Building A Pond: The Basic Steps

Basic steps and guidelines to digging a backyard pond and watergarden
A natural pond can be a thing of beauty, full of fish and surrounded by turtles and frogs, covered with delicate aquatic flowers and plants. Building a pond is not as difficult as you may think and there are a few step-by-step instructions to follow if you want to build a pond.

You don't need a lot of space to have a backyard pond in fact many people are able to create interesting water features in very small spaces and thanks to the new supply of inexpensive pond skimmers, filters and more efficient pumps and water conditioners it has made owning a pond easier than ever.

Rural dwellers may have the advantage because their property size is often larger and a pond can take on large dimensions sometimes becoming larger than one acre if the clay soil is ideal for water retention.

There is no real limit to the size of pond that you can build but if you're like us it is often based on a budget. Often ask me how much does it cost to build a pond and there is no real answer.

A large pond from one quarter acre to three acres for example, that requires mechanical shovels to build the dam and place large boulders for landscaping around the pond will typically cost in the range of $0.75 to $1.50 per square foot.

This will depend on the contractor you choose and the end result you wish: a natural or swimming pond that has shorelines and rock features to look like a natural lake, if done properly, will cost more than if you open the yellow pages and choose an excavator who can dig you a basic hole.

There is no right and wrong way but most of our clients do the work themselves so we will concentrate more on building a small backyard pond. Most of us know someone who has gone through the experience of installing one and there are a few rules to follow if you want to have a successful project that will be self-sustaining and won't cost a fortune.

We'll assume that most people will be using a pond liner for their pond as most of the properties in cities and towns is too porous to support an unlined pond. We've seen people who have dug a large, lovely shaped hole, in their backyard and gone through enormous work and money to build a pond but then found that it didn't hold water and they were then forced to restart from scratch and install the liner.

Pond Books and Guides we recommend can be found on Amazon
As an Amazon affiliate we may recieve payment for purchases made through Amazon.

Earth Ponds

Earth Ponds: The Country Pond Maker's Guide to Building, Maintenance and Restoration

There is nothing like a pond! What else can simultaneously increase your aesthetic pleasure, offer recreational opportunities, help the environment, and increase the value of your land?

This is the recognized standard on ponds, now expanded to include a comprehensive guide to living happily with your completed pond and keeping it perpetually healthy.

Here is everything you need to know about planning, digging, sculpting, and maintaining your pond.

It’s the condensed wisdom of a man who has spent a lifetime building, restoring, and maintaining ponds.

The Pond Specialist

The Pond Specialist: The Essential Guide to Designing, Building, Improving and Maintaining Ponds and Water Features (Specialist Series)

This book is nothing less than essential for those of us embarking on designing and building our own ponds.

If like me you have zero knowledge of the field and are clueless as to the difference between types of pond, butyl liners versus rigid liners, pond plants, fish and how water features actually work, then this book will be your bible.


Imagine building a waterfall, romantic fountain, or beautiful pond in your own backyard.

The Pond Book

The Pond Book: A Complete Guide to Site Planning, Design and Management of Small Lakes and Ponds



Ponds, when properly managed, enhance a property. Ponds provide an environment for fish, recreational entertainment through swimming or boating, a satisfying wildlife habitat, and higher real estate value to any rural property.

Written for the serious layperson, The Pond Book explores the wide variety of pond ecosystems available, and their function; topographic and soil requirements, design and construction techniques, wildlife management, fish species and their cultivation, local bylaws affecting pond maintenance, algae and plant control, parasite problems, chemical and physical parameters of water sources, and water control / erosion devices.

Managing Lakes and Reservoirs

Managing Lakes and Reservoirs

Understandable and useful, Managing Lakes and Reservoirs addresses the enormous amount of information on lake management that has developed in the decade since the publication of the manual’s first two editions (Lake and Reservoir Restoration Guidance Manual, 1988 and 1990).

The first two manuals dealt primarily with restoration of lakes, but this third edition moves beyond restoration issues to focus on ongoing management of lakes and processes that communities of citizens, policymakers, scientists, and enforcement agencies can use to achieve desired outcomes for their local lakes.

