Fall rains have been abundant this year in North Texas. This means that deep moisture will be present through the winter. Soils that are normally hard and dry will be easier to dig. Water gardening has become very popular lately. Most people will agree that the sight and sound of running water is very soothing in this normally hot environment. Although some folks might want to have their own pond they let the seemingly awesome task of digging that hard ground prevent them from doing so. Building a pond can be a lot of work and expense, but if you are one of these people who have considered this, you won’t find a better time to do this than right now. The conditions are right. The warm days will be cool enough to offset what would be sweaty going in the summer. The cold days are great for planning and visualizing what will soon become the focal point of your landscape.
Here’s a few tips from someone who has built a lot of ponds. This will dispel some of the common misconceptions and hopefully save you from making the mistakes that beginners often make. If you have a local water garden society, consider joining or at least attend a few meetings. These folks are a valuable source of knowledge and happy to share their own experiences. The first thing you will discover is that owning a pond is a lot less trouble than you might think granted it was built right in the first place.
1. FIRST YOU DIG A HOLE: Use your garden hose to lay out various shapes for the pond. Keep in mind that fish and plants need room to grow. The general misconception is that a small pond will be easier to maintain. Reality teaches us that small ponds become overgrown and overpopulated very quickly. Pre-fabricated “starter kits” are good for those that aren’t really sure about water gardening. Most people who start this way wind up building a larger pond sooner or later, so if you know you are serious, think in terms of medium to large instead of small. The same applies to depth. Fish experts use the two foot depth as a minimum requirement for fish to feel safe from predators. Deeper is better if you have concerns about losing your fish to birds, cats, raccoons, or other predators. For larger ponds (and larger fish) depths of four feet or more are better.
2. MAKE A SHELF: After you have dug the size and depth you want, dig a shallow shelf around the entire perimeter. This serves as a place to hide your liner from the harmful drying effects of the sun. Ponds constantly fluctuate in depth due to evaporation. No pond ever stays brim full unless fitted with a float valve and water source to constantly refill it. If you do not have a shelf, the first few inches of liner will be exposed to the sun and eventually dry out and begin to crack. Liner material that is underwater or completely hidden from the sun will virtually last a lifetime. The shelf will provide a place for rocks, gravel, sand, and plants to hide and protect the liner. Shelves need only be a few inches deep and wide but can be several feet wide depending on choice of materials and the look desired. This shelf, when completed, will lend a nice natural look as the water level will tend to stay above the first layer of rock or gravel. It not only provides a nice place for bog plants but also provides habitat for smaller organisms and spawning areas for fish.
3.DON’T SKIMP ON THE LINER: Ponds can be made from many materials such as concrete, plastic, and fiberglass. However, EDPM liners have proven to last longer than any other materials to date. We recommend that no less than 45 mil liners be used. Although you can purchase a thinner liner (such as 20 mil) we find that 45 mil is basically puncture proof and free of maintenance. EDPM liners are sold in widths of 10′, 15′, 20′, ect., in 5′ increments. To easily determine what size liner you need, use the garden hose, rope, or a soft tape measure that will lay down in the contours of your hole. Measure the longest point by the widest point Be sure to give yourself about a foot of play on either side. Now straighten the hose and measure to your mark and you will have an accurate measurement. Go ahead and include any waterfalls or streambed’s in your measurement. It is highly desirable to have one solid piece of liner rather the attempting to splice on the waterfall just to save a few dollars. Although EDPM liners can be spliced, using the double sided sticky tape that is available is never as reliable as the heat treated factory splice. Nothing is worse than having a seam pull apart and having to go back and remove a ton of rock to repair it. Don’t skimp on the liner. Get the good stuff, pay a little extra if you need to and do it right the first time. You’ll be glad you did.
4.BEFORE YOU ADD WATER: Clean out any debris that may wear through or puncture the liner. If you have dug through gravel, rock, or if you are covering a rough surface such as concrete, you may want to put some padding under the liner as an extra precaution. Old carpet, carpet padding, or blankets work well for this. It’s a good idea to add some padding around natural stress points such as waterfalls or sharp drop offs.
Now spread out your liner, making any folds or tucks you need to conform as you go. Place a few bricks or rock on the corners to keep things in place until the water fills in. Sooner or later you will want to know just how many gallons of water is in your pond. The easy way to do this is by timing how long it takes to fill a five gallon bucket then put the hose in your pond and fill it at the same rate of flow. Next divide the time it took to fill the pond by the time it took to fill the bucket. That number times five will give you the exact number of gallons your pond will hold.
5. DON’T SKIMP ON THE PUMP: The faster your pump recycles the water in your pond, the cleaner your water will be, the more oxygen will be available to fish and other organisms, and the less floating algae you will have. A 1200 gph (gallons per hour) pump should be about right for a medium sized pond of 800 to 1600 gallons. More is better in this situation. If you want to mimic those beautiful babbling brooks we find in nature, don’t be afraid to crank up the pump volume. Cheap pumps do not operate as efficiently or last as long as the more expensive brands. Once again we find that most people who start out with a smaller pump wind up stepping up to the larger size when the first one fails.
