Can you explain the whole dry creek thing to me?

In my last post, I whined mightily about the amount of time I'm spending removing redwood twigs, leaves, and other debris from the paths and dry creek beds in my garden. One of the comments to that post asked why one would want to have a dry creek bed in the middle of a housing development, and I had to say: Good question.

The answer comes in several parts.

1. Aesthetics

The gray stones are a wonderful background to the fresh green grasses. 

When planning the garden, it's much easier to have a varied surface to plan around. Here's the plan I made for the Great Front Garden Remodel. 

Having the dry creek bed -- which came with the house -- really helped me with the structure of the front garden. I planted a California Fescue (F on the plan) and Penstemon (P on the plan) along the creek bed, and it's worked well. Here a view of the rows of grasses on the left, and right (plus a bonus Triteleia bloom, first of the season, in the foreground on the left).

The back garden came with a sweet little bridge over a dry creek bed -- you can't have a bridge over nothing, and it's fun to look out on the path and the bridge from the house. 

In a garden, the human eye is pleased to see more than just plants, and I prefer a dry creek bed to more concrete. For the mediterranean mounds, the designer surrounded one mound with a dry creek bed, and left the other without. 

A path that uses smaller pebbles and leftover flagstone dissects the area where the bridge creek meets the mound creek. And again, we've used the creek in the design. This time grasses in the creek, Iris along the side. 

2. Benefits to Plants

Many California natives love perfect drainage. I have clay soil. This is a problem, but the dry creek bed really helps. In the front, the creek bed has been around for a few decades and sinks a bit each year. The result is not perfect drainage, but much better drainage than a flat surface. 

The small California redbud in front probably survives because it has the creekbed drainage. Same with the penstemon and the woolly blue curls, which are notoriously difficult to grow in a garden environment. 

3. Managing Runoff

By nature, creek beds are well suited for managing runoff. Interestingly, where you live seems to critically affect how you want to manage runoff. In this article in Fine Gardening, the dry creekbed is used for erosion control and directs the water off the property and into the drain. That's likely quite appropriate for areas where it rains a lot.

Here in California, and especially so close to the Bay, we want to keep water on the property but away from the house. The dry creek bed collects runoff and allows the water to penetrate the soil instead of going into the drain and disappearing into the Bay. Buena Luna landscaping has a nice example of such a dry creek bed here.  My dry creek beds are actually not currently hooked up to the gutters, but we're hoping to have that done this summer. And the front creek is deep enough to catch water where it is.

Maybe that was a longer explanation that expected. But I was happy to spend some time thinking about my dry creek beds, and how they enhance the beauty and sustainability of a garden. 

Oh, and by the way, the lizards love to live among the rocks and sun themselves... mulch just doesn't do it for them.


Diana Studer said…
We have an Apple Creek and a Plum Creek. Ours are first to catch exuberant rain, and second as bog gardens. (They are not manicured perfection like yours, but then you've got Garden Visitors coming)
I have a small dry river bed in my garden which I put in really as a path to my pond but it really does, like you say, give a good backdrop to the plants
Carol said…
I love the serpentine effect of your stones and practical as well.
Gail said…
Very informative...I have a dry creek in the Garden of Benign Neglect, but you've got me thinking this may be perfect for managing the runoff in my front garden... What a delight to think I can have a few plants that demand better drainage! Kiss, kiss, hug, hug!!!! This is why I blog! gail
Benjamin Vogt said…
Awesome post, and lovely gardens you have! I have a very small dry creek bed, attached to the bottom of a rain chain and flowing out 8 feet from the house. It's more aesthetic than anything, so I like your points on having it as a design anchor. Now please, come clean up my bed, which also has piles of rabbit scat in it.
Country Mouse said…
I really do need to think about swales, especially now we've thinned out the chaparral and woodland for fire safety, and we get more runoff. Also the runoff from the swimming pool (i.e., from backwashing or lowering the level) just cuts a little creek down the woodland side, and actually the living things seem to be OK with it - we don't use a whole lot of chlorine or other chemicals, but still I worry. My neighbors who put in a new yard design lately added a swale to divert rain water from running down their driveway and deluging the front yard area of their home, and it looks - swell!
Christine said…
I'm rolling around "swell swale" in my mind now thanks to Country Mouse!
Stones are great for texture- especially since they don't fade away like mulch does. Plus they can be a great dry mulch when you're trying So Cal natives in places like the Bay Area where they shouldn't be attempted. Sigh...
Your beds are quite lovely!
I love dry creek beds...well, except picking out all the redwood duff in spring. You're right, avoiding slab concrete, and providing a permeable surface is very important to managing run-off, and preventing erosion. We drain into two creeks, and our steep driveway is solid concrete (built long before we arrived here). It's caused many more problems than it's solved. We're looking in a permeable paving-surface alternative so the water doesn't erode the adjacent hillside, and just shoot into the creek. I can't drive on a dry creek bed, but the issues regarding controlling water run-off is the same, and we need a better permeable option. I do think the dry creek beds aesthetically fit better with a native landscape, than city slab concrete.
Wow, I hope you didn't think I was a total jerk for asking about this in the first place.

Somehow I missed learning about this on the East Coast, and when I moved out here, everyone took these features for granted.

I'm hoping that I'll find a big suitcase full of cash someday, so I can replace the concrete driveway of my little bungalow with brick. I think that would handle run-off so much better.
Town Mouse said…
Actually, I was really pleased about the question. It's an interesting topic, and trust me, most West Coasters don't think much about it...
Jess said…
Absolutely love dry creeks. I put one in the front yard where it actually does connect to a drain that a couple downspouts go into. I didn't expect it to actually function like a stream, though--I didn't put plastic or landscape fabric under it, so thought water would just seep in, but no, when it rains hard the little creek flows so heavily I can hear it! It's like class 5 rapids right in my front yard, I love it. Had to re-shape it a bit, because it was directing water onto the sidewalk, and it should be kept in the yard, as you point out. The one downside of dry creeks is if there are trees that drop a lot of litter; I've actually toyed with the idea of buying a little leaf-blower (perish the thought) because the old broom doesn't cut it too well on the river rocks.
These are very popular in Australia now, I plan on building one which will be only flowing once or twice a year when the rainwater tank fills up and overflows.
I have pinned this blogpost, hope that is ok
Country Mouse said…
You might also like to look at the posts I did about the dry creek bed I installed in 2013 --