a pool of water. The pool’s depth will determine the pitch and tone of the sound. We can manipulate the sounds of our stream with how we build the falls. Ideally, we will have a wide variety of pitches and volume by incorporating short, rolling falls, higher drops, gurgling twists and different depths throughout the stream. Your rock selection can make or break your creation. You should use the material that you are trying to imitate. Look at your surroundings and use rock that is found naturally. If you are building a glacier-fed mountain stream where rocks are generally more round than flat, you need to mirror that. Likewise, if you are in limestone country, most of your rock should be flat and stacked.
Choose Rocks Wisely
Your perfect stream is now flowing beauty and life into a previously dry world. It rises from the ground and returns naturally; between these two points, it dances around rocks, crashes down falls into cooling pools below and rises again with refreshing splashes of joy. It serves as a new oasis for flora and fauna, and above all else, it brings you a smile and a peaceful heart, calming the spirit with its beautiful sound and rejuvenating presence. It is as if it belonged there all along — and maybe it did. It just took you building it in order to bring it to life. When you are satisfied, you can firmly set the rocks in place. Some contractors like to dry-stack, while others prefer mortar. Personally, I prefer to use canned foam to hold my rocks in place because it’s less toxic, softer and not as harsh on the liner — not to mention the fact that it makes it much easier to remove and adjust rocks if you need to, or make repairs down the line if the situation presents itself. Regardless of what material you choose, you will definitely want to set your key formation rocks in place. The rocks on the stream floor are more often tossed in the stream and dry-stacked as needed.
Finally, Enjoy Your Creation
How To: Build a Stream
A stream is a beautiful way to create the sound of flowing water in your backyard!
Unique from waterfalls, streams create a flowing sound and visual, as opposed to the crashing of a waterfall. Streams can be built into a pond or can be added to a pond at any point; we added one here at Water Garden Gems! We took an 8′ x 8′ pond and added a 20′ stream to create a more elegant visual–here’s how!
1) Planning and Design:
The first step is to figure out the length of your stream. Once you’ve determined the length of your stream, you will need to calculate the desired gradient. We created our gradient through a series of “drops” throughout the length of the stream. A 2” drop will create water movement and character, but minimal to no sound. A 4″ drop will begin to create a sound as the water falls to the lower level. A 6-8” drop will create a louder sound, while a waterfall needs 12”+ for adequate effect. With this in mind, a 20’ stream will need approximately 2’ of gradient change from start to finish in order to have a decent level of noise and several spots of “character.” We recommend 18-24” of total rise for every 10 feet of run as a minimal.
2) Utilize the environment:
Use your natural topography to create a realistic flow of water. A rise on the right side calls for the stream to flow around to the left of the rise as if the stream naturally formed there, and vice versa. While you can create any topography you wish to, we suggest simply enhancing the existing topography. This ensures that the stream keeps the same general shape as its surroundings. Many people find it useful to scroll through hundreds of pictures of natural streams to get an idea of what they want. If you’re stuck, look to pictures for inspiration!
3) Frame your stream:
Begin to construct the frame of your stream bed. We used treated wood anchored into place by pounding stakes down into the sub-ground, a great way of solidifying the form so that, as the ground shifts, the leveling of the stream will remain. There are, of course, other options for your framework: you can use rock, brick, concrete or just berm up with dirt, but dirt is likely to move over time, ruining your created level. It is important to realize that the dirt used in the floor of the stream bed must be compressed. If the dirt is not compacted, it will shift with the weight of your stream, ruining your level and potentially causing your stream to leak water.
4) Lay your liner:
Once framed, lay the liner and run water down the length of the stream to see how it falls from level to level, and make the necessary adjustments. Make sure your walls are high enough to hold in the raised waterflow once rocks are added; this is critical! Don’t underestimate the water displacement when you fill the stream with rocks. With the flowing water on the liner, you can start to see where rocks should be placed to add character and splash to create the desired visual.
5) Place bridge stones:
Choose your bridge rocks for each layer and dry-lay them in place to form your dams and drops. Make sure the rocks fit well together at each level and spend ample time in selecting your rocks. Once these rocks are in place, begin adhering them. I recommend spray foam, and we carry several colors and brands of foam. Foam holds the rock in place to the liner and creates a water seal under the bridge stone to prevent water from oozing under the rock and reducing the water flow that you see. Note: You want to see ALL of your water so we want to prevent it from leaking under and beside our bridges. Foam is an excellent replacement for concrete. Not only is foam easier to work with, it is easy to disassemble pieces built with foam. While the foam will hold for many years, if you choose to break out a rock it is significantly easier to break the foam than it is to break concrete.
