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Pond Building Basics For Anyone

Updated on September 22, 2014
Starting where I left off 2 years ago.  There is about a foot removed so far.
Starting where I left off 2 years ago. There is about a foot removed so far. | Source
About 20 minutes later this is how far I got.
About 20 minutes later this is how far I got. | Source

The interesting thing about a natural gardener like me is that even we have seasons just as our gardens. The idea came to me one summer when I had an unusual amount of fireflies. I noticed that I had maybe a flicker or two every so often mid May. Then around the end of May I noticed sporadic lights going off. Around the middle of June, just when the weather decidedly became summer-ish, I saw significant and energetic firefly activity flickering. After a week or so I recorded a lessening of activity until around the end of July there were no more firefly lights to be seen. I use this example when we are learning what a normal distribution is in my Math class. Real life examples are something a student understands best. Anyway, shortly after I discovered this I began to notice that most, (dare I assert all?), had similar times during the year that they were most active, living, eating plants and reproducing. If the plants and insects have preferred times of the year for certain activity than why shouldn’t I have garden event periods during the year?

Now that I have finished the “digging and dividing” period of my gardening year it is now time to move on. There are only three more garden events yet to do this year (this doesn’t count “mowing the lawn season”. . . it is the longest). These three chores are “pond digging” season, “tree chopping down” season and “leaf raking” season. Sometimes these seasons overlap. As a general rule they come to peak in the order given. That means pond digging season is just starting.

Normally I dig a pond in the fall before the leaves fall. Then in the spring I put in the liner and fill with water. I don’t always put the liner in the fall because then I have to pull out any leaves that may have fallen in over the winter. While I protect the ponds with netting or boards or even old sheets to keep out blowing leaves, there are still quite a few that get in somehow. Since this pond is for all my readers, I finished today’s pond so you can see the project from beginning to end.

Most of this blog is pictorial. The rules and steps are mostly physical. The pictures will speak more than words. At the end is a suggestion for speeding up this process in the event you feel that the approximately 7 or 8 hours I have invested in this project are still too strenuous for you. Really, that is all the actual time I have invested in this project. It did start a couple of years ago but was interrupted by cold weather. Last year I did not even have a pond building season. Winter began too soon and was too severe to even let me have that season. I didn’t even get all the leaves picked up last year. And, then this year when I began again the project was interrupted by a couple of rainy days. Still, when I add up how much time I have invested it totals less than 8 hours.

Less than an hour after I started this year I stopped.  Don't over due the digging as you can hurt your lower back
Less than an hour after I started this year I stopped. Don't over due the digging as you can hurt your lower back | Source

Dig a Hole

First find a nice flat area to build your pond. You will notice that my pond is built on a slope. I have little to no flat areas on my property. I have learned to build for a slope but discourage you from doing this if you don’t have pond building experience.

Once you have your site identified you will have to decide on the shape. I recommend putting in a smaller pond. Large ponds can be difficult, time consuming to maintain and even a bit more expensive to reline. The liners I use tend to be in 25 or 50 or 100 foot rolls that when opened are about 8 feet wide (96 inches). I normally keep the length of my pond to about 10 to 15 feet.

The width is a bit harder to figure. Mine are 4 feet or a bit less. The depth is about a foot and a half or 18 inches. This will leave me with about 6 inches to have for emergencies and to make a border at the top of the pond. This is an acceptable depth for my ponds. The guideline is to have a depth that is about 6 inches lower than normal freeze lines. This allows for a bit of unfrozen water for fish if they happen to live in your pond. Be careful when you figure your pond width and add all your lengths together carefully.

The shape of the pond can be anything you imagine. You can spend a great deal of time making your corners perfectly square. You can make sure the sides are straight up and down and the bottom as level as the sea shore. You’re welcome to obsess over how square and level is if it makes you feel better. I have learned over the years that I do the best I can assuming nature will contribute to my work too. My sides slope slightly and do not completely square the corners. In fact when you see these pictures you will notice I left a large root that runs diagonal across my pond bottom. I prefer to leave it for the sake of the tree it comes from. I can always adjust the shape if I am unhappy the next time I reline it.

A few days later I smoothed out the edges and bottom.  I carefully placed the liner squarely over the hole.
A few days later I smoothed out the edges and bottom. I carefully placed the liner squarely over the hole. | Source
As I began filling with water I pulled and made sure the liner was perfectly adjusted so that enough liner would be left all around the edge
As I began filling with water I pulled and made sure the liner was perfectly adjusted so that enough liner would be left all around the edge | Source
Watering can ready to start washing in loose soil behind the liner.
Watering can ready to start washing in loose soil behind the liner. | Source
About half way filled and beginning to back wash behind the liner.
About half way filled and beginning to back wash behind the liner. | Source

Plastic Liners

I use common black poly plastic as my liners. Sure you can buy expensive liners but I have had success rates about as good. The price is QUITE a bit less. This liner lasts about 3 or 4 or more years which is a bit less than a really good liner. If you decide you really want to spend the money on a good line than you will want to verify that the liner was produced by overlapping the layers of plastic. Even layered plastic can have a “graining”. The overlapping of layers will lessen splits that can happen. A split will leak water just as fast with a good liner as it will with a common black poly sheet used as a liner.

