Water, Water Everywhere – Even in our Garden!

To my mind, a good pond can be the feature that establishes a garden as a truly wildlife-friendly arena. So, while a nice bed of flowers may be great for bees and hover-flies, a carefully-planted- out pond does that too and can attract a greater variety of beneficial and interesting , including dragon-flies, pond-skaters and water-boatmen. Not only that, if it’s sides are not too steep, a pond will bring in a wider range of birds than a bird-feeder and, with any luck, passing frogs, toads and newts will make a home in or around even the most humble-looking pool.

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There is, however, as I have discovered in recent years, a great challenge in designing and building a good pond and, despite a great deal of time and effort, I have been only partially successful in that quest — so far.

Given that we’re aiming to ‘wild’ the garden in our new property, a pond would appear to be a crucial feature. Of course, we could settle for smaller water features, upturned bin lids, bird baths — any sort of water in the garden, yard or balcony is a welcome resource for birds and insects — but let’s go as large as we dare on this.

Based on our experiences in our previous property (which I will describe later), there were certain elements that we decided the new pond had to include:

  • being placed in a shaded area to reduce water-warming and algae growth;
  • at least one shallow side, forming a beach for easy access for wildlife;
  • a deep section, for frogs and new for keeping the water cooler in summer, and to reduce the risk of freezing in winter;
  • a grid to cover the deep bit — just in case;
  • rocks, cobbles and gravel to cover and protect the pond-liner, reducing the risk of damage and to disguise the sides of the deeper bits.

A semi-shaded spot identified; we start cutting turf and dig the deeper sectionMore turf dug out; grid over the hole is tried for size and rocks are tested to see if they cover the sides by the hole.The hole needed to provide a depth of 0.9m to 100.0m

From left: the initial cuts in the turf and outline for the deeper section; with the unpacked grid in place, the rocks are tested for size; digging the hole…

A patch of north-east facing garden which received some sunshine in the late afternoon provided what we hoped would be the perfect spot for the semi-shaded area we needed. After plenty of discussion and sketches, the pond outline was marked out by inserting a spade and opening a gap.

Then began the next (quite tedious) task of cutting away the turf — the boredom being alleviated, here and there, with shaping the shelves, digging the deeper section and trying the various rocks (from an old rockery) for size, to see if they would disguise the sides leading to the deep bit (they did!).

The final outline sketch — plan viewFinal outline sketch — cross sectionFinal outline and shaping

Fitting the pond-liner, we knew, would be a big undertaking as we needed to negotiate its positioning into the deeper area. This would involve folding the liner and had to be done slowly and carefully or we’d end up with all sorts of bumps and creases in the base of the pond — difficult to disguise with stones. Firstly though, we made sure we had a good-quality liner, with underlay, so strong but light-weight. The underlay resembled weed-block sheeting and was relatively easy to position (though a little harder to keep in place in even the slightest breeze!)

Starting with the hole, we then gradually made as few folds as possible but enough to manipulate the liner into the deeper section. It turned out easier than expected and the job was done relatively quickly — allowing us to start filling with water.

Starting with the hole, the initial folding of the liner…With careful, neat folding, the liner fits into the deeper sectionStarting the fill — this will pull the liner into place.

From left: starting with the hole, the liner is folded into place; carefully does it; with the liner in place, the fill begins

Placing the rocks on the shelf proved straight-forward as we’d already checked them for size and positioning; placing cobbles on the side of the drop beneath the rocks was assisted by using the larger cobbles at the bottom, to stop the others sliding down. At time of writing, we have been thwarted by the lock-down as our order of a bulk bag gravel cannot be delivered — not a major problem on the scale of things but it means a description of the final steps, including planting out the pond will follow in a future article.

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From left: placing the rocks on the shelf; using cobbles to disguise the side of the deeper section; as far as we’ve got at time of writing!

In the meantime, what was the past experience that led us to our choices when positioning and building our new pond? In the garden of our last house we inherited a small, fibre-glass, decorative pond with two large-ish and fairly unhappy goldfish. We could tell the fish were unhappy as, shortly after our arrival, we discovered them seemingly trying to leap out — only prevented from doing so by the tall stones around the pond’s edge. The water in the pond also seemed unhappy in that it would turn green with algae at a drop of a hat — the Sun’s hat, in fact. By introducing a small fountain and few strands of pond-weed, to improve oxygenation, along with a water-lily to provide some shade against the Sun, we managed to provide a sufficient improvement such that the fish began to breed and the water was relatively, though not completely clear — most of the time. There were also, to our great excitement, some frogs and newts in residence.

Sadly, the fibre-glass shell that formed the pond was, by then, reaching the end of its sell-by date and various cracks were forming so that water would leak out, leaving more a puddle than a pond behind. It was time for a change and the solution seemed to be to replace the fibre-glass with a liner and we employed a pond expert to carry out this work; as part of the job he added a few more plants. This proved to be fairly successful and the pond looked good, especially in early summer when the plants flowered, but leaks continued — to the point where the pond would drain out almost completely. On investigation, the problem was caused by several tiny claw-holes in the liner at the pond’s base. It appeared we had had a visit — maybe multiple visits — from a long-legged bird: most probably the glorious (but dreaded by pond-owners) heron. Meanwhile, over time, the ‘carefully selected’ plants had very quickly out-grown the pond such that it resembled a weed patch.

Native plants proved a great attraction to wildlife but could resemble a weed patch, without a fair bit of maintenance.The pond even attracted a pair of ducks — who were not put off by the untidy lining at the pond’s edge.

To cut a very long story short, I took over the role of pond-design and dug out a bigger pond, placing cobbles and gravel over its base — we never wanted heron’s claws through the liner again. Plants were more-carefully selected this time, with nothing that would expected to grow above a height of 30cm. To provide easier access for wild-life, two sides of the pond shared a shallow gravel beach and some of the surrounding, taller stones were deployed elsewhere. Having read that at least part of the pond should have a depth of about one metre — to keep the water cooler in summer, reduce the chance of freezing in winter and provide space for a water-lily — I ensured that the fore-mentioned beach led to a metre-deep pool, with duly-planted lily.

Initial results were amazing: the water remained crystal clear, all year; we were visited by more and more newts and frogs (I counted at least 100 during a particularly busy mating period — which you might describe as an orgy of frogs…); our number of fish grew to a shoal of thirteen (despite further occasional visits by the heron — that never did put another hole in the base); birds used the greater space to visit in greater numbers for water; bees were regular visitors to the native flowers and skimmed the water surface for a brief drink; dragon-flies often buzzed by. and even a pair of ducks would call in for a paddle in spring and again in late summer — presumably on their way to and from their nesting ground??