DIY Dry Streambed Installation in 7 Easy Steps

With the focus on drought tolerant landscaping, we get a lot of customers asking about installing a dry streambed. Dry riverbeds are a fantastic eye-catching feature in any yard, and can be both attractive and functional while requiring little to no maintenance.

Are you wondering what it takes to build your very own dry streambed? Do you need answers to questions like:

  • What materials do I need? 
  • Do I use all the same size cobble or multiple sizes? 
  • Do I add plants before or after? 
  • Am I crazy for thinking I can build it myself?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ll love our DIY dry river bed installation guide – read on! We’ve broken down the dry streambed installation process into seven easy steps, so grab a shovel and let’s get this party started.

Before we get started – what you’ll need: 

  • Shovel 
  • Spray paint or flour for marking 
  • Boulders and 3 sizes of cobble 
  • Weed Barrier Fabric (optional) 
  • Drought-tolerant plants of your choice

Step 1: Form or Function 

Most people build a dry streambed for two distinct purposes. They want it either for aesthetic reasons or they have a need to control water drainage. There is no reason the two can’t be combined! Why not have a great water drainage solution for the occasional rain, that also looks great in dry weather? But if function is your main concern, keep that in mind in the next step and keep the curves of your design more subtle.

Step 2: Design 

There are two types of designs people follow when creating a dry streambed. The most common is a natural design, which is a realistic-looking streambed with no real edges. The stream flows in a typical “S” pattern with some sections being wider than others.

The second type of design is called a stylized streambed: a much more modern design with true edge restraints that confine the river rock and can be linear and exact in width. Remember, there is no right or wrong when building a dry streambed, it’s all about personal preference!

Step 3: Excavate 

Grab spray paint or even some flour and mark the area where you are going to install a dry streambed. Excavate down between 12”-18” into a concave shape (scooped out).  Move the dirt over and out to the sides of the streambed where you later will be placing larger rocks and maybe even some boulders. Make sure you mark all irrigation pipes so you aren’t fixing broken sprinklers later.

Step 4: Fabric 

Once the dirt has been removed and you have pushed the excess material to the edges of the streambed, compact the area down, using a compactor or simply by walking on it. Then lay down the landscape fabric or weed barrier to prevent weeds from growing up through your streambed. Weeds – the eternal struggle of the DIY gardener! This simple prep step of using a weed barrier fabric will save you hours of maintenance.

Step 5: Choosing your Rocks When creating a streambed, choosing material is relatively easy. Almost all dry streambeds use rounded river rock in multiple sizes, plus a few boulders to add some points of interest. With all the different types of cobble and pebble out there, the only thing people can agree on is general size. Below we have outlined the basic sizes to use when building a dry streambed. Many cobbles will come in all sizes, so if desired you can achieve a uniform aesthetic while varying the sizes.

  • On the bottom or middle, use a small size cobble (1”-3”) 
  • For the sides, use a mid-size cobble (4”-8”) 
  • For the top area, use a large cobble (12”-18”)

Need help getting started? Our customers’ go-to cobbles are Arizona River Rock and Mexican Beach Pebble, and our best-selling boulders are Gray Cresta and Sierra. View all our cobble and pebble varieties or our full boulder collection for more inspiration.

Step 6: Building the Stream Bed

First: Boulders 

Because of their size (boulders are defined as anything bigger than 16” in diameter) and the fact that they need to be partially buried in the ground, it’s best to place boulders first. Place them at random, asymmetric focal points throughout the streambed, remembering to choose an odd number for a natural look.

Second: Cobble 

Once you have set the boulders in the perfect position, you can now begin to fill the streambed with cobble. Remember to use the smallest pieces in the middle or bottom of the creek bed, fill in the sides with the mid-sized cobble, and save the largest for the top or outer edges. This placement mimics the way river rocks would be gently moved over time by water and settle naturally.

Step 7: Plants 

The final step is to incorporate some plants throughout the edges of the streambed. Take a trip to your local nursery and pick out some local plants, hopefully drought-tolerant ones, that will thrive in your area. Succulents look fantastic with rock – go for those if they will thrive in your climate! But beware of tall plants that in a year or two could potentially cover up those beautiful boulders you are using as focal points, unless you don’t mind doing some maintenance garden trimming from time to time.

Building a dry streambed from start to finish can be extremely rewarding. The most important part of the process is to have fun and enjoy your dry streambed for years to come. If you decide to make your own streambed, we’d love to see photos of your finished project! Share them in the comments below, and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

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