6) Add smaller rocks:
Once bridge stones are in place, begin to add river rock and miscellaneous larger rocks to create the natural look and character of the stream. We suggest placing the rocks as if they had fallen down the stream in a flood–meaning where the stream flows to the right, more rocks should be piled up on the outside right wall of the stream as if the water had, over time, pushed the rocks to the side, like a natural stream. Make sure to use a variety of rock sizes in your stream–no natural stream has only one size rock! Mix and match sizes and styles of rock to create a more natural look!
7) Fine-tune your rocks:
Cap and river rocks are placed in and out of the stream to merge the visual into the landscaping. Don’t hesitate to move rocks here and there; take pictures and study them, and maybe change a few things the following day. It is important that the liner is completely covered in all places both to hide the black from your feature and to protect your liner so that it lasts longer, safe from the UV rays of the sun.
We built a bog filter at the top of the stream for the water to flow through into our stream, creating a small waterfall visual. The gravel and plants in the bog will be the filter and eliminate the need to hide a filter around the stream. This is simple and ideal in many stream designs. Your stream’s river rocks will also catch beneficial bacteria and serve as a filtering agent, but will themselves be insufficient and the stream will quickly get dirty, detracting from the overall visual of your new stream. If your grand plan does not allow for a bog filter at the top of the stream, a pressure filter or even a simple prefilter in the pond will suffice. For more information on Bog Filters, check out our How To: Build A Bog Filter!
Bring us your design and we’d be happy to consult with you! We’ve helped design many streams (and built several ourselves); ask us questions! A waterfall and stream is an excellent centerpiece for any backyard and can add value to your home. Although building one may seem like a lot of work, the entire process is actually easier than you think. Below, we’ll cover the steps required to build a backyard waterfall and stream, from plotting the area to installing the components needed to create the waterfall effect. (Even if you plan on possibly hiring a professional, it will be nice to know about the process involved and the abundance of decisions to be made!)
Determine Your Budget
It cannot be stated enough how important it is to set your budget and then formulate a realistic design plan. Quality over quantity is essential, as this is ultimately going to be the centerpiece of your backyard. Also, building a backyard waterfall is not something that a homeowner typically does more than once throughout their ownership of a single home. So, you are likely unsure how much it actually costs to put a waterfall and stream in your backyard. Here is a breakdown of the costs you should expect:
- Simple pondless waterfall: $200-$2,000
- Large waterfalls: $3,000-$5,000
Note: You might consider hiring a professional landscaper to do the job for you. If you are going to pay several thousands of dollars, you want to be sure that it is done right. On the more affordable side of things are cast stone, pre-made waterfalls. This is a man-made stone that is made out of pieces of crushed stone, mostly limestone cement. Cast stone is often used to make pieces similar to this Algreen Tranquility Waterfall. Waterfalls like this are inexpensive and easy to install since they are essentially premade. You might consider buying additional rocks and plants to decorate a waterfall like this, as the overall design is quite simplistic. A premade waterfall is certainly a great jumping-off point if you are happy with the design.
Plot Out Your Yard: Choose Your Waterfall’s Size
Any successful project starts with a solid plan. Backyard waterfalls are certainly no exception to this mantra. While it’s good to dream big, you need to be realistic with your design. As far as sizing goes for backyard waterfalls, most people go with relatively small waterfalls that are quite impressive in design. You don’t have to build a massive waterfall to get that sense of peace and tranquility from the water gently cascading. Your first step should involve measuring out the plot of the proposed waterfall in your backyard. Look for an area where you will enjoy the waterfall from both a patio and from inside the house. A small corner of the yard nearest the house is one of the most common locations, as it has the space to set up a waterfall that cascades into a pool. Here’s a good example video of using a small space to create a really cool waterfall:
Choose Your Waterfall Style: Pond vs. Pondless Waterfall
A waterfall does not need to have a pond at its bottom. Many design plans for pondless waterfalls can undoubtedly make both installation and maintenance of the feature much more manageable. Here are the advantages of a pondless waterfall:
- It takes up less space
- More affordable
- Can be completed quicker
- Simpler to maintain
Here are the advantages of a waterfall with a pond:
- You can keep fish in the pond
- If you want a pond, then having a waterfall will make it easier to oxygenate your pond
- Greater design possibilities
Note: Depending on the size and design you choose for these first couple of steps, you can anticipate this project taking a few days or even less if the waterfall is quite simplistic. Here’s a video showing another waterfall build with steps to help show what is needed:
Select and Gather Your Materials
A backyard waterfall requires several materials, as is described in further detail in the section below. At the very least, you can expect to hunt down the following materials, which shouldn’t be too hard to find at your local landscape supply company:
- Larger boulders
- Medium-sized rocks
- Sand and/or gravel
- Pumps and other water distribution gear
Before committing to any single design plan, you should first consider which materials you would like to use. Doing so is necessary if you want an accurate cost estimate at the end of the planning process. There is an abundance of different materials that can be used to make a waterfall; maybe you’ll end up liking something that you’ve never heard of or seen before. Note: For the best aesthetics, you are encouraged to use rocks of different shapes and sizes. A uniform design may come off as more drab and boring. If you are unsure of where to start, you should do a little window shopping at a local landscape material shop. The landscape experts at these locations will get you headed in the right direction.
