Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creating a Backyard Pond by Rich Haas

Have you dreamed of having a second home where you can privately enjoy a gentle waterfall and babbling brook leading to a cool, relaxing pond?  The trouble is, most of these great places are many miles away and most often have been turned into multi-million-dollar resorts! 

Why not create that paradise at your existing home?  It is easier than you think!

A little history: I enjoy gardening.  I turned about 95% of my property into a perennial garden.  That is why I signed up to be a Colorado Master Gardener. Then I happened to go on a “Pond Tour”.  I realized then that this was what I was searching for in a second home!  Why incur the trouble and recurring expense (2nd mortgage?) of a faraway destination when you can bring it right to your home?

All it takes a little planning, effort and some expense but think about how wonderful it will be to enjoy a cool, peaceful waterfall at a moment’s notice simply by walking out your back door! 

Plan your project.

First call 811 several days prior to planning your pond and certainly prior to digging.  They will locate and mark any underground utilities for you for free.  Failure to call may mean you might be injured or liable for damages so do not forget this step!  Also, check your local codes for any restrictions (for example: some cities require security fencing around a pond deeper than 3 feet).

Lay out a hose or rope to outline what you plan to create.  This will allow you to visualize the size and layout.  Most people say their main mistake was to build a pond that is too small. It is not impossible but very difficult to enlarge an existing pond.

Most people desire a waterfall for the mesmerizing sound and ambiance.  Take advantage of your natural features.  You will need to plan a location for a re-circulating pump.  Decide if you want a skimmer and filter.  You will also need an electrical outlet somewhere close (some pumps have 30’ or more of cord).  The pump requires a hose to take the water to the top of the waterfall so plan the route for that.  The hose is usually buried next to your water-feature so that you do not disturb the stream if the hose needs to be replaced.  A good landscaping company (make sure they have experience with water-features) or pond supply store will help you to plan if you need it.  If you join a Water Garden Society you will get lots of free advice, plants, etc., from pond enthusiasts.  Plus, it is always easier to learn from the mistakes of others rather than making all of the mistakes yourself!

Decide if you eventually want fish.  They are extremely fascinating to watch and very meditative.  I was told that Goldfish are easy and less expensive (17 cents each at a pet store) than Koi and will grow to 6 or more inches long.  If you want them to live over the winter your pond must be deeper than the freeze depth and the surface can’t be allowed to freeze over or the fish will die.  It is a decision that you can postpone until later but you should plan for them now if you think you might want them in the future.


I was not blessed with a perfect property for a waterfall.  In fact, the property is almost perfectly flat!  I solved this by building a stair-step arrangement of cinderblocks to make a gentle slope for a waterfall next to an exterior deck.  We then scooped out a streambed leading to where I wanted a pond for lilies, lotus, etc.  You can hire the digging to be done or do it yourself.  My pond is about 7’ by 12’ and I dug that out in two half-day efforts (I pay good money to 24-Hour Fitness for that kind of lifting and this was free!).  Always plan for what will happen to the dirt that you will be taking out.  In my case it was pure undisturbed clay - which can be great for planting future water plants but very difficult for growing normal terrestrial plants.

Make sure you design in shelves (or ledges) around the pond at various depths to accommodate different water plants.  Some plants are bog plants that just require wet roots or float on the surface of the water.  Other plants like Lotus or Lilies require the top of the plant to be entirely below the water surface.  You can always add rocks, etc., to raise your plants and pots up, but it is very hard to make deeper shelves after your water-feature is finished.

Once you have your pit formed you will need a pond-liner.  It is a rubber-like sheet of black plastic that keeps the water where you want it.  The Internet has many calculators that will guide you for what sizes, types, etc.  Some liners are “fish safe” others are not.  You can order everything through the Internet or from a local pond supply.

Most people then place rocks of various sizes to hide the liner and make the stream attractive.

Water Concerns.

You would think that this might use a lot of water but since it has a re-circulating pump it takes about 1/3 the water per week recommended to maintain a similar sized lawn.  I’m not an expert but I assume the lawn “wicks” up the water to the blades where the moisture is exposed to the wind and heat. The pond has some plants but they are normally on or near the surface reducing the exposure to the wind and heat.  A pond is always cooler than the surrounding ground (one of the major benefits) so that might help keep the evaporation to a minimum.

My pond might be unusual because it is lined with concrete made to look like our Red Rocks Park or Utah’s Canyon-lands.  Other ponds with more natural bog areas might use more water but I assume if the liner is sound it should be a similar usage.

Also, a pond collects rain water (if and when we get rain).  When the pond is full I scoop some water out for flowerpots or other dry places (pond water is excellent for plants).  This cuts the use of potable water from the city system and should help all of us.

Emergency Preparedness also recommends storing water for an emergency.  Most people only have water in their water-heater and toilet tanks if there is a cut off of water service. If the water supply was contaminated prior to a shut off, water in these will also be foul and will need to be treated before it is drinkable.  A pond has lots of water that is perfect for sanitation and if treated can also be used for drinking and cooking. 

If the emergency gets really, really bad there might also be some fresh fish to eat as well! 

Email with comments or questions.