Build a Backyard Waterfall and Stream: Step by Step Guide


A waterfall and stream is an excellent centerpiece for any backyard and can add value to your home. Although building one may seem like a lot of work, the entire process is actually easier than you think.

Below, we’ll cover the steps required to build a backyard waterfall and stream, from plotting the area to installing the components needed to create the waterfall effect. (Even if you plan on possibly hiring a professional, it will be nice to know about the process involved and the abundance of decisions to be made!)

Determine Your Budget

It cannot be stated enough how important it is to set your budget and then formulate a realistic design plan. Quality over quantity is essential, as this is ultimately going to be the centerpiece of your backyard.

Also, building a backyard waterfall is not something that a homeowner typically does more than once throughout their ownership of a single home. So, you are likely unsure how much it actually costs to put a waterfall and stream in your backyard.

Here is a breakdown of the costs you should expect:

  • Simple pondless waterfall: $200-$2,000
  • Large waterfalls: $3,000-$5,000

Note: You might consider hiring a professional landscaper to do the job for you. If you are going to pay several thousands of dollars, you want to be sure that it is done right.

On the more affordable side of things are cast stone, pre-made waterfalls. This is a man-made stone that is made out of pieces of crushed stone, mostly limestone cement. Cast stone is often used to make pieces similar to this Algreen Tranquility Waterfall.

Waterfalls like this are inexpensive and easy to install since they are essentially premade.

You might consider buying additional rocks and plants to decorate a waterfall like this, as the overall design is quite simplistic. A premade waterfall is certainly a great jumping-off point if you are happy with the design. 

Plot Out Your Yard: Choose Your Waterfall’s Size

Any successful project starts with a solid plan. Backyard waterfalls are certainly no exception to this mantra. While it’s good to dream big, you need to be realistic with your design. 

As far as sizing goes for backyard waterfalls, most people go with relatively small waterfalls that are quite impressive in design. You don’t have to build a massive waterfall to get that sense of peace and tranquility from the water gently cascading.

Your first step should involve measuring out the plot of the proposed waterfall in your backyard. Look for an area where you will enjoy the waterfall from both a patio and from inside the house. A small corner of the yard nearest the house is one of the most common locations, as it has the space to set up a waterfall that cascades into a pool.

Here’s a good example video of using a small space to create a really cool waterfall:

Choose Your Waterfall Style: Pond vs. Pondless Waterfall

A waterfall does not need to have a pond at its bottom. Many design plans for pondless waterfalls can undoubtedly make both installation and maintenance of the feature much more manageable.

Here are the advantages of a pondless waterfall:

  • It takes up less space
  • More affordable
  • Can be completed quicker
  • Simpler to maintain

Here are the advantages of a waterfall with a pond:

  • You can keep fish in the pond
  • If you want a pond, then having a waterfall will make it easier to oxygenate your pond
  • Greater design possibilities

Note: Depending on the size and design you choose for these first couple of steps, you can anticipate this project taking a few days or even less if the waterfall is quite simplistic.

Here’s a video showing another waterfall build with steps to help show what is needed:

Select and Gather Your Materials

A backyard waterfall requires several materials, as is described in further detail in the section below. At the very least, you can expect to hunt down the following materials, which shouldn’t be too hard to find at your local landscape supply company:

  • Larger boulders
  • Medium-sized rocks
  • Pebbles
  • Sand and/or gravel
  • Pumps and other water distribution gear

Base Materials

Before committing to any single design plan, you should first consider which materials you would like to use. Doing so is necessary if you want an accurate cost estimate at the end of the planning process. There is an abundance of different materials that can be used to make a waterfall; maybe you’ll end up liking something that you’ve never heard of or seen before.

Note: For the best aesthetics, you are encouraged to use rocks of different shapes and sizes. A uniform design may come off as more drab and boring.

If you are unsure of where to start, you should do a little window shopping at a local landscape material shop. The landscape experts at these locations will get you headed in the right direction.

