How To: Build a Stream

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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8) Filtration:

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!

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Questions?

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!

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Have a question? Send us an email and we'll get back with you as soon as we can!

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