I can't believe it's not a real stream!
June 27, 2016 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Water features all look manmade. I want to make one in our yard that would be mistaken for a natural stream. How? Is there anyone doing this, preferably with photos online? If it's not possible, why not? How close could I get?

I figure that the natural topography of the yard would have to influence the design, that I’d have to find some alternative to a ring of rocks circling a liner, and that things would need time to grow and weather in.

I've dug a little pond before, with a tiny waterfall that came down a natural boulder that was already there. Fissures developed in the boulder and we had to stop directing the water down it. More to the point, like every other water feature I've ever seen, it looks manmade.

How can I learn to make a stream that looks completely natural, or if not, then as natural as possible?
posted by daisyace to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you wanted your stream to look real, it would need to have sediment, erosion, natural gunk, and a fresh water source constantly flushing the water through.

In a made-man stream in your yard, unless you connect it to a real water source (a feeder stream), you are going to have filters, obviously, but you can't filer sediment, erosion, and gunk unless you want to change filters several times a day and burn out pumps like crazy.

I guess you could meet halfway with lots of natural vegetation, but the filtering requirements might blow your mind.

Source: I went through all this trying to set up the most natural looking turtle habitat many years ago.
posted by TinWhistle at 6:09 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll have to disguise the source and destination. How much yard (and money) do you have to work with?

A stream that flows in from a thick copse might look natural by hiding the horizon and disguising the fact that the stream actually starts right there with a little electric pump hidden behind a couple of trees.

But then where does it go? You would have to contrive an equally disguised exit. Is this yard big enough to have another natural-looking clump of vegetation behind which the stream could beat a hasty retreat?

And then, of course, you would have to pump all that water back to point A with a quiet, efficient motor and filter.

I would instead go with a natural-looking stagnant pond. Let it get a little green. Let bugs live in it. Let it attract actual wildlife. Something that doesn't require a pump if possible.
posted by pracowity at 6:46 AM on June 27, 2016

My mom has a natural stream on her property - what makes it look natural? Inaccessibility! The edges are either very steep or just kind of drop off. There's tangles of vegetation all along the edges due to plants clustering at the water's edge. The only place to really interact and view the stream is at the flat bridge she had built so we could access property on the other side.

Maybe you could research riparian zone and some of the efforts waterway conservation groups have done to restore habitat. Might give you some ideas.
posted by amanda at 6:54 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think a characteristic of water features that look too fake is too much *stuff* paired with nothing. So, you have the feature with all these elements piled up and then an open suburban lawn or patio. You might look to Japanese garden design. The treatment of natural and man-made waterways involves a careful consideration of the whole balanced with signature elements and delight.
posted by amanda at 7:05 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is one of the best looking ones I've seen.

A few years ago, I saw pictures online of an artificial stream made with concrete, including ferrocement "rocks" and no plastic liners. It looked really good, but I can't find it now.
posted by yesster at 7:22 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding things I agree with: moving water, steep edges (stone looks natural), disguised source and destination.

Adding: keep everything below water dark, no waterfalls or features above water surface, shade (lots and lots of shade).

Brainstorm ideas for source and destination and sketch them. A bridge at the property line might work. You want the water to appear from an impossibly dark area.
posted by garry.smith at 7:24 AM on June 27, 2016

The video yesster shared is quite good.

I was also at a university last year that had an artifical brook diverted from a chalk stream. It looked like they'd built the brook to look like the chalk stream (so I'd imagine if you want to avoid the bouldery look one could line the channel lining with regional materials like, in this case, chalk; or maybe clay, etc.).

I'll agree that most of these look visibly manmade because they don't follow a natural contour. That may simply be unavoidable in most settings.

Another idea would be to mimic a section of daylighted stream. One wouldn't need to work hard to conceal the origin and return, it could simply look like you lifted the lid off a section of a culvert. Daylight channels themselves often look manmade (because they are, partially). Then the idea is to restore the channel to some measure of its former structure so that the ecology can do the rest of the job in time.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2016

I would instead go with a natural-looking stagnant pond. Let it get a little green. Let bugs live in it. Let it attract actual wildlife.

Ooh, I wouldn't. We had one of these in our backyard and it was a magnet for birds (and once, a cat) to fall into. There wasn't any foliage super close to it as the roots of whatever plant would have grown into the pond liner, so the birds had to sit on the side of the pond itself to drink, and then inevitably fall in. Many of them were drowned in there by bigger birds or the aforementioned cat, which also eventually drowned in there. *shudder*
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:40 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Organic pools
posted by Tom-B at 5:37 PM on June 27, 2016

Here's a company that makes nice-looking ones. You can't actually hire them unless you live in Omaha, but you might get some ideas, or maybe they'd do design work for you.
Here's a DIY for a backyard stream.

I found both of these sites on Pinterest, which I've always found awkward to use, but it's really a great resource for projects like this. I searched for "backyard stream DIY" and "stream water feature".
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:12 AM on June 28, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you! The posted examples are very good, yet I still don't have trouble telling whether or not they're natural. I appreciate the help identifying the many good reasons for that. Unless I figure out how to pioneer a better approach, I might go in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to undetectably copy nature, I could make something obviously artificial but artistic, e.g., with mosaics. Hmmm, lots to consider. Thanks again!
posted by daisyace at 6:15 AM on June 29, 2016

I'm with you on going obviously artificial. I've seen lovely naturalistic water features in greenhouses around town but my favourite was a raised rectangular concrete pool that allowed you to sit on the edge and look into the water. Keep in mind that algae grows pretty quickly, so leaning rustic, in such a way that the algae enhances, rather than obscures your construction may be the most satisfying in the long run.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:48 PM on June 30, 2016

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