6. FILTERS CLOG UP: The smaller the filter the faster it will need to be cleaned. Also the finer the media used in that filter, the quicker it will clog up. Some of the better man made systems work exactly like swimming pool skimmers and will help keep the surface free of floating objects, but even these need to be cleaned regularly to function properly. The best filters are those that use natural and sustainable components. Think again of those babbling brooks and clear streams. Here we find fast moving, highly oxygenated water tumbling over rocks and gravel. Also found in this habitat is a highly diverse food chain from the microscopic to the larger plants, fish, crustaceans, that act as a living filter to clean the water of silt and organic matter. This system works as well as any man made filter and is virtually self sustaining. If done properly, these bog and creek systems work wonderfully without constant cleaning or replacing material. In fact some folks that live in the country are actually using these systems instead of septic tanks for household sewage. Some of the major cities in Texas have set up bog systems to recycle and purify drinking water. Others are beginning to look into it. It’s more cost effective to let nature do the work.
7.MAKE BEDS FOR POND PLANTS: Instead of placing plants in pots and facing the inevitable task of wrestling those heavy containers out to divide your plants, consider making gravel beds for your plants. This idea works in well when you are building your perimeter shelves. Simply make some parts of the shelf a bit deeper and wider and you have a perfect place to put bog plants. This method not only looks more natural but also provides easy access when it comes time to dig and divide. Likewise you can use some rock and gravel in deeper water for lilies and underwater plants such as milfoil. It is not necessary to add soil to these beds as the plants extract all the minerals and nutrients they need from the water thereby adding to the natural filtration process.
8.ENCOURAGE DIVERSITY: As soon as your pond is built, the first thing you will notice is that things like frogs and snails suddenly appear. Birds, insects, and all sorts of four legged critters seem to come out of nowhere to have a drink and perhaps some dinner. Ponds go way beyond just plants and fish. You are creating a tiny ecosystem that should contain all the same life forms as any natural pond. You hear experienced ponders speak of “balance.” This balance occurs when enough of the tiny microbes that we can’t see have established themselves and the links in the food chain begin to occur. Until this balance is achieved, your water may be cloudy and turn all sorts of colors. This can be discouraging to beginners. The balancing process can be sped up if you will take the time to insure that your pond gets off to a good start by including life forms other than fish. A look under the magnifying glass will reveal that a single drop of water from a natural pond or lake contains many tiny creatures that live unnoticed to the naked eye. Because our drinking water is sterilized with chlorine, none of these creatures will come through using tap water to fill our ponds.
Take a net on your next visit to the lake and do some searching in the shallow water. You’ll find snails, mollusks, tadpoles, insect larvae, fresh water shrimp, and small minnows just to name a few of the myriad creatures that live there. Put these in a bucket to add to your home pond and you will greatly increase the diversity. Just the lake water itself will contain protozoa, plankton, and diatoms. These tiny critters feed on algae and tiny bits of organic matter, all of which will serve to clear your water. Be advised that in doing this there is a very slight risk of picking up something that could be harmful or something you really didn’t want (such as the golden algae strain). If that concerns you or if a field trip is not your thing, then you can purchase beneficial microbes and other natural products at any good pet store or garden center. Even if you do make the trip to the lake, it doesn’t hurt to purchase these things to be assured that you have plenty of the “good guys” on hand to offset the “bad guys.”
9.SHADE OUT THAT ALGAE: First of all be aware that green algae is not a bad thing. It is in fact very healthy and a necessary part of the food chain. Every creature that lives in water eats algae or eats something else that eats algae. The only problem with algae and water gardening is that algae (the floating type) turns the water green and algae (the stringy “green slime” type) gets on everything to the point of obstructing our view.
Algae is a plant and the more sunlight it receives, the faster it grows. The less light it receives the slower it grows. It’s just that simple! Whoever started the myth that backyard ponds should be placed in all day sunlight probably never really had a pond or they really liked the looks of algae. Shade, whether it be from a tree. an arbor, or the pads of your water lilies is the easiest way to reduce algae growth. Be careful (or stay clear) of products that claim to kill algae because you could kill all your other plant life or even your fish if used incorrectly. If you’ve followed the advice already given here, floating algae should never be a problem because you’ve already built an ecosystem that will keep it in check. The stringy type will not be as problematic either as you will have snails, tadpoles, and other critters in there feeding on it. If it does get out of hand you can always get a stiff brush with a long handle and scrub it off. Meanwhile, think shade.
10.DON”T FEED’EM TOO MUCH: Yes I’m aware that there are all sorts of fish foods and aquatic plant foods on the market (and I’m probably gonna get in trouble with certain friends for saying this……but). If you follow these steps you will have built a pond that should be capable of sustaining itself with very little outside help. Don’t fertilize your plants and they will have to get what they need from the water, helping you keep it clear. Feed fish sparingly and they will supplement their diet with string algae, insects, and insect larvae.
Your goal in all this is to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells while you learn the lessons that nature will show you as you observe your pond and surrounding habitats. Enjoy!!!!
Wichita Valley Nursery