Building a Recessed Pond from Scratch
Building a pond takes planning. It takes dreaming. It takes thinking ahead. In that sense, it’s little different than planning a dream house or that perfect surprise birthday party. If you do it wrong, you’ll regret it. If you do it right, it will transform your garden, as well as your life, into something you never thought possible.
Before settling on your pond's location, ask yourself a few questions. Will you need a pump and filter? If so, you'll need access to an electrical outlet (or ten!). Ditto for outdoor lights.
Will you be keeping fish in your pond? If so, you'll need a pond at least three feet deep—deeper in harsh winter climates. How about plants? Of course, you’re going to set new plants around the perimeter of your pond; but why not also plant some exotic-looking water plants, such as marsh pickerel and water lilies, within it?
Will your pond have a spillway, a waterfall, or a stream feeding into it? If so, make certain that your sketches show where they will go so that you can keep them in mind as you begin excavation. Will there be a fountain nearby or in the pond? Depending upon the size and type, you may need to prepare a special foundation for the fountain first.
Once you’ve answered all the necessary questions and made a few sketches, you’re ready to go. You’ve selected a suitable site for your pond. You’ve done some preliminary clearing of the area. You’ve settled on the right size and shape for you. Now, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
There are a couple of good reasons for building a recessed pond. For starters, it will look more natural than a raised pond. It will also be easier to approach for cleaning and planting than a raised pond. In addition, it will allow you to create varying pond depths easily, thus enabling you to grow a wide variety of water plants with different depth requirements.
If your pond is going to be recessed, you’re virtually assured of having to do some digging. Hire an experienced backhoe operator if your pond is going to be large. Make sure to get a copy of the contractor’s insurance declarations sheet, just in case something goes wrong. And always, always, ALWAYS have the utility company come out to mark off any underground lines and pipes before you begin digging. Where utilities are concerned, you always want to error on the side of caution.
If your pond is going to be relatively small, you can do the digging by hand, in which case you'll need a few simple tools, such as a round-point shove, a blunt-nose shovel, a rake, and a hoe. It’s also going to take a whole lot of muscle.
Start the project by marking out the pond with spray marker paint or chalk. Tamp the perimeter of the pond area down firmly so that once all of your pond’s weight is on it, the dirt won’t compact, causing the pond liner to sag. For large jobs, you can rent a soil compacter; for small jobs, make a hand compactor from an eight-foot 2” x 4” to which you’ve attached a foot-square plywood foot for tamping.
Next, begin digging the pond’s perimeter. Work all the way around, piling the excavated dirt in a mound where you’ll need it later—along the pond’s bank, for example. Try to create a gently sloping “lip” around the pond.
When you have completed digging out the perimeter of your pond, step back and take a good look. Is the pond large enough to satisfy your requirements? Is it too large?
Continue digging toward the center of the pond until you're satisfied with the shape and depth. This is a good time to determine where your shallows will go. You’ll want some areas of your pond to be shallower than others in order to plant shallow-water plants, to provide fish an area to sun themselves during the cold days of winter, and to offer pregnant females a safe haven for their eggs and fry.
Determine where the deepest part of your pond will be—most likely toward the center. Fish will use that area for safety from predatory animals such as raccoons and waterfowl. It’s also the part of the pond that will remain open in winter when the shallower areas freeze over.
Make sure you dig the deepest part of your pond 3 feet deep or more. To determine the depth, run a string across the middle of the pond from a stake on each side. Take a carpenter’s rule and measure the distance from the bottom of the hole to the string.
Now is also a good time to shovel away space for a skimmer box/filter/pump combination, if you plan on using one (and I highly recommend that you do for all but the smallest of ponds). If you plan instead on using an underwater pump with an external filter box, you can add that after your pond is lined and filled with water.
Check out D. J. Herda's two latest gardening books, Zen & the Art of Pond Building and From Container to Kitchen: Growing Fruits and Vegetables in Pots, both available from Amazon.com.
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