How to Build a Small Waterfall

Image of a small waterfall made with natural rock.
Photo: small waterfall, step-style, using natural rock. I have left part of the rim of the pond liner visible for purposes of illustration, but you would hide this later with stones and/or plants. David Beaulieu
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 days
  • Yield: 1 waterfall
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $200 to $300

Small waterfalls can have a large impact on your outdoor space. Many homeowners can benefit from building these structures themselves, as opting to DIY allows you to customize a look that flows naturally with the landscape of your backyard. These features can create an outdoor oasis with the calming sounds of trickling water—plus, when you build a small waterfall with rocks, the cost is minimal as well.

Homeowners can gather natural rocks from their local area or purchase rocks from a home improvement or garden store. You can build a low-cost waterfall using 25 to 30 medium-sized rocks, or opt for a simpler design using a series of steps (that is, rock ledges). The water cascades down these steps on its way to the pond, and the top step serves as a covering to hide the plumbing. By limiting the number of steps to three, you'll only need three large, flat rocks plus a few smaller rocks to use as spacers.

Here, learn how to build small waterfalls in your outdoor space in just one weekend.

Before You Begin

It's important to determine a location for your waterfall before building it. If you already have a pond in your yard, these features can work together. However, homes without existing ponds will require some digging to properly install the waterfall with a liner. Ensure the waterfall is close enough to a GFCI outlet for the pump to get power.

Choose your liner before digging the hole. Once you've decided on the size, shape, and depth needed, you can begin digging out the liner's location with a shovel to build the pond. Measure your liner carefully and use measuring tape to ensure the hole is level and the liner is fully supported by the ground underneath.

Warning

If you're installing a waterfall without an existing pond, choose a location for the liner of your waterfall that is not close to any mature trees. Tree roots can spread several times further than the size of the tree's canopy, and it's easy to accidentally hit a large root when digging the waterfall's pond hole.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 hose or bucket
  • 1 shovel (if installing base pond)
  • 1 pair of scissors

Materials

  • 1 pre-formed pond liner
  • 25 medium rocks (or 3 large, flat rocks and 6 medium rocks)
  • 2 bricks
  • 1 cinder block
  • 1 pond pump
  • 10 foot pump tubing (trim length based on needs)

Instructions

  1. Sink the Pond Liner

    If you're installing a waterfall feature on an existing pond, skip to Step 2.

    Sink your pond liner into the hole. The liner should be rigid, durable, and made of an outdoor-safe material.

  2. Build the Stone Base

    Next, build up a base for the natural stones. The rocks will hide the base of the water feature, so it does not matter if the material you use is attractive. We recommend placing two bricks at the bottom, then adding a cinder block on top of the bricks.

  3. Build the First Step (Or Medium-Rock Formation)

    With the base in place, begin working with the natural stone.

    If you're using three large, flat rocks, lay the first "step" on top of the cinder block. These rocks should be preferably rectangular or oblong in shape.

    If you're using medium-sized rocks to construct the waterfall, start with a layer of rocks at the bottom and carefully stack them on top of each other until the rocks cover the base entirely. Ensure the rocks are stacked at an outward angle (with the bottom being farthest from the base) to ensure water flows freely down to the pond. Skip to Step 6.

  4. Add Spacers

    On each end of the first step, place a medium-sized rock that will serve together as spacers (these will separate one step from the next). 

  5. Build the Next Steps

    Lay the second step across the spacer rocks. The first step should stick furthest out over the surface of the pond, while the third step will recede the farthest back. The second step should comfortably fit in the middle.

    Repeat to create the third step.

  6. Adjust the Angle

    There is no need to make your rocks perfectly level—you're dealing with natural materials, so imperfections are normal. However, as you lay the rocks and "play around" with how they are situated, adjust the angle to tilt forward slightly. This will direct the cascading water into the pond.

  7. Fill the Pond

    Next, fill the pond with water, ensuring it doesn't spill over the edges.

  8. Install the Pump

    Install the pump at the bottom of the pond and plug it in. You will need to have a GFCI outlet nearby.

  9. Attach the Tubing

    Attach tubing to the pump, then snake the tubing underneath the bricks and behind the cinder block. Now, you can easily pull the excess tubing up out of the water.

    Pull the tubing up to the third (top) step, then snake it through an opening of your choice. Insert the tubing underneath the top step, where it will be housed out of view.

    Ensure the tubing points outward toward the front of the waterfall: This is where the water source for the feature will begin.

  10. Secure and Cut Excess Tubing

    Jam a small rock in under the third step in a way that secures the end of the tubing right where you want it. Once your tubing is tightly in place, cut any additional tubing to your preferred length using scissors.

  11. Turn On to Test

    Turn the pump on to test your small waterfall. Adjust as necessary until you are happy with your cascade. Use any leftover rocks (or plants) to hide the base, the electrical cord for the pump, and any other features you'd prefer not to show. Your new waterfall should be working properly at this step.

How to Add Plants to Waterfall Ponds

What should you plant in and around the pond that the waterfall will spill into? First, distinguish between two types of plants commonly used for small waterfalls and other outdoor water features: 

  • Truly aquatic plants: Grow aquatic plants directly in the pond's water. An example is the water lily. This species is a great option for beginners creating water gardens. For a natural look, it's also helpful to grow plants in the ground around the pond's edges.
  • Plants that tolerate growing in wet soil: If the surrounding soil becomes wet due to spray from your fountain, it's best to grow plants suited to wet conditions. These plants can grow in soil with above-average moisture levels. Opt for plants to grow in wet areas for best results. Many of these are native to the northeastern United States, however, there are additional backyard pond plant varieties that may be suitable in your region. Always choose plants that can grow in your area's temperature range, humidity level, and within the same sunlight exposure of your pond's specific location.

Tip

Technically, there is a third type of plant that falls between these two categories, known as a "marginal" plant. An example is the papyrus plant: This plant should not be placed in deep water, but it can grow at the edges (or margins) of a pond in shallow water. For a small water feature like backyard waterfalls, you may not have space to incorporate marginal plants.

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