Build & Landscape a Pond

Transform a barren patch of ground into an attractively landscaped pond.


Enlarge Image Create a beautiful pond in the comfort of your own yard.

Building a pond might seem like a daunting task. There's the digging, of course, and dealing with liners, pumps, and filters. You also have to figure out how to make the pond a part of the garden -- so it's not sticking out like an artificial accessory. That calls for careful landscaping. Thankfully, the project is not as difficult as it might seem.

The relatively small size of this pond was dictated by topography. The homeowners wanted to put the pond in the backyard close to the house, where they could enjoy it. Because the house sits at the top of a slope, flat ground was limited. Several wooden tiers tame the slope, but the only place for the pond was between the house and the first tier.

We started by creating a free form pond, 3 1/2 feet deep so that goldfish could survive in the lower depths when the upper portion of the pond freezes in winter. A depth of 18 inches should be sufficient in warmer climates.

Enlarge Image Stones enhance the natural look of your pond.

Rocks and gravel hide the lining, while cattails and a water lily add a natural touch. Both are grown in submerged plastic-mesh baskets weighted with stones.

The pond is surrounded by a circular planting bed filled with low-growing stonecrop accented by variegated hosta and ornamental grass for contrast. This stonecrop flowers in early summer, but its burgundy foliage continues throughout the growing season. "Wolff," a Japanese maple with greater winter hardiness than most other cultivars, gives height to the design and also provides burgundy foliage that reddens in fall.

Enlarge Image A split-reed fence complements the plants and flowers that surround the pond.

A circular gravel path mimics the simplicity of stone so favored in the Far East. Jutting up to the path is a patio made of Iowa Buff limestone, chosen because its creamy color complements the brickwork of the house.

Split-reed fencing provides privacy and makes a suitable backdrop for fox red curly sedge and dwarf arctic willow. The ornamental fence also adds a feeling of quaintness to the setting. We included large rocks for structure; variegated iris, ornamental grasses, and astilbe for texture; and a container-grown Scots pine topiary as an architectural element. Planting beds are edged with black plastic and mulched with shredded cedar.

There are some general guidelines for placing your pond.

Enlarge Image Make sure you consider all of the details before digging.
  • Try not to plant under a large tree, as falling leaves and debris will need to be cleaned out of the water regularly.
  • If you're working on a slope, install the pond on level ground at the top of the grade. A pond at the bottom of an incline can become contaminated from runoff carrying grass, debris, fertilizers, and pesticides.
  • Look for a sunny location, so you can enjoy reflections dancing on the water. Many water plants need at least six hours of sunlight a day to bloom.

To help determine a suitable location, use a folded tarp or garden hose to outline the general shape of the pond. Move it around to see where it looks best. Smaller ponds like the one we installed work well with patios and courtyards close to the house. Larger ponds stand out even from a distance, so you can place them farther from the house.

Once you've found the right spot, experiment with the pond's shape and size, again using the folded tarp or garden hose. Try to echo the lines of your landscape: A square or rectangular pond will suit a formal garden with prominent geometric forms, while an irregular-shape pond edged with plants will fit an informal, natural landscape. Either way, it's important to keep the pond in scale with the rest of the landscape. You want an attractive focal point, not an overpowering element that dwarfs everything else.

Manufacturers make buying the materials to build a pond as easy as possible. Although you can purchase the items individually, a pond kit will give you the basics. Most kits come with a liner to prevent water leakage, a pump to circulate water, a filter to keep water clear, and tubing and fitting accessories to connect mechanicals. Kits generally do not include accessories such as fountains, lights, and statuary.

Selecting a Kit

When selecting a kit, you have two basic liner choices: preformed or flexible. Preformed pond liners, which are made of rugged, high-density polyurethane, come in rectangular and free form shapes that don't require pulling and stretching. They're relatively small and have built-in shelves for aquatic plants. Flexible liners, like the one we used, are made of either rubber or plastic and let you create a custom-shape pond. To prevent punctures, they require a protective underlayment. You can purchase a rot-proof polyester material or use old carpeting.

The size of your pond will dictate how big a pump and filtering system is needed. Pond kit manufacturers can help you gauge the size of equipment needed. Pumps come with waterproof cords that should be connected to an outdoor electrical outlet. However, outdoor circuits may require a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to meet safety codes. A GFCI, which will shut off a faulty current, is available from hardware stores.

What You Need:
Enlarge Image Top view of the pond and patio.
  • String and sticks (or flour)
  • Shovel
  • Underlayment
  • Pond liner
  • Rocks
  • Heavy-duty cutting blade
  • Fountain or waterfall
  • Permeable fabric
  • Gravel
  • Black plastic edging
  • Selected plants
  • Landscape fabric
  • Builder's sand
  • Flagstone pavers
Instructions:
Enlarge Image Step 1

1. Outline the shape of the pond and the circular path. We used string and sticks, but flour would also work. Excavate the pond with a shovel. A depth exceeding 2 feet may require that the pond be fenced; check zoning regulations. Dig out a ledge that's about 4 inches deep and 6 inches wide around the perimeter.

Enlarge Image Step 2

2. Line the hole with underlayment to protect the pond liner. Special underlayments are available from pond kit manufacturers, or you can use an old carpet. After the underlayment is in place, grasp the liner into the shape of a bag, and lower it into place.

Enlarge Image Step 3

3. Spread the liner out, and temporarily secure the edges with rocks. Fill the liner with water, and smooth out wrinkles as the pond fills. Fold over excess portions of liner, repositioning the rocks as needed. Stop filling the pond before water reaches the outer ledge.

Enlarge Image Step 4

4. Place rocks along the ledge surrounding the pond to permanently hold the liner in place and camouflage it once the pond is completely filled. Leave about 1 foot of liner beyond the rocks; use a heavy-duty cutting blade to remove excess. Install a fountain or waterfall to circulate water. Splashing water aerates the pond to keep it fresh and free of anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in oxygen-poor environments and produce rank odors.

Enlarge Image Step 5

5. Wedge sections of permeable fabric, such as old towels or scraps of underlayment, behind the rocks to keep soil and debris from entering the pond. Cover the fabric with gravel, then place rocks on top of the gravel. Finish filling the pond.

Enlarge Image Step 6

6. Rim the inner planting bed with black plastic edging. Install a second band of edging around the first to create the circular path. Excavate the path to a depth of about 4 inches.

Enlarge Image Step 7

7. Add plants to the inner planting bed, then spread landscape fabric (a permeable weed barrier) along the circular path. Top the fabric with several inches of gravel, which will be held in place by the lip of the black plastic edging.

Enlarge Image Step 8

8. Excavate ground to a depth of 4 inches for the patio. Add a 3-1/2-inch layer of builder's sand, then work flagstone pavers into the sand. You may need to lift pavers and add more sand so they're level. Fill gaps between pavers with sand.


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