Foundation Stones

No matter what you end up doing, you will need to start with the foundation stones. These are the stones that will make up the perimeter of your waterfall/pond. These will be the largest rocks used during the project.

Granite and sandstone are among the most common choices for foundation stones.

When you start shopping for materials, the following are the rocks that you should ask the landscape supply company about. There are various other rocks used that you may find suitable, but these are the most common and naturally-abundant types of stone used in waterfalls:

Stone TypeColor(s)Pros and Cons
GraniteCome in a large variety of colors. Most commonly pink, white, some variation of gray and black.Pros: beautifully dotted with crystalline spots, very durableCons: more expensive up-front costs
Cast StoneRed, gray, white, yellow, pink, gray, greenPros: affordable, easy to install Cons: not durable, appearance not as striking as granite or sandstone
SandstoneCommonly tan, brown, yellow, red, gray, pink, white, blackPros: easy to carve, highly resistant to weatheringCons: not as decorative as granite
SlateWarm brown, red, purple, gray-greenPros: heavy and durable flagstone, can be cut into different sizes, long-lastingCons: not really suitable as a foundation stone
LimestoneWhite, yellow, beige, blue, creamPros: easy to carve, good for sculptures Cons: prone to weathering, also highly alkaline—can alter water chemistry

(Source: Forbes)

Materials Used to Make a Stream

Your next step will involve determining which materials you want to use to make the streambed. This is not an area of design to overlook, as this will go a long way in determining both the aesthetic value and functionality of your backyard water features.

In terms of functionality, pebbles or stones on the bottom of the stream will help keep the water confined to the stream. It will also serve to keep the water looking clean, as a muddy streambed will cause the water to become dirty as it flows through the yard.

Stones also become necessary to cover the plastic liner that you will lay down to keep water in the stream. Look for rocks like these for your streambed:

You are encouraged to shop around a local landscaping supply company to see all the different types of gravel, stones, and sands you can buy in bulk. Water features are more aesthetically-pleasing if you can work in rocks and pebbles of different sizes; this helps give the stream a more natural look.

The Necessities: Pumps, Filters, Liners, and More  

Now that you’ve figured out which rocks you want to use, you’ve already gathered the bulk of your materials. However, several pieces of equipment are of absolute necessity for your waterfall and stream to circulate water continually:

EquipmentPurpose
Submersible PumpLifts water in a circulating waterfall and stream structure (Be sure to select a pump only after calculating which size you need.)
EPDM Rubber LinerKeeps water from seeping into the ground
UnderlaymentHelps control erosion and provides a foundation for the waterfall and stream
Waterfall BoxSits at the top of the waterfall, allows the water to cascade down the fall
Flexible PVC Pipe/Other PVC PipingFor circulating water throughout the system
PVC Primer/CementFor connecting PVC piping, as necessary
Waterfall and Foam SealantTo fill gaps between the rocks and boulders in your waterfall (This ensures that water actually flows down into the stream. You are advised to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation.)

Tools

Now that you know all the materials you will need to complete the project, you are ready to gather your tools to begin the digging. Some recommended tools include the following:

  • Shovel(s)
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Measuring tape reel
  • Utility knife

The following are optional tools you may use to make the building process easier:

  • Spray paint
  • Level

Dig a Hole for the Waterfall and Pool

Specific instructions may vary depending upon specific design (i.e., You may go with multiple small waterfalls instead of a single large one.), but the following steps will give you an idea of the process you will need to follow.

  1. Start by outlining the entire area that you plan on digging out with spray paint.
  2. Dig out a pool at the base of the waterfall. The pool area should be at least 1.5 times the length of the waterfall’s drop and at least nine inches deep. At a bare minimum, the pool should be at least 20 inches wide.
  3. Dig out a skimmer pocket at the back of the pool. This will be necessary because the waterfall will erode the dirt at the base of the structure. Suggested dimensions for the skimmer pocket are at least 14 inches deep, 14 inches front to back, and 20 inches wide.
  4. Dig out a hole outside the pond for the filter and pump box.
  5. Excavate the stream for the waterfall portion. The hole should be at least 6 inches deep to account for the flowing water. Ensure that you are digging out steps so that the waterfall can flow down the slope. The larger the steps, the more dramatic the effect. If you dig out larger steps, then you will need to use more rocks due to splashing.
  6. Excavate out a shelf at the very top of the waterfall, where you will install the waterfall box. This is a structure that is responsible for holding the water that will be pushed down the waterfall.
  7. Finish off by removing any roots, sharp roots, or other items that may puncture the underlayment/liner. Then tamp down the soil until the ground is even. At the very end, you are encouraged to use a level to make sure that the pool and shelf at the top of the waterfall are on flat ground.