No matter what you end up doing, you will need to start with the foundation stones. These are the stones that will make up the perimeter of your waterfall/pond. These will be the largest rocks used during the project. Granite and sandstone are among the most common choices for foundation stones. When you start shopping for materials, the following are the rocks that you should ask the landscape supply company about. There are various other rocks used that you may find suitable, but these are the most common and naturally-abundant types of stone used in waterfalls:
|Stone Type||Color(s)||Pros and Cons|
|Granite||Come in a large variety of colors. Most commonly pink, white, some variation of gray and black.||Pros: beautifully dotted with crystalline spots, very durableCons: more expensive up-front costs|
|Cast Stone||Red, gray, white, yellow, pink, gray, green||Pros: affordable, easy to install Cons: not durable, appearance not as striking as granite or sandstone|
|Sandstone||Commonly tan, brown, yellow, red, gray, pink, white, black||Pros: easy to carve, highly resistant to weatheringCons: not as decorative as granite|
|Slate||Warm brown, red, purple, gray-green||Pros: heavy and durable flagstone, can be cut into different sizes, long-lastingCons: not really suitable as a foundation stone|
|Limestone||White, yellow, beige, blue, cream||Pros: easy to carve, good for sculptures Cons: prone to weathering, also highly alkaline—can alter water chemistry|
Materials Used to Make a Stream
Your next step will involve determining which materials you want to use to make the streambed. This is not an area of design to overlook, as this will go a long way in determining both the aesthetic value and functionality of your backyard water features. In terms of functionality, pebbles or stones on the bottom of the stream will help keep the water confined to the stream. It will also serve to keep the water looking clean, as a muddy streambed will cause the water to become dirty as it flows through the yard. Stones also become necessary to cover the plastic liner that you will lay down to keep water in the stream. Look for rocks like these for your streambed:
- Mexican Beach Pebbles (20 lbs. off pebbles per bag)
- River Rock Stones
- Pea Gravel
You are encouraged to shop around a local landscaping supply company to see all the different types of gravel, stones, and sands you can buy in bulk. Water features are more aesthetically-pleasing if you can work in rocks and pebbles of different sizes; this helps give the stream a more natural look.
The Necessities: Pumps, Filters, Liners, and More
Now that you’ve figured out which rocks you want to use, you’ve already gathered the bulk of your materials. However, several pieces of equipment are of absolute necessity for your waterfall and stream to circulate water continually:
|Submersible Pump||Lifts water in a circulating waterfall and stream structure (Be sure to select a pump only after calculating which size you need.)|
|EPDM Rubber Liner||Keeps water from seeping into the ground|
|Underlayment||Helps control erosion and provides a foundation for the waterfall and stream|
|Waterfall Box||Sits at the top of the waterfall, allows the water to cascade down the fall|
|Flexible PVC Pipe/Other PVC Piping||For circulating water throughout the system|
|PVC primer/cement||For connecting PVC piping, as necessary|
|Waterfall and Foam Sealant||To fill gaps between the rocks and boulders in your waterfall (This ensures that water actually flows down into the stream. You are advised to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation.)|
Now that you know all the materials you will need to complete the project, you are ready to gather your tools to begin the digging. Some recommended tools include the following:
- Measuring tape reel
- Utility knife
The following are optional tools you may use to make the building process easier:
- Spray paint
Dig a Hole for the Waterfall and Pool
Specific instructions may vary depending upon specific design (i.e., You may go with multiple small waterfalls instead of a single large one.), but the following steps will give you an idea of the process you will need to follow.
