Saturday, May 9, 2009

A backyard pond

I like 'informal' garden projects. I appreciate clipped boxwoods and yews, topiary, statuary, and symmetry, but formal gardening isn't MY style.

I'd read about ponds, but thought they were too complicated and costly. I considered including a birdbath or small fountain in a half-barrel, possibly even a tiered fountain, but never a pond.

Then a winter storm toppled a tall fir tree into my house a couple of years ago. Our homeowner’s insurance paid for repairing the roof and gutter, repainting, repairing the lifted concrete sport court, and cutting down the tree. Money was also allotted for stump removal and I chose to do that myself. Big mistake. I spent many hours digging down around that fir stump and chain-sawing through dinner-plate-sized roots and later grubbing those huge roots out of the ground. I ruined a couple of 20-inch chainsaw chains in the process because it’s impossible to remove all the dirt from tree rootsand dirt is murder on chains.

Tree roots lifted a portion of the 4-inch thick concrete sport court. Weight on the roots probably slowed the fall of the tree.
Another view from the back deck. The tree leaned into the house. It damaged the roof and gutter but the house wall held it up.

I enlisted a friend's small backhoe bucket to remove the broken concrete and the remaining 600-lb fir stump.

I displaced a lot of earth in the process.

Stump rotated in the hole. Note large roots (center, right) not yet removed.

The following summer, while the new concrete was being poured, I pondered filling the hole and planting another tree. However, more shade is not what my yard needed, and the idea for a pond began to gel.

The spot where the tree had stood was open and there were no leafy trees close bythat’s VERY important as far as pond maintenance is concerned. I made a simple drawing and showed it to my wife and read up on pond-building. I did some additional digging and smoothing to gain three feet of depth and created a three-foot-high dirt berm for the waterfall portion.

The hole left by the stump while I was still making up my mind.

I ordered two yards each of 8-inch, 2-inch, and 5/8ths-inch rock ($120 delivered to my driveway). When the rock arrived, I thought it was a bit much for my purposes. In the pictures, you’ll see larger brown rocks; those came from our vacation property.

The single largest expenditure was for the 14- by 20-foot rubber liner (about $280) and the pump was half that amount. I installed hard piping, but would use the flexible stuff if I had to do it over again. I laid carpet remnants and left-over vinyl from a kitchen remodel into the hole before placing the liner to prevent punctures.

Liner is laid into the hole and anchored in spots with rocks (sitting on carpet scraps). Pond filling with water.

I even took off my shoes as I straightened the liner. The prep work took the longest. Placing all the rocks and even building up the back rock berm went quickly. Filling the pond took a little over an hour. I estimate it holds 600 gallons of water and is approximately 10 feet across. Once the hole was ready, it took about a day to complete this project.

I didn't like the way the water flowed at first. It disappeared beneath the rocks in the flat portion of the waterfall, so I added a hypertufa trough (black, kidney-shaped item in the next photo) to direct most of the water over a smooth rock at the edge of the water. It worked well.

Hypertufa trough for bird-bathing. It stops the water from disappear-ing beneath the rocks at the bottom of the waterfall.

I added small shiny stones that I had collected in Montana to disguise the trough. The hypertufa is a blend of cement, sand, peat moss and a colorant on a piece of 1/2-inch spacing hardware cloth cut with snips and formed into the desired shape. It makes a nice bird bathing area when the water flows through it and I've seen an entire family of Robins bathing in it late last summer.

I’ve since added goldfish (28-cent “feeder” comets from a pet store) to eliminate mosquito larvae and a canna and variegated iris (from McLendon’s Hardware) to add height and a bit of green interest. The greenery dies back in winter but returns each spring. I didn’t want exotic (zone 9-10) plants that I’d have to overwinter indoors. I’ve seen baby goldfish hiding in the shallows, so I’ll add a clump of water lettuce this year to provide another place for the baby fish to hide (the fine root cluster hangs down into the water). It is a cheap plant, so I may not overwinter it.

My pond filter is simple: a $5 gray plastic storage box (40 half-inch holes drilled into the lid) from Wal-Mart, a $3 mesh laundry bag full of $4 porous red volcanic rocks (for maximum biologic surface area) inside the box and resting atop a plastic riser (modified milk crate) over the pump. Last year, my pond “bloomed” with green murky algae for a week and then cleared itself up.

I do have to skim off string algae on occasion and needles and cones from nearby firs on a bi-monthly basis (or oftener after high winds). My skimmer is a long-handled fine-mesh net ($18 at McLendon’s). All this might seem like a lot of work, but it only takes me about 20 minutes, (twice a month) for upkeep. That doesn't include the addition of water during the dog days of summer. The pump (Home Depot) is warranted for three years of continuous usage, we’ll see. It runs continuously and I haven’t really noticed an increase in my electric billprobably, in part, because we’ve switched over to cfl’s* for much of our home lighting.

Every morning I delight in the sight and sounds of my pond. The birds enjoy their baths and the goldfish have gotten used to me sitting pondside watching them. It is a pleasant place to relax and contemplate future projects. I'm thinking about adding lighting in future.

*cfl = compact fluorescent lamp

The finished pond as of last year. There will be another article on further pond improvements, including one on keeping sport court balls out of the water.
View showing the pond's backside 'wall' of boulders and gravel 'maintenance' path.


  1. that pond (and this entry) is so cool! I also think that the added bit about your childhood start to gardening along the side/in your profile is great.

    you don't have to update every pressure. you're doing a great job! you'll notice that when you write a new post, it gives you the option right under the text to fill in 'tabs' or 'labels.' these are the themes or content of your post, and you can label things like 'pond,' etc., and then if you post about the same topic again, they're linked and searchable together. ask Gin about this if my explanation is sketchy.

  2. Nice, very well, done.The pond looks great from my window... :)