How to Build a Garden Pond

Garden pond

cjmckendry / Getty Images

Overview
  • Total Time: 2 days - 4 wks, 2 days
  • Yield: One 8x10 ft., two-tier pond
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $400 to $2,000

Building a landscape pond is a great way to improve the aesthetic value of your property. As it turns out, it's also a fairly simple outdoor DIY, although there is a fair amount of manual labor involved. The good news is that, whenever you are performing your own labor rather than hiring others to do it, you have the potential to save a substantial amount of money. A pond you make yourself will generally cost half the amount of a professionally installed pond of equal size.

There are two primary methods for building a landscape pond: using a hard plastic liner shell or using a flexible liner. Flexible liners have several advantages, since they allow you to build a pond of whatever shape or size you want. In ideal circumstances, building a pond with a flexible liner is a matter of excavating a hole, cutting the flexible liner to size and installing it, then securing the edges with landscape stone and filling the pond with water. While the work can involve plenty of labor—digging, prying, cutting roots, and more—it's not very complicated, and almost anyone can do it. 

However, the project becomes more complicated the conditions in your landscape are not ideal. For example, if your building site has loose, sandy soil, the walls of your pond won't hold their shape and may collapse when people walk around the edges. The solution to this issue (and other structural ones like it) is to use concrete retaining wall blocks to shore up the sides of the excavation before the flexible liner is installed.

Choose a Flexible Liner

Building a pond is not extravagantly expensive, since most of the materials are relatively economical. However, you shouldn't try to save money by buying a cheap liner, since this is the most important element. Flexible pond liners are generally made from either PVC or EPDM (ethylene propylene diene, a synthetic rubber). PVC liners are best suited for smaller ponds, while EPDM is a better choice for larger ones.

The liners are typically sold in sheets that are 12 feet by 15 feet or larger, which means you'll need to cut it down to fit the shape and size of your pond. For very large ponds, it's possible to join two or more sheets together using the same taping and patching materials typically used to repair a pond. Better quality liners will use a thicker EPDM rubber—PVC liners are typically thinner, but make sure to choose a product with a thickness of at least 30 millimeters. 

Pond Building Tips

  • Check with your local permitting and planning departments to see if building permits are required (or if there are zoning restrictions) for this type of work. In some areas, protective fencing may be required around a yard with a pond. 
  • Before you begin digging, call your local utility locator. This free service will help you avoid gas, electrical, water, and other vital services when you dig.
  • Choose a dry time of year for this project, since excavating the ground will be easiest in dry, loose soil. Additionally, plan your work during times of the day when you have the most energy, and don well-worn work clothes.
  • Allow plenty of time for this project. Depending on the size of your plans, it may take you a month or more from start to finish to complete your pond.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Garden hose
  • Shovel or spade
  • Laser level
  • Long rope
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife or shears

Materials

  • Powdered chalk or flour
  • Concrete building blocks
  • Retaining wall blocks
  • Hardware cloth (optional)
  • Pond underlayment
  • Pond liner
  • Natural stones
  • River gravel or small smooth stone

Instructions

  1. Lay Out Pond Boundary

    Start by outlining your pond directly on the ground. The classic way to mark pond boundaries is with a garden hose because it naturally forms wide, gradual curves. If you wish, you can sprinkle flour or chalk dust around the hose to mark the edges of the pond.

    It's a fairly common mistake to undersize a landscape pond. Most experts recommend that a healthy, balanced pond with plants and fish should be a minimum of 50 square feet (a surface area of 10 feet by 5 feet, or an 8-foot diameter, if the pond is circular). The depth of a standard landscape pond should be 18 inches to 24 inches, although depths up to 32 inches are possible in very large ponds.

    Man laying out a pond boundary
    Lee Wallender
  2. Dig Pond Border

    Your next order of business is to dig out the pond border. Using a shovel or spade, make cuts in the ground following the boundary outline. For grass sod, it helps to use a spade, which allows you to make narrower cuts and slide the spade under the segmented turf to remove it. Once the edges of the pond clearly marked, you can remove the hose. 

    Man digging out the pond border
    Lee Wallender
  3. Excavate the Pond's Center

    After the pond perimeter has been established, the long work of excavating the earth from the center begins. To start, remove all dirt within the boundaries of the pond, down to the same depth th/at the border strip was excavated.

    Next, excavate down to the lowest point in your pond, wherever that that might be located (typically, this falls near the center of the pond). This helps you establish a baseline for your pond's depth, and no other part of the pond should be excavated deeper than this point. From the center, you can now begin excavating outward to the sides.

