When we finished installing a patio in our backyard, we were left with a lonely patch of grass in the back corner. It didn’t really make sense to get out a lawn mower every week to mow such a small area; not to mention how awkward it would be to maneuver it past our patio set! More importantly, not using electricity to cut the grass – or water to keep it green – was the sustainable way to go!
Our solution was to install a dry creek bed and rock garden to replace the grass (you’ll see how to build the rock garden in Part 2). There’s nothing more rewarding than putting some sweat equity into building a sustainable garden when the outcome is this gorgeous!
Here’s how the back corner looked before we started; to get a sense of the area we had to work with, I’ve included an overhead shot of the garden.
Here’s a complete overview of the landscaping plan:
The first order of business was digging an enormous hole to plant a Blue Danube pom pom juniper at the south end of the dry creek bed:
By the time hubs dug this hole, we no longer had our clean fill bin to dump the soil, so he used some left over landscaping bags and filled them up. He placed the bags at the front of our house and the neighbours scooped them all up – waste not want not!
Once the juniper was planted, we used a garden hose to help us outline the shape of the dry creek bed so we could dig out the grass. We sloped the sides and dug out a shallow bottom so we wouldn’t have to fill it with too many stones. It was all hands on deck, so we didn’t get pictures of digging out the dry creek bed!
We added landscape cloth along the bottom and up the sides to prevent weeds from growing. We extended the landscape cloth a few feet over the edges so we could run it under some larger boulders we planned to place around the bed. In areas we weren’t planning on putting any boulders along the sides, we simply folded the landscape cloth under and staked it into the sides of the dry creek bed to prevent it from shifting.
When the landscape cloth was secured, we filled the dry creek bed with a colourful variety of smooth river rock.
We then went shopping for flagstone to place around the perimeter of the dry creek bed so we’d have some stepping stones to walk around. We handpicked the pieces at the stone yard that we thought would fit best. When shopping for flagstone, take along a sketch of your plan to help you visualize the space!
We also purchased some larger decorative boulders for the rock garden (which you’ll see how to build in Part 2) and a few extra boulders to sporadically place around the sides of the dry creek bed. When we got the stones home, we were excited to do a dry lay on-site to see how we did with our selection!
Here you can see where the landscape cloth extends over the edge of the dry creek bed and is held down by some of the flagstone pieces. We had wanted to use this ‘landing pad’ as a base to level one side of a wooden bridge that was going to span across the dry creek bed – but we never got around to building that (you’ll see an inspiration shot further ahead)! We were going to fill in the gaps with some pea gravel, but instead we filled them in with dirt so we could plant moss in between and around the stones (as you’ll also see further ahead).
We took our time with the dry lay of the stepping stones and boulders to make sure they were beautiful as well as functional!
Once we were happy with the placement, we dug around each stone with an edging tool and removed the grass as well as a few inches of topsoil. The goal was to inset the stones slightly below the surface to keep them in place and prevent shifting during colder weather.
Next, it was time to get down to fine the tuning details and be one with the earth! I literally sat myself down in the dry creek bed and pushed all the river rock out and over the edge of the landscape cloth to hide it.
I kept a container of extra river rock (that hubs kept refilling for me) in case I needed to add more. I worked my way around the entire perimeter: it was a slow process but it really transformed the dry creek bed from a hole in the ground to something that looks like it’s been there for ages!
Where the dry creek bed ends, we found the PERFECT statue to accent the pom pom juniper. We trailed the river rock from the dry creek bed around the ornamental juniper and in front of the statue ending it beside a pond we installed when we constructed our patio.
The statue represents a tragedy and comedy mask; a great reminder of all the hard work – with all its setbacks and humourous moments – that we put into building the garden from the ground up!
Once all the fine details were taken care of in the dry creek bed, we planted moss around the flagstones so it would grow in to fill the gaps between them. Around some of the boulders on the perimeter of the dry creek bed, we planted miniature day lillies (so they wouldn’t grow too tall) and some drought resistant (aka low maintenance) ground cover.
Remember the ‘landing pad’ of flagstones I showed you earlier? Here’s the before and after of how that area filled in with moss. Isn’t it pretty?
This is an inspiration shot of now I envisioned using the flagstone to support a bridge on either side of our dry creek bed. It’s the only thing I wish we had added, but it’s never too late – it’ll likely be a project we’ll attempt down the road.
To finish the area around the dry creek bed, we covered a narrow pathway between it and the fence in mulch to keep the mud and weeds at bay.
Here’s how the moss, ground cover and day lillies (in bloom) filled in over a few seasons of growth. The dry creek bed looks seamless once the plants around it are fully grown; everything just drapes over and softens all the edges!
The south east corner of our backyard went from this lonely patch of grass:
… to this lush section of our surburban oasis. For the time and effort we expended up front, it’s certainly a big payoff in the end. It’s far more interesting to look at than a patch of grass – and requires very little maintenance to maintain it! The only care it needs is a seasonal trimming of the ornamental juniper to maintain the round shape of the pom poms.
The dry creek bed really added a special touch to the garden, but we didn’t stop there! I was happy to have hubs’ help through the next stage of the process too: I couldn’t have done it without my ‘partner in grime’ – as I like to refer to him! Check out part two of Low Maintenance Gardening to learn how to build a rock garden:
At the side of our house, we found a way to protect our hostas from slugs – and we did it sustainably without the need for pesticides! Click here to read more.
We also added some privacy to our small yard by building trellises to support a variety of flowering vines and a screen for the BBQ area (behind the retaining wall). In late summer we have a wall of green:
By the time the Silver Lace Vine blooms in the fall, it’s magnificent! It’s important to select a wide variety of plants when planning your garden to provide bloom from early spring into late fall; just doing our part to attract bees to the garden!
Click the link for the DIY on how to build trellises and privacy screens.
After a few years’ growth it’s still looking lush and beautiful! If this project has inspired you, pin it for later!
Be sure to check out a few of our other inspiring garden ideas like this upcycled mirror and shelf to expand any small outdoor space, and;
Creative planter ideas – where we make the most of repurposing items such as this chair and enamel pot!