A River (Sometimes) Runs Through It – Part 2

Last week I set the stage for another “before and after” design problem and solution. This garden is on a normal-sized suburban lot in Bethesda, MD. It came with a daunting topographical problem in rainy times. Click here to see the “before ” pictures.

As explained in the last post, I decided to use a dry stream bed concept to cope with the periodic gully washers while providing a welcoming feel to the front yard. Plantings that went in included serviceberry trees (Amelanchier x ‘Autumn Brilliance’), hostas, Louisiana iris, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), and variegated redtwig dogwoods (Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’),  to name just a few.

Dry streambed plantings, Amelanchier

Three years after the garden was designed and planted, an Amelanchier anchors the right side of the dry streambed plantings.

The neighbors at the bottom of the hill have paid us the ultimate compliment by saying  they have “the best view in the neighborhood.”

Dry streambed, landscape design

The dry streambed ends near a bed of river birch and inkberry hollies at the bottom of a steep hill.

Even the county culvert area got a facelift that makes it look like part of the garden. Here’s the “before” photo from last week.

A county culvert on the side of the clients' property added nothing to any curb appeal of the property.

And now, “after.”

The culvert area, now part of the garden, is almost unrecognizable from before.

It’s been over five years since we planted the garden. The streambed has worked well, although ironically, two summers ago it was so dry that the owners decided to install an irrigation system just for the bed areas. Last summer’s torrential rains have once again proven the value of the design. We continue to tweak the beds here and there. The garden has won an award and been published in some magazine articles and even a book. But my greatest pleasure, beyond its success from a design standpoint, is watching it change with the seasons, and learning to photograph it in challenging light conditions which can be frustrating or rewarding. I’ll leave you with two favorite shots, the first taken from the same perspective as the opening “before” image,

This is the view that now welcomes visitors. The dry streambed is invisible from this perspective.

and my favorite, the garden bathed in late-afternoon light.

dry streambed garden

Baptisia, alliums and red-twig dogwoods surround the channel of stones and boulders.

There seems to be a wealth of references and online information about dry streambeds these days. I recommend it as a design solution to what can be otherwise daunting drainage issues. And it has the added benefit of allowing you to dress up the banks with appropriate plantings. Another example of making lemonade from lemons!

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6 Comments on “A River (Sometimes) Runs Through It – Part 2”

  1. carolyn mullet Says:

    I also use dry stream beds for channeling water run off. One of the things I’ve come to believe is that using 3 different sizes of River Rock/Gravel (5′-7′, 1″-3″ and 3/4″) in the swale looks more interesting and natural. Have you ever tried that?

  2. Melissa Says:

    You’re probably right. This bed does have some medium-sized river jacks, but not the smaller or gravel-sized – because when there are heavy rains they would just wash out. In a significant rainstorm a couple of years ago, some of the largest stones – boulder-sized – actually got swept into the culvert underpass on this project. So I think you have to consider the volume of water that will pass through the area. Thanks for the comment!

    • carolyn mullet Says:

      Thanks for your reply. You’re right that a gusher can dislodge even large stones. My technique is best on a not steep slope that doesn’t have a lot of water. I always tell my clients that we can solve run off for average rainfalls but not for the 100 year down pour (which we seem to be having more and more around Washington).

  3. Susan Hirsch Says:

    Love what you did, Melissa!!! Gorgeous!

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks – makes my day! I do continue to love this garden. This year we’re getting more big rains so the concept is being put to good use again.

  4. Jean Says:

    Melissa, That is the essence of good design, a practical solution that is also beautiful. I bet those homeowners were very glad to have that dry river bed during the recent torrential rains and flooding.


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