Distributed for the North American Lake Management Society

Digging a Pond
Once the preparations have been done and your basic supplies are sitting beside the back door and you've assembled your family and best friends it's time to start doing the hard work. Take your time so you don't hurt your back if you are using old fashioned elbow grease and be slow on the accelerator if you are using a small back-hoe. The wheels of the back-hoe can tear up a nice lawn so make sure the ground is dry and you do as little turning on a dime as possible! We've seen some lovely yards end up looking like a monster truck track after an overzealous backhoe operator was a little too hard on the diesel pedal!

Cut your sod or turf and carefully place it in the shade in case you need to re-sod any areas around the edge of the pond for the finishing touches. Start by digging down to the depth you want and remember to use an approximate 20 degree angle to the inner walls of your pond. The slope of a natural pond tends to want to adhere to a 2:1 slope but in your own construction think of 20 degrees as the ideal slope. It is a very good idea to make steps from 6 to 12 inches wide at 8 inch depth variations to accommodate your aquatic plants and provide a solid step for any rock features you will add later. Always dig everything 2 inches deeper and wider than you want it to be to allow for the sand backfill and the liners and geo textiles which will be added.

Leveling the pond at this early stage is critical and the fastest way to verify a centering of your pond is to place a 2 x 4 on its edge across the length and width and to place a carpenter's level on it. Adjust the sides as necessary until the bubble is centered; this step is important because if the sides are not equal then you risk having the liner not fit!

Once the excavation has been done lay a nice layer of sand in the entire pond and then you can stretch your geo-textile and liner over the pond making sure it is fairly snug against the steps you've formed. You don't want to have the material stretching over corners so take the time to slide everything into position with your fingers or use a rubber mallet to carefully make everything flat. Place large stones or cement pavers on the outside leading edge of the liner so it stays in place and you can at this point turn on the garden hose and start filling the pond.

Installing a molded or preformed pond

Most pond stores can sell you a high density textured polyresin molded pond with rigid side , flat bottoms and planting areas.

These inexpensive pre-formed ponds come in sizes from 100 gallons to 220 gallons and even larger and when you buy one you can expect to pay between a price of $150 and $300. They come in a variety of shapes and some include a spillway built in to have two or more placed together in an archipelago! Incredible things can be done with these systems so use your imagination especially when it comes to the water courses and plants you install once it's finished.

Place the moulded pond in your yard, again looking at it from the house, and other angles to help imagine how the completed project will look. Mark the final position on the lawn by pounding wooden pegs every 8 inches around the plastic pond, then dig a hole slightly larger (don't forget to keep the turf you've removed in the shade and moist) and ensure the lip of the pond is a few inches above the grass level.

Use the 2 x 4 and the carpenter's level to make sure it's level. Always compact the earth beneath the pond before laying it; we like to put a thin layer of sand in the hole first so we can adjust the level of the pond afterwards. The edge of your molded pond should rise two inches above the surrounding ground.

Pond Liners & Membranes
So we'll assume that you will be requiring a pond liner which is also called a membrane. Smaller basins and backyard ponds only require a lightweight material. We use a PVC, polyvinyl chlorine, membrane that will resist frost and ultraviolet light.

Sunlight will damage cheap materials so it is best to ensure your membrane has this protective feature, most do but you should ask your supplier.

Most 20 mil membrane should cost around $1 per square foot and can be bought in standard sized rolls or get a custom size piece cut at your local garden supply store as most such retailers carry this and the 35 mil liner that is slightly thicker and can buy for $1.50 per foot. The 20 mil and 35 mil materials should come with a 20 year warranty if you place a geo-textile protective barrier under and on top of the liner.
Continued below...

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Suggested References and Sites of Interest:
1. Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation - Management of ponds should take into account important conservation principles
2. Wiki Water Gardens wikipedia Water Gardens
3. Flash animation: Dugout Aeration
4. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Aquaculture, Fisheries, & Pond Management
5. Low oxygen & pond aeration
6. Quality Pond Aeration
7. Lake aeration systems
8. Pond aeration - Wikipedia
9. The Role of Aeration in Pond Management

10. Atlantic Pond Supply USA Atlantic Pond Supply
11. Virgina Soil & Water Conservation District -

Pond Liners & Membranes
There is a 45 mil EPDM, ethylene-propylene-diene-terpolymer, heavy -duty membrane that is available and we often use this strong and puncture resistant material for waterfalls and streams between two basins. It can cost from $0.80 - $1.50 per square foot. Using a thicker material will reduce the risk of a breech or puncture which could result in you're fixing a leaky pond. Luckily, these membranes can be repaired and sealing foam is available to help with sealing a pond.

