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Building a Backyard Pond: Where to Start

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As a pond owner who did absolutely everything wrong that I could have done wrong when building my pond, my first advice to anyone contemplating a pond is do your homework!

I actually did my homework, but I don't listen to anyone, including myself.  I consider myself a reasonably smart person, but in my wisdom, I chose to ignore some of the basic rules, like making sure the pond is level before you fill it with water.  I studied pond-building techniques for months before actually sinking a spade into the ground (there's another one - I dug my 1,200 gallon pond by myself by hand - whew). 

The usual advice for the novice pond builder building a free-form pond is to get a garden hose, lay it on the ground in the shape you want the pond, and then dig.  Sounds simple, and it is.  For those who are on a tight budget, the actual digging of the pond (if you do it yourself) costs exactly nothing - except time.  It took me three months of digging every day after work to finally achieve my first pond, and during that time I spent no money, except on beer (hey, it was hot out there).

I do have some suggestions that in retrospect would have cost me less in beer, so listen up.  The number one suggestion is rent a backhoe.  You can have that puppy done in a day.  But again, I digress. Number Two is rent a tiller, which is a little more reasonable.  You can till, then dig out what you have tilled, till again, etc.  Better yet, buy a tiller.  I have a little Mantis (which I bought after the fact), and it is absolutely fabulous.  I figure if I had thought of that, I could have saved myself maybe 2 months, 27 days of digging.  The Number Three suggestion is to have a digging party (if you have friends who are dumb enough).  If all else fails, get out the trusty shovel, and start digging yourself.  It's good exercise and you get to commune with nature.

Now, before you start digging and we go on to the next step, let's review the common-sense issues here. First, get a cold drink and contemplate the task ahead for awhile.  Surf the net, and even buy one of those pond books.  Next, choose a half-way level spot for your pond, unless you are building a replica of Niagara Falls, which is beyond the scope of this page.  Don't put the pond in a low spot where runoff into it is likely to occur or all the pesticides your neighbors are using in their yards will end up in your pond.  And one more thing - don't put your pond directly under any trees.  Fish and plants need sunlight and you don't want to spend every day fishing leaves out of the pond.   

Enough said, it's time to dig.  There's not all that much to say about it, other than whatever of the above methods you choose, pile the excavated dirt into a mound for a waterfall.  I know you think you want a reflecting pool, but you are just so wrong. Also, when you think you have dug enough, dig some more.  The number one thing people who already have ponds want are bigger ponds.

As you dig, use a straight board that spans the length of the pond and put a level on it.  Make sure the sides are level from every direction.  Somehow, I missed the importance of this with my first pond, and it looked like an upturned coffee cup when I filled it with water.  I had 6 inches of liner showing on one end and it was overflowing on the other end.  I spent days shoving anything of substance I could find under that liner trying to get it even.  Good thing I didn't understand the rules of liners very well either because I would have cut it too short if I had.

Some people recommend digging out shelves in ponds for the plants, but after doing just that, I now recommend digging just one big level hole.  The shelves decrease the total water volume by quite a bit, and a few bricks to hold the plants at the correct level will suffice.  So use your own judgment on this one, but I personally think the built-in plant shelves are a waste of time, effort, and space, and when I rebuilt mine after the liner deteriorated into small pieces, I did indeed remove the shelves.

Ok, before we go on to the next section, there are a few more mistakes I should share with you lest you fall into the same traps with your pond.  My pond started with a large hickory tree that fell in a storm.  We cut up all the wood for firewood, but the stump was still there and stump removal is expensive.  I had the brilliant idea that if I dug the pond around that stump and piled the dirt up on top of it, I could have taller waterfalls and the eyesore of the stump would be gone, and that's exactly what I did.  A few friends told me this was not sound design, but I blew it off.  Well, you can probably guess the rest - it took a few years, but eventually the whole thing shifted and developed gaping holes as the stump rotted, making perfect hiding places for lovely additions to the garden such as snakes.  The good news in all this, I suppose, is that I bought a plastic liner that didn't last much longer than the stump, so I would have had to rebuild anyway. 

Another mistake I made was with the rocks I used to build the waterfalls.  I had found a place where they were doing construction and had basically blown out the side of a mountain.  There were rocks galore for the taking, so I spent a couple of months trekking out there and picking up rocks.  A couple of years later, many of those rocks started disintegrating, to my chagrin.  If you are going to forage for rocks, make sure you get durable rock such as slate for your project.

So now you have a nice hole in the ground, hopefully with a pretty decent-sized mound that is not built on a biodegradable entity such as a tree stump, and that is reasonably level.  Proceed on to Pond Liners.



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