In the pond you will watch me build today I used some scrap black and white poly I had from a past job at a hydroponic company. The product came with a 5.5 mil thickness which is about as thin as I recommend. Packaged poly in the hardware store is as thin as 3 mil. You may wish to double the plastic when installing one this thin. I sometimes have trouble with deer “falling” in or a raccoon snagging some lunch. If they do this on the rolled edge you are ok. If they rip the side or bottom you will have to replace the liner. Fortunately this type of plastic is inexpensive and the old ripped plastic can be used for next year’s cantaloupe bed.

I have begun to haul in extra soil to shore up the low points of the sides.
I have begun to haul in extra soil to shore up the low points of the sides. | Source
The yellow water can marks the high part of the pond so far.  The shovel is marking the low end that needs extra soil to build up.
The yellow water can marks the high part of the pond so far. The shovel is marking the low end that needs extra soil to build up. | Source

Adding Water

Once the hole is dug just add water. I position the plastic evenly over the hole. I use just a couple of bricks to hold the corners until the weight of the water holds the liner in place. It is important to gently pull and reposition the plastic at the beginning of adding water while the weight is not great.

When the water has filled the pond about half way is when you should begin to sprinkle some soil behind the liner. Wash this in with plenty of water. The soggy wet soil behind the liner will fill imperfections from the digging. The soggy soil behind the liner helps to protect from small protruding things that could puncture the liner such as a small bit of root that sticks out after being sheared off. You should gently pull on the liner to work out extreme folds. The weight of the water and liner will force the soggy soil behind into a smooth consistency.

Rolling the liner edge under.  Start at the high end of the pond and leave the lower for last when it gets leveled off.
Rolling the liner edge under. Start at the high end of the pond and leave the lower for last when it gets leveled off. | Source
Just about done rolling the edge and filling in the low areas.
Just about done rolling the edge and filling in the low areas. | Source

Rolling the Edge

When the water level gets within a few inches of the top you will want to first monitor the flow of the water. You may need to turn it down to give yourself more time if necessary. You will want to begin using an iron rake to gently firm up the soil behind the liner. This may mean that you will have to move your soil around to shore up low spots around the edge. In my images you will notice that I actually had to add extra soil from elsewhere since I did not have enough from the hole I dug. That is part of the price for building into a slope.

The second thing you can begin doing is to roll under the edge. This is easy to do. I grab a short section that spans the width of my two hands and turn the edge under. Being right handed, or because that is how it is comfortable for me to do, I “pull” out the twist with my left hand by drawing it away from the right hand. Continue to twist as tight as you can all the way around the edge. If you do this well enough it will hold its shape though you may wish to hold down the edge periodically with something heavy like a brick or stone. I trip over bricks and stones so I usually don’t use many to hold down the edge. Sometimes I have to re-twist in the spring. Usually the rolled edge holds its shape.

A view from the deck.  All that remains is to clean everything up
A view from the deck. All that remains is to clean everything up | Source

Finished and Last Thoughts

Now you can enjoy your pond the way you like. I keep mine just for frogs that populate it without any help from me. Should you choose to add fish I would encourage you to invest in a way to aerate the water as well as a small pond heater to keep an unfrozen hole in the winter to allow for air to circulate. The single biggest reason fish fail in a small pond is because they lack proper air movement in the winter due to a frozen surface. Aquaponics is a fast and interesting hobby I hope to talk about soon. Lastly, just enjoy your pond for several days to a week. This will allow those chlorine compounds used to ensure safe drinking water to evaporate. Some of the newer chloromine compounds many municipalities use now do not evaporate as the older chlorine compounds. You may need to add a de-chlorinating compound though it is usually good enough just to let it breath several days.

See how easy that was to do? See how little time and physical labor I put in to this project? If you are cleaver enough to make a crock pot of pulled pork and bought a case or two of decent beer to bribe some friends into digging a pond for you then I only have one suggestion for you. . . .don’t let them have any beer until after the hole is dug. Then the party can begin. Adding the water and rolling the edge are easy and take little effort.

All done!  Not bad for a bit of labor.  Now what shall I plant around it? ? ? ? :-)
All done! Not bad for a bit of labor. Now what shall I plant around it? ? ? ? :-) | Source

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