But before you buy pond liner and before you break the soil you should draw the pond outline on your property. We use a rubber garden hose to experiment with different shapes. By pounding in wooden pickets or wooden pegs in various places you can create bends and angles in the garden hose so you're pond design can be given a more fluid look.

Keep in mind that the winning pond design is often the simplest shape you would imagine. Think about how nature works in the natural settings of the wilderness…small, often circular craters, when reflecting the leaves and blue sky, can be the most memorable little ponds you'll see!

Take a look at the initial garden hose shape from many angles and don't forget to go inside the house and look through the windows that open towards the pond and see how the shape looks. Go to the upstairs rooms as well as this is a critical step to help you see if your chosen shape and position in the yard is giving proper sight lines. Make sure your design will blend with the rest of your backyard or an adjacent garden. Of course it is mainly common sense but the key is to take time for the planning because once you start with the shovels it is harder to change directions!

Calculating the pond liner size Many beginners take measurements from their outline and do some rough calculations and then scurry off to the pond supply store with such enthusiasm only to come home with a specially-cut length of material to find that it is too small.

There is a simple formula to help calculate the dimensions of the pond liner you'll need.

Width - The formula to determine the width of your membrane is 2 x pond depth + pond width + 2 feet = required width.
Length - The formula to determine the length of your membrane is 2 x pond depth + pond length + 2 feet = required length.


Looking for a small pond pump? See Our Choices For Pumps on Amazon
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Waterfalls & Water Courses

Before we discuss the plantation of your pond lets talk a bit about choosing a pump first for the circulation and water features you will add. If you are planning on having a waterfall you should take heed of the following way to calculate the pump for a waterfall flow: 100 gallons of water per hour for every inch of waterfall width.

So if your water fall is two feet wide that is 24 inches which means you will require a submersible pump that delivers 2400 gallons per hour, don't forget to look carefully at the flow specifications of the pump as you need to consider the head or height of your water flow.

The difference in height from the top of your waterfall to the depth of your pump can significantly influence the total number of gallons per hour; we find it better to have a slightly larger flow as opposed to less flow because it's easier to bleed off any excess flow or insert a control valve or ball valve if we need to but it's harder to try and squeeze a little more flow from an undersized pump.

You can build a catchment pond at the highest point to create a waterfall that flows naturally, or you can have the outlet of the pump be the source of the waterfall. We've seen it done both ways but one benefit of filling a pool at the top of the waterfall is that the water tends to look a little more natural as it flows down the stream or over the race way. Things to remember: keep your pump in a screened filter box or a filter bag to prevent sediments and debris from clogging the intake. You will incur some friction loss for every 10 linear feet of tubing especially in smaller diameter pipes like 1 or 2 inch pipes, it's about 1 foot of friction loss or head loss for every ten feet (these inches will directly affect the head capacity of your pump).

An example: To have a waterfall that is 18 inches wide and 3 feet high which has 20 feet of tubing between the pump and the top of the waterfall requires a pump that has the capacity to provide 1800 gallons per hour at 5 feet. Check the specs carefully and do the math properly so there won't be any surprises.

Best Plants for a Small Pond
The water needs to be stabilized before you can safely introduce any sort of life into your pond. Most people will use water directly from the town or city supply which may be chlorinated so it's good to allow the water to gas-off before you place your plants or add fish another reason to allow the water to sit for a while is to allow the temperature to adjust to the ambient atmospheric values. Pond conditioners are available to combat the harmful effects of chlorine, acid rains or chloramines and should be added properly following directions before you plant.

Using planting baskets makes the most sense for backyard ponds because we don't usually have soil planting beds in such small backyard ponds. The planting basket allows small quantities of soil to be used without the risk of causing murky water or have the soil get disturbed by fish or circulation and just end up as muck on the bottom. There is special pond soils that is formulated for use with baskets and aquatic plants and your retailer should carry this; regular dirt isn't recommended. Once you have finished planting according to the instructions specific for each species you cover the soil in the baskets with a layer of stones; this keeps the fish from eating the roots of the plants or from pulling out the roots and causing the soil to mix with the water.

