How to Build a Pond: First Steps

Choose The Best Location for Your Pond

A pond, whether it’s a wildlife pond, an ornamental garden pond, or a fishpond, is a labor of love and therefore should be placed where it can be enjoyed the most. A spot alongside your deck allows a close-up look if you like to spend time out there. If you or your family are more the inside-types, a spot near a nice big window can give you a pleasant vista while remaining inside where it’s cool during hot, summer afternoons. On the other hand, if you’re building a wildlife pond and want to encourage plenty of visitors, a more secluded spot may be more inviting, but be sure to set up a place where you can still view your most shy guests from a distance.

Of course, while enjoyment is your first consideration, there are some spots you should definitely stay away from. Avoid putting your pond in the lowest point of your yard. Rainwater runoff drains towards these points, and you won’t want it to flow into your pond. That may seem counterintuitive, but water that has traveled over the ground has likely picked up contaminants like fertilizer, weed killers, animal waste, and even detritus like grass clippings or leaves. Any of these contaminants can harm your fish and plants or trigger algae blooms. It’s best to choose somewhat higher ground and plan to redirect runoff around the pond altogether.

It’s often assumed that garden ponds need plenty of direct sunlight to thrive, and that may be what they prefer, but like most plants, there are types that enjoy bright indirect light and even shade. It’s helpful to do some research to see what shade-loving options you have. Just a few examples include horsetail, marsh marigold, blue flag iris, and dwarf golden sweet flag. Keep in mind that you’ll still want to keep trees and bushes at some distance from your pond (outside a tree’s drip line) since their roots may damage your pond liner, but a shady spot isn’t off-limits. Even fish enjoy a shady location during hot summer days, and shaded ponds tend to have fewer algae problems, which can be a very convincing argument in favor of that location!

Fish and garden ponds are most aesthetically pleasing when they blend in with the surroundings. Leave plenty of room around the pond area for beautiful plantings and consider adding a spot for sitting comfortably and viewing the splendors of nature. If you’re adding a waterfall, it’s best viewed at the back of the pond so it doesn’t impede your view, while streams can wander in from the back or side, again so long as it doesn’t get in the way of your view. Sound travels well over water, so a splashing water feature placed behind your pond will be easier to hear at the front.

Imaginative Shapes

Garden ponds and fishponds do not need to be limited to basic circles or simple kidney shapes. Feel free to let your imagination run wild and design a shape that will complement your landscape, blend in more naturally, or provide the best view. While rigid pre-made pond liners are only available in limited shapes and sizes, flexible geosynthetic sheet liners can be easily cut and folded to whatever shape you can envision. You can go wild with a waterfall and stream that meets up with your pond and spreads out into an irregularly shaped oasis. You can add submerged plant shelves along the borders that hold a variety of aquatic plants, including floating specimens like the traditional water lilies and gorgeous yellow lotus, or emergent plants like water primrose, mermaid plant, or many types of rushes and cattails. A variety of healthy aquatic plants will help keep your garden pond free of algae.

How Deep Should I Go?

In general, a good depth for a water garden can be as shallow as 18 inches or as deep as 4 feet. If you live in a climate with warm summers, keep in mind that deeper ponds tend to stay cooler and are less likely to have algae problems. Your shallower emergent plants will be happy on plant shelves located along the margins at about 6-12 inches deep and some varieties of submerged and floating plants are adapted to depths where other plants would struggle. Water lilies are an excellent example. They grow slowly, though, so you may prefer to start them out at 18 -24 inches before moving them gradually into the depths. Hornworts are excellent deep-water plants that tolerate shade and provide plenty of oxygen.

Fishponds need to be deeper than garden ponds - generally a minimum of 3 feet, although 4 feet is better. Deeper ponds not only give fish a cool place to retreat to when the summer’s heat is too much, and they also offer more places for fish to hide when a predator comes to visit. No one wants to watch a heron or a raccoon carry off their favorite goldfish.

If you live in an area where winter temperatures dip below freezing for extended periods of time, a deep pond can be a literal lifesaver for both fish and plants. Ice floats, so even if you’ve got a thick crust of ice on the surface of your pond, the water below will still be liquid. Fish adapted to cold water (koi and standard goldfish like comets and shubunkins) can survive winter by entering a semi-hibernating state known as torpor, no matter how low the air temperature is. If your plan is to overwinter fish in your pond, build it so that some sections are at least 4 feet deep and take steps to winterize your pond in the fall. Hardy plants like lotus and some water lilies can be overwintered in water at least 2 feet deep. Start by trimming foliage to the level of the top of the pot, then place pots in the deepest part of the pond. In the spring, return your plants to their normal location and they’ll soon be sprouting new growth.

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