How to Create a Dry Creek Bed in 5 Not-So-Easy Steps

I used to think the concept of having a dry river bed in your yard was stupid, artificial, a waste of good planting space, pretentious, and lot of other adjectives I don’t have to mention. But having had my vision expanded and exposed to lots more interesting features recently, I’m increasingly a fan. Of well designed dry river beds, not most of the ones I’ve seen on Houzz. (Having said that, most of my pictures here have been slurped from Houzz.)

Here’re your main points:

1. Make it natural looking

This is an actual natural dry river bed. Thanks to Kate Presents

This is an actual natural dry river bed. Thanks to Kate Presents


*Following a natural slope if possible

*Irregular in width

*Heaviest rocks don’t move much, so tend to be either in the centre or embedded in the banks. Lightest–sand and small rocks–wash away  with the flow of the river and are deposited along the edges in “beaches”.

Also from Kate Presents, and this time a pretty good man-made version.

Also from Kate Presents, and this time a pretty good man-made version.

2. It doesn’t need much space, but the depth should be twice the width. When excavating, if the soil is usable it can be mounded a bit along the edges, so as you’re digging deeper you’re raising the edges–less excavating. Tamp down the bottom, then line the bottom with heavy landscape cloth. Much as I hate landscape cloth, in this case you’re going to be exposing long buried weed seeds to light, and that means growth. And then covering them with rocks, which means getting those weeds out is tediously hard work. Landscape cloth will help minimize that. Place your biggest rocks first, if possible embed some into banks, others in the middle. Then fill with small-medium sized rocks–mixed sizes are much more natural than all one size, and mixed colours ditto. Keep the smallest stones to create widened areas opposite and just a little “downriver” from your largest boulders.

Apparently this is a BC creek, or so the caption says on the photo. Town Mouse

Apparently this is a BC creek, or so the caption says on the photo. Town Mouse

3. Make the beginnings and endings appear to come out of something and go into something. These somethings could be a collection of rocks, or a collection of plants.

4. Plant along the borders. Grasses are particularly effective in this context, as are creeping things flowing over the banks and side rocks. I don’t care much for the actual river bed here, but the planting is cool.

Ditto here:

5. Add some lighting. These can be low-profile spots that show up large rocks, and/or in the planting beds alongside. Or under a bridge you built to “get over the river”.

That’s a ridiculously simplistic primer on dry river beds, but if you like that, google “dry river beds”, and with these five steps in your toolbox you’ll be able to judge better what you’re reading and viewing.

Look forward to your questions and comments.

5 Great Containers–Part 4

As promised, here’s another instalment of 5 Great Containers, this time a variant on the formula–“One Tree, One small Evergreen, One tall Perennial, One fluffy Perennial, One Grass”.

DSCN2027I saw this amazing grafted Cotoneaster (some feel this is an artificial-looking device, but what is art but an artificial device?), and had to buy it. My original plan had been to have two grafted PeeGee Limelight Hydrangea containers, an evergreen shrub container, a mainly perennial container, and a succulent container. But when the PeeGee Limelights were sold out at my preferred nursery (and I was in quite a hurry to get these done), I chose the Japanese Maples instead.

So seeing the grafted cotoneaster brought me back to the plan of having a tall item with still lots of space underneath for bulky plants.

Hence what we have here. DSCN2022 2

1. Cotoneaster horizontalis ‘Variegatus‘. Here’s a shrub with 4 season interest, even tho’ it’s deciduous. (Who knew there was even such a thing as a deciduous cotoneaster?) Tiny white flowers in the spring, red berries in the fall that should last into winter–especially here on the 7th floor balcony where the birds are unlikely to eat them. Then the creamy white edged leaves that turn pink-to-red in the autumn before falling. 

(Incidentally, if you see a plant label with “horizontalis”in the name, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to grow tall. Safe for a small space, and usually used as ground cover. Hence here being grafted on a tree.)

This is a 24" diameter container, so lots of room for growth here.

This is a 24″ diameter container, so lots of room for growth here.

2. Chamaecyparis obtusa  (False Cypress) ‘Fernspray Gold’. One of my favourite conifer shrubs, I have this myself in my front garden. The colour becomes coppery as it gets cold–worried me the first year, then I discovered it’s a colour change, not a dying change! It comes back gold-to-chartreuse in the spring. The branches tend to “spray” out (hence the name) a bit like a fountain, so a great plant to have underneath the tall apparently lifeless stick of the grafted cotoneaster.