Nympheas, shallow water species and bog plants as well as oxygenating plants are a good well-rounded approach; add a few of each plant and you'll see a healthy and vibrant ecosystem! Ensure the rhizome of your Nympheas are placed at a 45 degree angle in the soil, this helps them really flourish, and it is a good idea to add a pellet of plant food into the basket on planting! Nympheas can be placed in waters from 6 inches deep to up to 26 inches although it's probably best to plant them closer to the surface if they haven't fully developed as the season can be short and you want to enjoy the flowers! The shallow water and bog species are planted at water level or to a depth of around 12 inches depending on your chosen plants. Oxygenating plants help provide your fish with beneficial oxygen and are typically below the surface planted in baskets on steps that are from 8 to 36 inches deep. Make sure you get a plant that is not invasive or you will have a problem!

Pond Sealant
Soilfloc® Sealant is the best polymer based sealant available for your canal, irrigation ditch or watering hole. Specifically designed to find leaks, whether in the floor, the wall or through rock formations and seal them. Soilfloc® custom blends linear and cross-linked polymers to seal any type of soil, for any sized project.

Muck Remover
The biological removal of muck and sludge from ponds, lakes and canals is an ecological way to eliminate organic sediments from ruining shorelines and making swimming impossible. Safe muck eating bacteria are blended from anaerobic bacterial mixtures and enzymes that specifically target the thick, black, stinky muck that is common in ponds and lakes.

Solar Aeration | Bacteria & Clarifiers | Large Ponds & Lakes | Pond Pumps | Information & Articles

Maintaining Water Levels
Any pond will lose water due to evaporation especially on hot days or if you have a splashing fountain or a waterfall as the droplets turn to mist they are evaporated. Hot direct sun will cause the water level to drop and this can be harmful for the plants or koi or goldfish.

Using a float valve is the simplest way to keep the level of your pond constant. The small float ball on the end of a brass arm, similar to what's in the back of most toilet bowls, will turn on a small valve whenever the level drops below your required level, these simple floater systems are fully adjustable and an easy to install 4 inch perforated pipe or "French Drain" as it is sometimes called helps ensure the level never overflows! All of these little devices can be hidden under stone or behind little garden frogs and gnomes so they keep out of sight and do their job!

Having a leaking waterfall or a waterfall pump that doesn't have the right flow for the head or width of the waterfall can make it look like a leaking swamp!

Building a waterfall, doesn't really require an expert as much as it requires expert advice. The thing to do when you are building a waterfall is to make sure the pumps and liners and rock structure and waterfall lighting is actually appropriate for the height of the rock pile and width of the water cascade you are envisioning.

Amazon's Best Kits

As an Amazon affiliate we may recieve payment for purchases made through Amazon.

Aquascape's Waterfall Kit comes complete with everything you need to incorporate the sight and sound of cascading water into your yard or landscape All necessary components are provided in a convenient, all-in-one kit that takes the guesswork out of purchasing individual components The innovative AquaSurgePRO 2000-4000 allows you to adjust the flow of the pump wirelessly Includes Waterfall Vault makes accessing your pump and checking water levels quick and easy and Complete LED Lighting Package for night-time enjoyment Aquascape is passionate about the products we produce, providing unique products, designs, and features that stand above the competition.

The Aquascape Medium Waterfall and Stream Kit comes complete with everything you need to incorporate the sight and sound of cascading water your yard or landscape, providing up to a 16-foot Waterfall and Stream. All necessary components are provided in a convenient, all-in-one kit that takes the guesswork out of purchasing individual components. The innovative AquaSurgePRO 2000-4000 allows you to adjust the flow of the pump wirelessly.

The included Pondless Waterfall Vault makes accessing your pump and checking water levels quick and easy and the included AquaBlox eliminate the need to fill your basin with large quantities of gravel and stone. Aquascape is passionate about the products we produce, providing unique products, designs, and features that stand above the competition.

f -Waterfall Spillway and Waterfall Vault - Automatic Water Treatment Dosing System for Fountains - AquaSurgePRO 2000-4000 Pump Complete LED Lighting Package: Featuring (2) 1-Watt LED Spotlight, 60-Watt Transformer with photocell sensor, 3-way Quick-Connect splitter and 25 Feet of LVL Extension Cable - 25 Feet of 2" Flexible PVC Pipe - (5) Aquablox [small] - 10 Feet x 12 Feet Liner - 10 Feet x 20 Feet Stream Liner - 100 Sq. Ft Underlayment - Welcome Kit with complete product, installation and care guide



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