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Spade Work

We'll be using this space to post up ideas, projects and experiences. We don't expect everything we suggest to be your cup of darjeeling, but as long as you embrace the philosophy of experimenting and having fun with your garden - who cares.

The first in this series: 'Making a Dry River Bed,' is a project we undertook at the garden centre last summer. Initially, the idea was to make a temporary demarcation of our humble (yet amazingly tranquil) interpretation of a Japanese Zen garden, from the main plant area. As the temperature rose into the eighties, so the scale and ambition of the project escalated. Such was the popularity of the result no one to date has had the heart to dismantle it. More than a year on, river bed and Zen garden look surprising well, and decidedly less temporary.

Making A Dry River Bed


Not all of us have a stream or raging river running through our garden. Indeed, for various reasons, not all of us would choose one. But that doesn't mean we can't create the symbolic and visual impression of such, without the associated dangers and hassle of all that wet stuff.

A water course is deemed desirable because it can create a meandering, cohesive route through a garden. Water can be a positive element in the garden. It can create relaxing, harmonious sounds, and introduce wild life. It can give you the opportunity to use a range of plants different to those you would normally consider and, needless to say, it can improve the visual aesthetics of a location. But how to do all this without water? Now there's a challenge.

Getting started

The first thing you need to do is put some beers in the fridge and/or make sure you've plenty of fresh limes and lemons for the g 'n t. Making a dry river bed is hot, thirsty work and requires regular periods of standing back and assessing the merits of your progress. A rewarding drink can make essential plan and review sessions more constructive.

Deciding on the location of your dry river bed can often be the most troublesome obstacle to getting started. Be more positive. Spend a little time walking around your garden considering the options. Think in terms of the streams and rivers you know of. They don't just start from nowhere and then terminate like rail tracks at Kings Cross, nor do they climb hills. Get the dumb ideas out of your head first. Think practical: a degree of excavation is going to be necessary in order to create your illusion so watch out for potentially shallow tree roots, look out for drains and mains services - many a good idea has the edge taken off it when it results in the Gas board evacuating the neighbourhood.

About now would be the right time to consult with a feng shui specialist for advice on location and style if you are intent on improving the earth portion of your luck. But if you're not into that then get the hose pipe out and start scribing meandering curves as you lay out it's length. Remember school geography lessons. And don't forget your ox-bow lakes. You can use the route of your absent water to divide the garden, and then incorporate a bridge in your design for physical access and a visual link between the two areas. Sweeping your river banks around existing trees or shrubs so as to create the illusion that they've always resided by water can be particularly effective.

The nitty gritty

Use sand, grit or cement dust to mark-out your river bed. Between the two banks, rake, dig, pick (or Kango-hammer if you really must site it where there's a slab of reinforced concrete) a shallow impression - say, six to twelve inches deep. When this part of the work is completed step back and, with that all important drink, begin a plan and review session. Review what you have achieved so far. Does it need widening? Deepening? Extending? Begin to visualise where you will position the plants and rocks which will act as the skeleton to physically anchor the river-bed into your particular garden context.

If undertaking such an adventurous project is new to you there might be a tendency at this stage to become nervous. If you have an urge to hurriedly back-fill your excavations, or, worse still, simply run away, it's best to go indoors, have another drink, watch TV, read the papers, anything in fact which will relax you and take your mind off the dry river-bed. Take the evening off and don't venture out into the garden again before morning. The break will do you good and, with your confidence restored, you'll be able proceed with the next phase of construction. If, however, symptoms of nervousness and regret persist you are strongly advised to consult with a specialist garden designer before proceeding further.

For those of you with a stronger constitution it's time to make a decision. Membrane or no membrane? If the area you've chosen for your dry river-bed still has signs of perennial weeds and/or is prone to being bombarded by annual weed seed then a water permeable landscape matting is advisable.

Choice of materials with which to construct your dry river-bed is a personal matter. Much depends on taste and intended effect. But don't forget the context within which you are working. A design which integrates harmoniously with the rest of the garden is likely to be more successful than one that sits in discordant conflict. You can create a simple beach-like effect with gravel and cobbles, using sea grasses and wild flowers to soften the scheme. At the other extreme you can perhaps visualise how a mercury river on another planet might look once it has run dry. Use brightly dyed stone or wood chips, glass beads or stainless steel washers to create a futuristic scape. Plants with strong architectural qualities could be useful here. This is where you can let your imagination off its leash. Be bold, and positive about what you want.

Everything in turn

Position any large stones and plants first, the correct positioning of these visual anchors is of paramount importance to the success of your project. They should look good, and make you feel excited about how the river-bed will look when completed. Step back again. Plan and review. If you're not happy with anything, now is the time to change it.

When all the large features are in place you can begin to in-fill with your chosen medium. You can vary the textures and colours by using differing sizes and colours. Simulate areas of erosion and deposits, of slides and damming. Think about where indigenous plants in the wild might get a foot-hold once the river had dried. Perhaps you don't want to create a natural effect. You could plant a drift of blue flowering plants, or ones with glaucous foliage, to simulate flowing water.

A final contemplation

Reward yourself once more with a suitable drink, stand back and take a long hard look. Try and look with a new set of eyes. Imagine you've happened upon the dry river bed in your garden for the first time, it's not your precious creation but something you can perhaps improve on. Is it too fussy? Can you take away one or more of the ingredients and make it stronger? On the other hand, perhaps it is still in need of final embellishments. Does it want a metal dragonfly sculpture? Or, perhaps some empty beer bottles that must have been washed down-river?

All Articles 2000 Paul Lathrope
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