3. Euphorbia x martini (Dwarf Martin’s Spurge) ‘Tiny Tim’. Another favourite that I’ve previously killed in my own garden, this is another all-season plant. It’s evergreen–always a bonus. The ‘flowers’ in spring are actually bracts, not petals, like the “flowers” of the (also euphorbia) Poinsettia. So they last  A LONG TIME.

Thanks to

Tiny Tim in flower. Thanks to Log House Plants.

4. Pennisetum alopecuroides (Dwarf Fountain Grass) ‘Little Bunny’. Cutest little ornamental grass–kids will love it, not least because of its name. Because it’s small (mature size only 12-14″), it can easily be cleaned up in the fall (it is deciduous) so there’s no mess when it starts to grow again in the spring. Bigger grasses are a little more work to tidy up.

5. Finally just a few left-over Sempervivums (Hens and Chicks, also called Houseleeks) and Creeping Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) that will cover the soil in one season. The Euphorbia will have the same flowers as the Tiny Tim, but without the red centre.

There you have it, another fun container that will last for years, with a new look every year as the plants grow. And doesn’t look like anyone else’s!

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? All welcome, and I’d be happy to reply to anything.

Pocket Gardens, or How to Garden in Even the Tiniest Outdoor Space

It could be a Juliet balcony, an urban front yard, the narrow space between houses, a boulevard you’d like to take under your wing, or any other tiny spot. You want it to be beautiful and functional. You already know how to make a nice container, but you also know there’s lots more you could do if only you knew what that was.

A Few Suggestions:

1. If you’re going to sit and relax in your Tiny Outdoor Space, make it feel like a sitting, relaxing room. You can provide a sense of intimacy by planting walls and ceiling. A large shrub–such as smokebush (Cotinus coryggia) or lilac (Syringa sp)– or small tree–maybe a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Atropupurem’ for example) or Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'–can serve as overhead screening, giving a “sense of ceiling” without it actually enclosing the space. A pergola, with or without climbers, can do the same. Lattice covered with clematis or passion flower or honeysuckle (just make sure you’re OK with the power of the scent) can be your walls. Maybe not all four walls…

Finally, there are lots of weather-tolerant rugs out there. (Some concrete patios really need to be covered.) Voila, an outdoor room!

2. Repetition.

The smaller the space, the more you need to control the number and variety of your plants. Sticking to one colour palette or even one plant can deliver up a dramatic statement.

3. Planting beds, or patio?

I’m a real plant person. I just can’t have enough– propagating, dividing, even buying if I can’t resist. So I’ve tended to think a “garden” with mostly hard surfaces just doesn’t qualify as a “garden”. OK, I’m changing my mind. Beautiful stone hardscaping, even concrete or gravel or hardwood, interspersed with small spaces for planting, can be just the thing to highlight a bed of sedum or creeping thyme, Red-baron-Imperata-cylindrica-SADNICA_slika_XL_3062736Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) glowing in late afternoon sun, or a weeping Spruce (Picea abies ‘Pendula’) or Hinoki Cypress.

4. The Narrow Side Yard


Not mine, but this is the idea.

I currently have a 4 ft wide space between the house to the west and a fence to the east. It’s in almost full shade, covered in river rock, a haven for weeds, deciduous ferns and generic foxglove, and is completely wasted space. Alternating small planting beds (3-4′ long and less than 2′ deep) will break up the “bowling alley” look, and placing pavers or flagstones in among the river rock improves the practicality of the space.What has always been a chore could become a more convenient and attractive route along the east of the house.

5. And Finally…

…The Balcony. Make it comfy. If the chairs are uncomfortable chances are you’ll just look at them instead of sitting in them. Make it walkable–don’t put so many things at floor level that you have to look where you’re placing your feet all the time. Much as I love container gardens, too many is just too many. Frame the view.

You wouldn't want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy

You wouldn’t want to obscure this view for the sake of privacy!

You’ll have to choose how to balance between privacy and view, but choosing tall-ish items (bamboo or small tree) on either side of the best part of the view will highlight it more than leaving it fully open, while still giving a little privacy. Have a surface for your coffee cup. It doesn’t have to be a table, and remember that circles take up more space than squares or rectangles.