Dig Out the Stream

If you want to extend your water feature by way of a stream, then there will be some additional considerations to take into account. Following these guidelines will help you build a stream that follows the intended pathway.

  1. Consider the natural flow of water in your yard. The stream needs to be designed in a way that follows the gradient of your yard.
  2. A collection basin will be necessary to hold water if you are looking to recirculate water down the waterfall. Otherwise, you can look into directing the water into collection bases or ditches. As always, consult with local code enforcement officials to ensure that your project plans will be permitted.
  3. Size the trench to meet the anticipated flow rate. You need to build a wide and deep stream to account for heavy rainfall; otherwise, your yard will become inundated. The center of the trench should be deeper than the sides.
  4. Add large rocks along the edges of the trench.
  5. Consider planting native plant species along the edge of the stream.

If you’re wondering if you really need a stream or not, check out the stream in this video before you decide:

Place the Liner and/or Underlayment

It is critical not to skimp out on the liner and underlayment for the waterfall and pool. This will help keep erosion and seepage from occurring, which are two big problems that can be difficult to fix later on down the road, should they arise.

  1. Lay the underlayment in the waterfall and the pool. This will help cushion and protect the liner, which will be under excess pressure from the rushing water. Place down extra underlayment in spots where they will be large rocks. The underlayment should be tucked into all corners and indentations.
  2. Lay the rubber liner over the underlayment. The rubber liner should be kept as smooth and flat as possible. Folds should be avoided because these can direct the water away from the direction of the planned stream.
  3. Make a Z-fold in the liner next to the waterfall box so that the liner will expand as you fill the pond.
  4. Lay down a piece of underlayment over the liner at the base of the waterfall. This will help ensure that the water pressure does not cause the valuable underliner to become punctured.

Install the Submersible Pump and Waterfall Box

The water distribution system is really the make or break point of the waterfall and stream installation process. You can avoid a wasted effort by selecting the right materials. This would be an excellent time to consult with a professional contractor if you haven’t done so already.

Here are some guidelines for choosing the pump system for a backyard waterfall:

  • Use the measuring tape reel to find the width of your waterfall.
  • Multiply 150 gallons per hour X inch of waterfall width
  • Find the vertical lift of your waterfall; this is the height that the water falls from top to bottom, NOT the waterfall length.Consider the horizontal distance of the horizontal pipe carrying water to the top of the waterfall; every 10 feet of horizontal pipe = 1 foot of vertical rise.

Once you have chosen the right water pump, simply follow the device’s instructions for installation, which should be included with the kit.

Make It Easier: Consider a Home Waterfall Kit

If the installation process above sounds like a lot of work, you will be glad to know that simple home waterfall kits do exist.

These kits are an attractive option because the company has already done much of the legwork of figuring out which parts to use and how they should be sized. The latter is one of the significant challenges of building a home waterfall since we can all name a time or two when our math may have been a little off.

These kits are great for homeowners who want waterfalls and streams that are smaller in size.

If you take a quick peek at this Aquascape Landscape Backyard Waterfall Kit. This kit includes, for your convenience, the following:

  • Underlayment
  • Rubber Liner
  • Small pump
  • Pump Filtration and Installation Accessories
  • Flexible PVC Pipe

Robert Sampson

I'm Robert Sampson and I live in Colorado where I spend a lot of time in the backyard with my family either grilling, playing games and sports, or working on a project to make our backyard a better place to be.

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