Landscape Design

By Kurt Kilroy, Landscape Designer, English Gardens, Pontiac, MI Originally published in Passion for Water, Spring 2008 Revised Spring 2014

Natural, Natural, Natural! These are the three most important words you need to remember when designing outdoors. Think about streams that you have seen when you walked through the woods, or awesome pictures of natural waterfalls and rivers you have seen in photos, on the television or on the internet. They all have the same common thread – they look as though they have been there a very long time. The same concept holds true in stream design and construction today.

When considering a water feature location for my clients, I always work backwards. Start with determining the best location for the end result and the visibility of the waterfalls from as many points as possible on the property. If the client wants the end result near a patio or deck, I often will go into the residence and look out windows that face the area we are considering. Of course, always try to take advantage of sloping topography, but often times the ground is sloping away from the house. This is where creativity and experience need to kick in. Here are a few of the most interesting techniques that I have used in my designs.

Where is the Origin?

The biggest mistake landscapers and homeowners make in stream design is creating an origin of the stream that looks like an erupting volcano. One of my favorite tactics is to completely conceal my origins with combinations of stone and plant material. I have had many clients tell me that when guests come to their property they have been told that they are very “lucky” to have a natural stream running right in their own backyards!

If I am building a waterfall stream that connects to a pond, I place an EasyPro AquaFalls Biological Waterfall Filter at the beginning of the waterfalls. The AquaFalls box has two functions: to assist in creating a natural looking waterfall and it serves as a biological filter for the pond water. If I am building a waterfall/stream that just circulates and does not go into a pond, I begin the waterfall with an EasyPro Waterfall Spillway Box. I position the box deep into soil which is either already in an existing hill or slope or I create a berm that is large enough to blend with the existing or created landscape surroundings. Some of our projects require as much as 200 yards of additional soil to blend and hide the origin of the water feature. Strategic placement of plant material is very important as well. As a landscape designer I like to put in evergreen backdrops for my streams, but I locate them well back behind the origins and allow them to grow.

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Winding and Blending

I like to have my streams wind naturally through the landscape utilizing existing features on the property. Keep in mind that nature typically produces gentle easy turns and each stream is an original creation. Turns can also engage the senses both acoustically and visually with the addition of a waterfall drop. I like to place an eye catcher at every turn; this could be a single specimen plant, like a Laceleaf Japanese Maple or a colorful grouping of perennials layered with some wispy ornamental grasses behind. Use the curves of the feature to your advantage, creating interest from beginning to end. Remember, there are no straight lines in nature!

Big Rocks Little Rocks

When we go camping, I always seem to find a stream flowing through the woods. No matter what the scale of the stream there are always a variety of stone sizes along the banks. The stone is typically variable in size but consistent to the look. I design landscapes in lower Michigan so I use stone that you would commonly see throughout this area. Consequently, I use a lot of limestone. I want my water features to look natural and as though they have always been there. The stone varies in sizes from small round river rock the size of a dime for my ”floors” to 3' - 4' round boulders with large slab material in the streams and along the banks. A large stepping stone in the middle of the stream is a nice touch. This opens up the opportunity to create a destination point by placing a decorative bench or a swing to go to. I like to naturalize the edges with bog plants, but to accomplish this, I will have to set a couple large rocks in the stream to create a “calm area” for the plants to grow. 

What about the Waterfalls?


Building waterfalls are probably the most fun part of creating a stream. When looking at nature’s waterfalls, they are not always large dynamic forces. I like to mix in one or two what I call big splashers and several smaller 2" - 3" droppers. If all the falls were big they would lose their luster. Of course it always depends upon the unique application. A short run may utilize a single large waterfall to create a spectacular focal point, especially when it’s lit up at night! A run of 20’ or more presents the designer with many posibilities for shorter fall drops mixed in with the big splashers. I believe short fall drops are the best way to naturalize a stream. I will create drops just by adding a large set of stones right in the middle of the stream bed or perhaps just off to the side to create a trickle effect. Clients can play with the dynamics of the stream by moving stones and driftwood to create their own personal drops in the future.

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This is Just the Beginning

When I design a stream I always consider the future; plants grow but my stream won’t. I like to have the stream sides lush looking and colorful with different textures and fragrance. It’s very important not to plant ground cover or perennials that become invasive. The last thing I would want is for my client to call me in three years complaining that her English Ivy that I designed into her landscape has overtaken her stream bed. I do advise my clients that there will be maintenance for this design but I try to select plants that are humble and not overwhelming. If you are not sure about what to plant, hire a landscape designer or place plants wider apart than you may have in other areas of your yard, watch and prune as necessary.

Enjoy Yourself!

Many clients who have dogs will usually ask me if it’s a problem if their dog wanders into the stream or pond. Not at all! I always protect my liner with heavy duty fabric and we cover all the liner surfaces with stone. So go on in! I encourage people to go into their pond. They will not tear the liner. You won’t puncture it unless you go in with golf spikes. That was not a hint – keep out of the water hazard! Likewise, the streams are fun to stand in or sit in on a hot summer’s day. When my children were young they often played around the stream, sending “canoes” down to the “lake” with their popsicle sticks. Water features with streams designed and constructed correctly, will bring years of enjoyment for the whole family. Remember, you’ve built this pond for enjoyment. Sit by it, dangle your feet in it, watch your fish, adjust your stones in the stream, but most of all enjoy it!