Build a Backyard Pond

Miniature tabletop fountains offer a taste of the ways a trickle of water can enhance the ambience of a small space. But if you're thirsty for more, this life-size pond and stream provide ample opportunities to savor the sounds of falling water and the sparkle of a pool's reflections — even in the smallest city lot.

Not up for a big-budget, full-time project? That's OK. The manageable size of this garden centerpiece makes it easy to build and maintain. Because it doesn't support aquatic life, there's no need to continually run a pump, so it uses less electricity than eco-system water features. And don't fret about wasting water: When it's time to freshen the pond, use the pump to spray the stale water on garden plants and refill the pond with a fresh batch.

Fortunately, this project does not demand a sloping terrain; the soil excavated from the pond area will create a mound for the falling stream. When selecting an ideal spot, follow these guidelines:

  • Check local codes for minimum setbacks and to verify that no permits are required.
  • Choose a location that allows you to see and hear the water from your deck or patio (and possibly through an open window when you're inside the house).
  • Avoid a location directly beneath trees that drop flowers, leaves and other debris.
  • Call the national hotline number 811 to have underground utilities marked before you settle on a spot.

When it comes to planning your pond's design and organizing for the big dig, the project will go more smoothly if you follow these tips for choosing and assembling supplies:

  • Visit local garden centers and rock suppliers to see tile and stone options. The pond shown is lined and bordered with 4 x 4 x 1-1/4-in. granite tiles.
  • Find out about delivery of compactable gravel, sand and stone. For the stream and falls, choose regional rocks of various types and sizes. (Tip: Order more rocks than you think you'll need; you can't have too many.)
  • Gather all of the supplies so they're on site when you begin work.
  • Enlist one or two strong helpers to save time and energy (yours).

Once everything is in place, you can dig into the project. Although the physical labor is demanding, the steps are fairly straightforward. Plan to spend two weekends (or more) for the four stages: forming the pond, creating the pump chamber, finishing the surfaces with tile, and building the stream and falls. The drawings help to illustrate the design.

Four basic steps

1. POND: To start the pond, we excavated an area approximately 4 x 6 ft. and 12 to 14 in. greater than the final depth (piling soil to one side). We lined the hole with layers of gravel, sand and concrete (as shown here).

2. PUMP CHAMBER: To house the submersible pump, we dug a hole adjacent to the pond and then lined it with concrete and coated it with a waterproofer.

3. TILES: We allowed the concrete basin and chamber to cure for seven days, and then we added the tile. For the pond floor and all of the edge caps, we set granite tiles into a bed of wet mortar, allowing excess mortar to ooze up and fill the gaps (essentially acting as grout) between tiles.

4. STREAM AND FALLS: After trenching the water tube in the mound of soil, we formed the streambed, covered it with pond liner and added the ledge stone and rocks. Water from the pump flows through a 1/2-in.-dia. hole that we bored into a large rock and then it cascades to the pond.

Finishing touches
Embellish the setting with plants that suit your hardiness zone and the sun/shade requirements. This is an ongoing, fun part of the project.

If you live in a cold-weather climate, drain the pond and remove the pump before winter; then cover the pond, stream and pump chamber with a tarp (propped up so it won't sag or hold ice) until spring.

Large boulders were carefully chosen for their shapes and colors. Although they are exceedingly heavy, the results are worth the extra labor. Impressive boulders add heft and natural appeal, whereas too many small stones can create a cluttered feel.

This water feature is just one configuration; you can easily customize the project. In any size and style of yard, a garden pond provides an enchanting spot where you'll look forward to sipping your coffee on a cool morning and dipping your toes during a hot afternoon.