- Start by outlining the entire area that you plan on digging out with spray paint.
- Dig out a pool at the base of the waterfall. The pool area should be at least 1.5 times the length of the waterfall’s drop and at least nine inches deep. At a bare minimum, the pool should be at least 20 inches wide.
- Dig out a skimmer pocket at the back of the pool. This will be necessary because the waterfall will erode the dirt at the base of the structure. Suggested dimensions for the skimmer pocket are at least 14 inches deep, 14 inches front to back, and 20 inches wide.
- Dig out a hole outside the pond for the filter and pump box.
- Excavate the stream for the waterfall portion. The hole should be at least 6 inches deep to account for the flowing water. Ensure that you are digging out steps so that the waterfall can flow down the slope. The larger the steps, the more dramatic the effect. If you dig out larger steps, then you will need to use more rocks due to splashing.
- Excavate out a shelf at the very top of the waterfall, where you will install the waterfall box. This is a structure that is responsible for holding the water that will be pushed down the waterfall.
- Finish off by removing any roots, sharp roots, or other items that may puncture the underlayment/liner. Then tamp down the soil until the ground is even. At the very end, you are encouraged to use a level to make sure that the pool and shelf at the top of the waterfall are on flat ground.
Dig Out the Stream
If you want to extend your water feature by way of a stream, then there will be some additional considerations to take into account. Following these guidelines will help you build a stream that follows the intended pathway.
- Consider the natural flow of water in your yard. The stream needs to be designed in a way that follows the gradient of your yard.
- A collection basin will be necessary to hold water if you are looking to recirculate water down the waterfall. Otherwise, you can look into directing the water into collection bases or ditches. As always, consult with local code enforcement officials to ensure that your project plans will be permitted.
- Size the trench to meet the anticipated flow rate. You need to build a wide and deep stream to account for heavy rainfall; otherwise, your yard will become inundated. The center of the trench should be deeper than the sides.
- Add large rocks along the edges of the trench.
- Consider planting native plant species along the edge of the stream.
If you’re wondering if you really need a stream or not, check out the stream in this video before you decide:
Place the Liner and/or Underlayment
It is critical not to skimp out on the liner and underlayment for the waterfall and pool. This will help keep erosion and seepage from occurring, which are two big problems that can be difficult to fix later on down the road, should they arise.
- Lay the underlayment in the waterfall and the pool. This will help cushion and protect the liner, which will be under excess pressure from the rushing water. Place down extra underlayment in spots where they will be large rocks. The underlayment should be tucked into all corners and indentations.
- Lay the rubber liner over the underlayment. The rubber liner should be kept as smooth and flat as possible. Folds should be avoided because these can direct the water away from the direction of the planned stream.
- Make a Z-fold in the liner next to the waterfall box so that the liner will expand as you fill the pond.
- Lay down a piece of underlayment over the liner at the base of the waterfall. This will help ensure that the water pressure does not cause the valuable underliner to become punctured.
Install the Submersible Pump and Waterfall Box
The water distribution system is really the make or break point of the waterfall and stream installation process. You can avoid a wasted effort by selecting the right materials. This would be an excellent time to consult with a professional contractor if you haven’t done so already. Here are some guidelines for choosing the pump system for a backyard waterfall:
- Use the measuring tape reel to find the width of your waterfall.
- Multiply 150 gallons per hour X inch of waterfall width
- Find the vertical lift of your waterfall; this is the height that the water falls from top to bottom, NOT the waterfall length.Consider the horizontal distance of the horizontal pipe carrying water to the top of the waterfall; every 10 feet of horizontal pipe = 1 foot of vertical rise.
Once you have chosen the right water pump, simply follow the device’s instructions for installation, which should be included with the kit.
Make It Easier: Consider a Home Waterfall Kit
If the installation process above sounds like a lot of work, you will be glad to know that simple home waterfall kits do exist. These kits are an attractive option because the company has already done much of the legwork of figuring out which parts to use and how they should be sized. The latter is one of the significant challenges of building a home waterfall since we can all name a time or two when our math may have been a little off. These kits are great for homeowners who want waterfalls and streams that are smaller in size. If you take a quick peek at this Aquascape Landscape Backyard Waterfall Kit. This kit includes, for your convenience, the following:
- Rubber Liner
- Small pump
- Pump Filtration and Installation Accessories
- Flexible PVC Pipe
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