Utilizing footbridges and creeks in the garden

Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey

Generally speaking, water has never been a problem for Louisiana gardeners. Sometimes, however, what to do with all the water can be a challenge for us. In northern parts of the state, we have hills, and down south, we have lowlands. Working to integrate water features into our garden landscape becomes both a functional exercise as well as an aesthetic one.

Wooden bridges can be highlighted with paint jobs. It creates a picturesque view from across the yard.

Water features have interested gardeners since around 2800 B.C. when Middle Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia, encouraged by the need for irrigation, began adding water features to their gardens. The design usually included four water features in the form of a cross, which represented the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. It was also thought that all things flowed to the four corners of the Earth. Once the canals were installed, there arose a need to cross them. As a consequence, footbridges were created and their design and construction have enticed gardeners ever since.

Plant bulbs near the water for bright colorful reflections.

The design and construction of footbridges in your garden can be simple or complex, and as plain or ornate as you choose. Bridges frequently link separate areas of the garden and are usually designed for people rather than vehicles. The simplest way to cross your water feature may well be just with the use of stepping-stones. No construction is required, but you may need to prepare yourself for some heavy lifting.

Water features and bridges create a tranquil venue in any garden.

Boardwalks are also commonly used for footbridges. The construction plan and design are flexible. Boardwalks generally utilize a post and beam construction method, which requires sinking wooden or concrete anchors. Your boardwalk can be flat or arched and with basic tools and planking, a do-it-yourselfer can create a backyard masterpiece at a reasonable cost.

Ditches can be disguised with grass plantings to resemble a creek. Add a few twists and turns to resemble a lazy winding river.

Beyond these construction methods, building your footbridge can become substantially more complicated and expensive. Suspension bridges are a type of bridge in which the deck (the load-bearing portion) is hung below suspension cables on vertical suspenders. While you may be thinking Golden Gate Bridge, a garden suspension bridge is more likely to be attached to posts set at each end of the bridge with rope or cable stretched between them. They are more difficult to build, as well as navigate, than a boardwalk.

A boardwalk is easy to build and requires only basic tools. The result is a tranquil perch from which to observe the daily activities in the garden.

My favorite is the zigzag bridge. Chinese in origin, this style bridge is said to confound evil spirits that can only travel in straight lines. It is built of short segments, each placed at an angle to the preceding one. This style is easily constructed with wooden materials. Structurally it is very stable but can require posts with cross braces for each section. Kids seem to love walking back and forth to get from one end to the other.

A river of tulips (Tulipa spp.) or daffodils (Narcissus spp.) would be resplendent under a dry bridge in the spring.

The location and length of your bridge may dictate the style you inevitably choose. If you have a creek or branch, select a point that is level and not subject to erosion. Consider flooding problems if necessary. The banks should be stable. Remember you are also looking for a perch from which to enjoy your garden. It may well be that you do not even require water under the bridge. Plant a river of flowers to flow under your new span. Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) and blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus) will appear to flow like water when viewed from the other side of the garden. Gravel works for a dry creek bed and a recirculating hose system can provide the relaxing sound of running water.

Ferns add a tropical feel to this small meandering creek.

Remember that your bridge will be visible year round and for a long time to come. Take the time to select the right site and materials. Its beauty will reward you for years to come. You might even be able to charge a toll for a bridge crossing.

No water in your creek? Use blue flowers to create a faux water feature. Pansies or lobelia can create this effect.
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