There are SO MANY possibilities for that small space that you don’t know what to do with. If none of the above ignites the creative in you, why not post a picture here and see what our readers (or I) can offer.

As always, post comments, questions, Pin, or Like on Facebook. And play with that Tiny Outdoor Space. One great thing about a Tiny Outdoor Space–it costs a lot less to experiment!

Make Your Balcony a More Comfortable Place to Enjoy.

In this city of townhouses, condos, and inevitably balconies, making those balconies  inviting, comfy, artistic, creative, useful and green is becoming a key aspect of “landscape” design.

Enter Houzz, and their seemingly unlimited collection of everything related to indoor/outdoor living. Like my Pinterest boards, my Houzz Ideabooks are multiplying like rabbits. In my search for small garden ideas, I found this article on making your balcony more inviting. I’ll write more on the subject in a future post, but for now, take a look and see if there’s something there you can use in your own home.

Like this?

5 Great Containers–Part III

Another Japanese Maple

As promised, here’s another container for the balcony garden. Remember, this is a south facing garden on the 7th floor, with a duplicate balcony above it on the 8th floor, so it gets a little shelter from storms, but is therefore in a rain shadow. Don’t forget to water your outdoor container garden, even if it rains. 


The Plants

  • Acer dissectum ‘Inaba Shidare’
  • Cotoneaster procumbens ‘Strieb’s Findling’
  • Dianthus ‘Wicked Witch’
  • Sedum telephium ‘Xenox’
  • Erigeron glaucus ‘Sea Breeze’

I planned to use a grafted PeeGee Hydrangea (‘Limelight’) that I saw at the nursery, but they were all gone by the time I returned only a few days later. But saw this Japanese Maple, and couldn’t resist. I was pretty sure I’d seen ‘Inaba Shidare’ in the list of trees that tolerated full sun fairly well, so I nabbed it.

Japanese Maples are “understory” trees, so in their native environments they receive some shade from the taller trees around them. In our temperate climate, our not very cold winters, not very hot summers makes it a little easier for the JM to tolerate our sun. Besides, this balcony does get a little less than full south facing sun because of the over balcony.

This ‘Inaba Shidare’ is beautifully shaped, so we’d like to be able to see this feature even as the tree grows and fills out. This means judicious pruning of new branches, and keeping the under plantings short. Hence the following:

Cotoneaster procumbens ‘Strieb’s Findling’

This is actually a ground-covering woody shrub, the lowest growing of the cotoneasters. It’ll have flowers in the summer and berries in the fall/winter, and never grow high, but will begin to tumble over the edge of the pot. The colouring will complement the red/green of ‘Inabe Shidare’.

Dianthus ‘Wicked Witch’; Erigeron ‘Sea Breeze’; Sedum  ‘Xenon’

All of these will bloom pink, the first a deep almost red pink, the second a lavender pink, the last a rich pink with burgundy foliage. Short ones toward the front, tall one at the back.


Also called “Hens and Chicks” (but since there’s only individual rosettes here, no mums-with-babes, I’ll call it a Houseleek), it’s real name is Sempervivum. (You can just see a few reddish spikes at the front of the container.) This is a fun red colour, and the pot I bought had a large extended family of rosettes, so I split them up and divided them among several containers. They multiply like crazy, but like most perennials, they “sleep the first year, creep the second year, leap the third year”.

The Containers

I haven’t commented yet on the containers themselves. There was nothing about the balcony itself that I could coordinate with, so I just asked the client to find something that he liked, and then we looked for appropriate sizes that would match or compliment one another. Containers aren’t cheap, so when you can find them on sale, it may be worth compromising on exactly what you had in mind for the sake of the significant cost savings. In this case we had a pretty small budget, and yet were able to get the sizes we needed (three 24″ diameter pots and three 18″ diameter pots) and still splurge on the plants themselves.

Sometimes you’ll do the exact opposite–the aesthetic of the containers will be more important than what goes in them. This was not that.

That’s it for the trees. Next up will be the grafted shrub–what  cool idea!



Let me know what you think of my creations, and add suggestions. I’m not a big fan of annuals, so you’ll seldom see them in my container gardens, unless they’re annuals that think they’re perennials. But I’m open to any ideas.

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