10 Best Garden Pond-Building Practices

When I built a small garden pond, I purposely did so "on the fly," cracking open exactly zero books on pond-building and subjecting myself to exactly zero YouTubes.  I know my propensity for getting snarled in details, spending sunny afternoons reading books about pond building rather than digging.  I began the old-fashioned way:  not with an app but with a shovel.

But by approaching this fluidly and organically--euphemisms for "without planning"--this became a summer-long project...MORE fraught with mistakes.  All mistakes I was able to catch beforehand or address retroactively.

I don't recommend this as the best approach, unless you have limitless time and money.  In the end, though, I've got a hole filled with water and it looks pretty good.  Here are the 10 best things you can do when putting in that garden pond.

  • 01 of 10

    The Pond Is Only as High as its Lowest Point

    Japanese Style Garden Pond 157913682
    Japanese Style Garden Pond. Getty / BasicB

    All sides--the entire perimeter--need to be exactly the same height.

    Because "exact" is not possible, then think in terms of tolerances.  If your chosen height is 3 feet, you want the perimeter's deviation from that height to be as little as possible--perhaps an inch.

  • 02 of 10

    Try Your Best Not To Be a Slave To The Pond Liner

    Man Made Pond In Fall
    Man Made Pond In Fall. © Lee Wallender

    EPDM rubber pond liners are expensive.  Budget at least $1 per square foot.  In a project where you're dealing with a lot of free or low-cost materials such as rock, concrete slabs, retaining wall blocks and of course, water, spending upwards of $250 for a sheet of glorified rubber sounds like a lot.

    The size of the liner dictates the eventual size of the pond.  And while I still believe that this is a good idea if money is a concern, the flip side is that this is a long-term feature you are adding to your home. 

    I often preach that it's worth putting a little extra into high-visibility, long-term projects.  So it may be worth throwing in extra money to advance to a larger pond liner.

  • 03 of 10

    Be Aware That Shape Nuances Don't Carry Over To Final Look

    Backyard Garden Pond with Waterfall 173863536
    Backyard Garden Pond with Waterfall. Getty / Happy Trails Photography by CJMcKendry

    When excavating, I spent countless hours creating delicate curves and angles in the pond walls, gradation, and tiers.  I wanted the pond to have not just a bland kidney or oval shape, but one with many graceful nuances. 

    As it turns out, the initial shape will get softened, uncurved, obliterated with each subsequent process.  Adding underlayment, liner, rocks in the pond as well as rocks along the bank:  all of that will obliterate those nice, little nuances you built into the shape.

  • 04 of 10

    You Get More Value From Shallow Ponds Than From Deep Ones

    Garden Pond With Shallow Bottom 72195623
    Garden Pond With Shallow Bottom. Getty / Peter Anderson

    The deeper, the better?  Not necessarily.

    As the pond gets deeper, the bottom becomes less visible.  All of this nice rock cannot be seen.  Fish might tuck themselves away, hidden.

    Deeper also means purchasing more pond liner.

    Shallow ponds let you see decorative rocks on the bottom; keep those fish up where you can see them; and better-dissipate any submersible lights you may install.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Work a Top Spillover Drain Into The Design

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    Garden Pond with Lilies. Getty / Mark Winwood

    Death and taxes are certain.  One other thing:  your pond spilling over.

    If you live in a place that rains, you will have a rainy day that overflows your pond.  If you live in Palm Springs, you might not have rain but you still may forget that the hose is running when you go out for coffee.  Result:  spillover.

    Rather than having the pond spill over and race towards your house foundation, make a predictable spillover point so that water can go to a safe spot.

  • 06 of 10

    Avoid Making Walls Too Tall, Too Vertical

    Rock the Pond Walls
    Rock the Pond Walls. © Lee Wallender

    The more vertical and tall the walls, the harder job you will have when you "rock" the pond.  Unless you're building a wall, rock doesn't stand up vertically very well.  To do so, you need to build ever wider bases, which means buying more rocks.

    In this image, the walls get too high on the right-hand side, creating the need for large rocks.  Large rocks are more costly, harder to handle, and don't look great when leaning up against your pond wall.

  • 07 of 10

    Install Permanent External Water Filter and Skimmer

    "Water filter here.  Hello?"

    Unless you make provisions for a permanent water filter mounted in your pond's wall--early in the building process--your only option for filtration is one of those floating filters.  They are unsightly, take of lots of water surface "real estate," and don't do a good job.  Another option is skimming by hand.  In the end, you'll be happier installing a permanent filter.

  • 08 of 10

    Terrace Your Pond Bottom

    Terraced Garden Pond Bottom 131987797
    Terraced Garden Pond Bottom. Getty / Peter Anderson

    Terrace your pond bottom, much like those farming terraces seen in many Asian countries.  Think of stair risers and treads.  Keep each stair riser about 8" to 10" high.  Stair treads should be no less than 8" to 10".

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Protect Pond Bottom Against Burrowing Animals

    Lay Ground Hardware If You Have Burrowing Pests
    Lay Ground Hardware If You Have Burrowing Pests. © Lee Wallender

    Those annoying burrowing pests--groundhogs and moles--will find your pond.  If you have even the slightest problem with these cute, fuzzy creatures (grrr...), lay down hardware cloth as a base for your pond bottom before shoveling 2" to 3" of dirt over it.  Then underlayment and liner go on top of that.  If your sides are dirt, not retaining wall block, then you'll need hardware cloth on the sides, too.

  • 10 of 10

    Plan For "Rocking the Pond" Well In Advance; It's a Reality

    Garden Pond With Waterfall 155361692
    Garden Pond With Waterfall. Getty / Tim Abramowitz

    Every single square inch of pond liner must be covered up.  The reason is because even the best, most expensive pond liner is subject to the sun's punishing UV rays and will break down.  

    The way to protect against this is by covering up all of your liner with something permanent.  Suggested:  big rocks up the sides, river pebbles or smooth gravel on bottom, flat flagstones around the perimeter to hold down the liner.