    Man digging out the center of a pond
    Lee Wallender
  4. Create Tiers

    As your excavation moves outward towards the sides of the pond, create flat-bottomed tiers, with each tier about 8 inches higher than the previous one. Concrete building blocks with 8-inch sides make perfect boundaries for these tiers. A perimeter of concrete blocks at each level will serve as a retaining wall to hold back the soil of the next higher tier of the pond.

    The goal is for your pond to "step up" as it approaches the sides. A large pond with a 24-inch center depth can have as many as three tiers, each bounded with a perimeter of 8-inch tall concrete blocks; smaller ponds may require just two. Keep the walls of the tiers relatively short, since this will simplify the later step of covering the blocks with rocks. By keeping the height of the tiers short, you can span the vertical distance with one or two rocks.

  5. Man creating graduated pond levels
    Lee Wallender
  6. Reinforce With Retaining Wall Blocks

    As you approach the edges of the pond, reinforce the perimeter of the last tier with retaining wall blocks laid over the concrete blocks. This is especially important if the building site has sandy, loose soil—these blocks will help maintain the pond's shape and height. Keep in mind, small retaining wall blocks give you better flexibility and are easier to work with.

    Man shoring up the pond walls with retaining wall block
    Lee Wallender
  7. Check For Level Frequently

    laser level is a highly valuable tool when building a pond. If you only own a bubble level (or no level at all), you should purchase a laser level, if only for this one project. It's critical to check the tiers and edges of the pond frequently to make sure they remain level and flat. A pond that is slightly off-kilter can't be filled to a uniform water level. 

    Device shooting pond level with laser level
    Lee Wallender
  8. Lay Hardware Cloth

    If your yard has burrowing animals, such as groundhogs or moles, eventually they may find their way to your pond and burrow upwards, piercing your expensive liner. To protect against this, purchase rolls of hardware cloth (1/4-inch grid) and lay it out over the entire base of the pond. Spread about at least 2 inches of dirt over the hardware cloth to cushion it.

    Man laying ground hardware
    Lee Wallender
  9. Measure For the Liner

    Pond liners are expensive, so it makes sense to wait until the excavation is complete to measure and buy a liner to fit the pond. The easiest way to do this is to use a rope to measure the pond in both directions. Begin by placing one end of the rope about 2 feet beyond the edge of the pond, then run the rope down into the pond, flush against the bottom of each tier, and up the other side of the pond, ending about 2 feet beyond the far edge. Use a tape measure to measure the rope to determine this dimension for the liner. 

    Take similar measurements for the perpendicular dimension of the pond. Unless your pond is irregularly shaped, these length and width measurements are all you need to buy a pond liner that's a sufficient size to cover your pond. 

    Man estimating liner size
    Lee Wallender
  10. Install Pond Underlayment

    Before installing the liner, lay down an underlayment to cushion and protect the liner from roots, rocks, and other objects that may damage it. Specialty pond underlayment is available from landscape supply stores, but you can also use pieces of old carpeting.

    Man handling and installing pond liner
    Lee Wallender
  11. Install Pond Liner

    With the help of a partner, fold your pond liner in half and lay it across the bottom of the hole. Then, unfold it so that it drapes over the sides of the pond. Be patient with this step as you slowly press the liner down onto the pond's bottom, creating folded pleats. While the bottom may have just a few pleats, all of the sides will be pleated. Don't worry about any pleats or wrinkles in the liner—they will hidden by later steps.

    Trim down the edges of the liner so that no more than 1 to 2 feet of liner hang over the side of the pond. Secure the edges of the pond liner with stones to hold it in place. 

    Man installing pond underlayment
    Lee Wallender
  12. Add Rock to Pond Walls

    Cover the side walls of the pond and each tier wall with natural stone. Start with large and medium-sized rocks, building up the sides until no pond liner is visible. After the walls are entirely covered, you can use smaller stones or smooth river pebbles to cover the entire bottom of the pond.

    Man rocking the pond walls
    Lee Wallender
  13. Fill With Water

    Fill your pond with water using a garden hose, keeping in mind that it may take several hours to fill the pond to its maximum level. If you plan to add plants or fish to your pond, make sure to follow recommended practice for the species you are using. This may include allowing the water to stabilize for a period of time, adding chemicals, or installing filtering equipment. 

    Man filling the pond
    Lee Wallender