September 2016: Creating a Pond for Backyard Wildlife

~by Virginia Rhys-Anson


A refreshing oasis is the backyard pond, for human and for animal. A backyard pond can be as simple as a rain barrel or as elaborate as a cascading waterfall. Regardless of its size, cardinals, swallowtail butterflies, damselflies, frogs, and squirrels will relish a dip and a sip. While the main focus of a pond is the benefit of the critters that visit your yard, be a bit selfish and admit that you would relish the chance to enjoy it as well by relaxing with a cup of tea on the patio.

Although it will take a bit of planning—thus the publishing of this column in fall instead of spring—a backyard pond needn’t be difficult to create. Its location should be such that it enhances the landscape while being elevated enough to allow for overflow drainage away from the pond—and the house. Under a tree is not the best option. Such placement readily encourages algae growth, and pond plants typically prefer sun. The landscape surrounding the pond can be designed to benefit the myriad of insects and animals that may visit and your esthetic eye.

If a rain barrel—container—pond fits your desire and, perhaps, space constraints, the list of supplies is short. More importantly, it is simple to construct. Such a space efficient pond requires only a liner, a pump for aeration, water, and a plant or two.

The pond will, logically, need to hold the water. There are a couple of liner choices—pre-formed and a vinyl liner. Pre-formed, rigid plastic liners can simply be plopped into the hole that you will dig to accommodate the pond. Of course, the hole needs to be large enough for the liner to fit and deep enough that it does not ride above the surface.

With the perfect location chosen, construction is upon us. Timing is an issue. It would be pert near impossible to dig through frozen ground and wet soil would be much too soggy. Choose a time that circumvents both conditions.

Perhaps with a heavy rope or landscaper’s spray chalk, lay out the perimeter of your pond and dig the hole that will become hours of aquatic enjoyment. A depth of 18 inches to 36 inches (or varied depths within these parameters) is a good choice. The depth may partially depend on the plants that you intend to use.

Rid the hole of any rocks or sharp objects that could puncture the liner. Tis now time to install the liner. So a tid bit about liners.

Although a pre-formed liner is a viable option, if you wish to be more creative with your design, a flexible, pliable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) liner material is likely the better choice. However, a bit of research is advisable. Liner material that is toxic or breaks down quickly would obviously be a poor choice. Even though you were extremely diligent at removing any rocks or other sharp objects from the pond hole, opt for thicker liner material, as it will not be as prone to puncture holes. A good nursery should be able to advise you. Of course, you may also consider a cement liner.

It would be very frustrating to run out of liner material before the pond base is completely covered. As a guideline, determine the maximum depth of the pond and multiply this figure by 3. Add this calculated number to the length and to the width.

Spread the liner inside the hole. You needn’t be overly rigid in the installation. A few drapes or sags may add a hint of character. Once installed, anchor the edge with a few rocks or maybe bricks. These are not, at this point, permanent. Decorating will come later.

Now slowly start filling the liner with water and allow it to settle in. Once settled, remove the rocks or bricks holding the edges down and smooth it out.

The fun now starts with the rocks, stones, or other edging you have chosen to decorate the edges of the pond. Let your imagination flow freely until you have the look that is perfect. The pump and filter can now be installed. Allow the pond to sit for a few days to allow the chlorine to dissipate before you introduce plants—and fish is you so choose. Perhaps now might be a decent time to go plant shopping.

Let’s talk plants. Water tolerant plants—emergent, submergent, and floating—are, logically, the choice. The Backyard Conservation pamphlet, “Backyard Pond,” offers suggestions for each type.

Emergent plants, whose roots remain underwater but whose shoots extend above the surface include cattails, arrowhead, and water lilies. Submergent plants—like elodea—as their name indicated, live submerged underwater. They tend to filter the water while adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide. Floating plants, you guessed it, float on top of the water. Should you choose a rain barrel type pond, a floating plant or two may be sufficient. Their ability to block the water partially of sunlight also helps keep algae in check and, thus, keeps the water clear. Such plants as duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinths work well as floaters. As a cautionary note, the latter two may create a weed issue in southern latitudes. When choosing plants, consider the water’s depth, the amount of sunlight it receives, the pond’s size, and whether the pond will remain functional year round or will be drained during the winter months.

Planting in pots is preferable—and probably necessary—for emergent and submergent plants. Although potting soil with peat moss is not recommended, pots can be filled with topsoil. Fill about halfway with topsoil and place the plant on top of the soil. Finish filling the pot to within about one inch of the top. Top with gravel to hold the soil in the pot. Place the plant at your chosen location in the pond by submerging it slowly so as not to dislodge the soil.

Floating plants are merely placed on top of the water. Bear in mind that the rule of thumb is to limit the coverage of the water’s surface to between 50% and 70%.

If you wish to introduce fish, it is, as with plants, preferable to go native. Fish help to keep insects in check. Algae control can be further aided with tadpoles and water loving snails.

Although algae can be an issue when a pond is first created, it should become less so once the pond is balanced such that the needs of the plants are appropriately met and the amount of sunlight is kept at a level that inhibits excel algae growth. Pond filters and floating plants assist in keeping algae growth within realistic limits.

Occasionally, you may need to remove dying plant bits. Spring would be a good time to also get rid of some (but not all) of the decaying remnants from the bottom of the pond. A thorough cleaning is not necessary, as this could create an unhealthy ecosystem for the pond.

A tidbit about safety. When cleaning or replacing a filter, be sure to turn off the pump. Always keep a close eye on children.

Now sit back, sip that cup of tea (or coffee or glass of lemonade), and enjoy your pond and the wildlife that it attracts.

Much of the information contained in this column is courtesy of a pamphlet entitled “Backyard Pond,” which is published as a cooperative project by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Association of Conservation Districts, and the Wildlife Habitat Council.

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Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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