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The ultimate garden ornament may just morph into your new hobby

Like flower gardens and other decorative plantings, an ornamental pond is an aspect of the natural world that we domesticate to fulfill aesthetic and spiritual impulses. Ancient Chinese civilizations refined the art of the decorative garden as a space for contemplation, where humanity is in harmony with the elements—and the pond remains a fundamental part of that tradition. Apart from the symbolic attributes of water, a pond offers infinitely varied visual effects, as it reflects the subtlest changes in light from the sky and all the hues of surrounding vegetation.

Like flower gardens and other decorative plantings, an ornamental pond is an aspect of the natural world that we domesticate to fulfill aesthetic and spiritual impulses. Ancient Chinese civilizations refined the art of the decorative garden as a space for contemplation, where humanity is in harmony with the elements—and the pond remains a fundamental part of that tradition. Apart from the symbolic attributes of water, a pond offers infinitely varied visual effects, as it reflects the subtlest changes in light from the sky and all the hues of surrounding vegetation.

Though the pond itself is usually seen to embody stillness, it is not entirely static, because the stirring of a single aquatic insect or a barely perceptible breeze will be magnified in its rippled surface. Part of what we find attractive is this contrast between the glassy calm and the animation of water in motion, so ponds are often built in combination with a fountain, a waterfall, or a stream.

Soothing sounds

In addition to creating a visual focal point, moving water serves the practical purpose of aerating the water, preventing the pond from becoming stagnant and choked with algae. Furthermore, the motion of water—gurgling, burbling, babbling, or vocalizing by some other onomatopoeic descriptor—creates its own soothing music. Some homeowners decide to build a pond primarily for these auditory effects. In areas with traffic noise as a constant background, or even in a quiet residential area where conversations in the backyard are too easily overheard among neighbours, the sound of running water can create a sense of peace and privacy.

For those who aspire to have a water garden that is low-maintenance but high-elegance, there are a couple caveats—although it is possible to develop an attractive pond that requires very little upkeep, it takes time. A healthy and natural-looking pond is a functioning ecosystem, but getting it in equilibrium demands some human intervention. Vegetation will establish and spread gradually, and for those who want their pond to support a population of interesting fish, creating the right balance may require a bit of trial and error. Bear in mind that when you see a photo of a beautiful pond, it’s probably one that has been established for years, so it has had time to naturalize.

Don’t be limited by space

It is possible get a taste of water gardening with a relatively simple and inexpensive project. Even an apartment dweller, whose space is limited to a veranda, can use an attractive barrel or a pot as a vessel for aquatic plants. Another possibility is a freestanding water feature such as a fountain—either a prefabricated unit, or a homemade design with a small pump submersed in a container. For those whose small space precludes digging a hole, there is the option of building an above-ground pond, which could be a wood or stone structure with a liner to hold water.

However, most people think of a pond as a depression in the ground—a place where water might naturally collect. For this reason, one of the common mistakes made by do-it-yourselfers is siting the pond in a low spot in the backyard. This is a bad idea because the pond will tend to overflow due to natural drainage, and also because the low spot may not be the place where you will get the most enjoyment from the pond. You probably want it close to the house, close to a patio or deck, so it will be seen and heard when you entertain friends or sit down to relax. Another consideration is the proximity of deciduous trees—because you don’t want to spend the autumn skimming leaves out of the water.

It’s important to understand that backyard ponds are very different from mud-bottom farm ponds, which are usually dug deep to capture a large volume of surface water for irrigation, watering livestock, or sometimes small-scale fin-fish aquaculture.

Choose your liner

Ornamental ponds, by contrast, tend to be smaller and shallower, with an impermeable liner to contain the water, and they can be located on high ground. Preformed liners made of rigid polyethylene are available in various shapes; for a modest pond these may be suitable, though they can be more challenging to install because the hole must be dug to match the shape of the liner. For a larger pond and greater creative freedom, choose a flexible liner, which will conform to any shape. The most common materials are PVC (polyvinyl chloride), or the more expensive EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), a synthetic rubber that offers greater durability. Liners come in rolls as wide as 20 feet, which, while very heavy, make it unnecessary to glue strips together, except for extremely large ponds.

With a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and some pretty substantial muscle power, it is feasible to dig a small pond by hand. But if the site allows access by compact excavation equipment, this can make the job a lot faster. In any case, a couple of feet is deep enough, or three to four feet if you want to overwinter fish. If it’s much deeper than that you won’t be able to see the bottom. Contouring the inside banks of the pond hole with shelves or ledges will allow for plantings at various depths.

If you are using a flexible liner, remember that its dimensions will have to be greater than the footprint of the pond, to account for the depth. (For example, if your pond is going to be six feet wide and eight feet long and two feet deep, you will need a 12-foot by 14-foot liner.) Many installers use an underlay fabric to protect the liner, or a layer of sand if there are rocks or roots that could cause punctures. Once the liner is in place, you should begin filling it with water gradually while pulling gently around the edges. This will minimize wrinkles in the liner—though it is impossible to eliminate all wrinkles, and for the most part they will be invisible once pressed flat by the weight of water. Rocks or patio stones placed on the ground all around the outside edge of the pond will cover the liner, while serving to anchor it securely. Excess liner material can be cut off, leaving some trim extending beyond the edge of the stones.

Pump power

Most people have some kind of electric pump installed and operated continuously to circulate the water in the pond and maintain its clarity. Some pumps are submersible, and others operate outside the pond in an enclosure out of sight. Check the ratings on various models and crunch the numbers to get one suitable for the volume of your pond. (One cubic foot is equal to about seven and a half gallons.) Filters and sterilizers are available as additional means of preserving water quality, and moving the water through these devises will require extra pump capacity. Still greater power will be needed if you want to pump water to a higher elevation so it will flow over a rock structure to create a waterfall effect. The same goes for an artificial stream, whereby water is pumped to a starting point some distance from the pond and returns via a lined channel covered in stones. In more elaborate designs, water may be pumped from one pond to another pond at a higher elevation, flowing through a spillway to a steam that leads back to the lower pond. In some cases two pumps may be involved. Whatever the setup, the idea is to hide the hoses amid rocks and vegetation, to create the appearance of a natural water feature.

Vegetation and fish

As for vegetation in and around the pond, there are numerous options. Irises and lilies are classics. Do some research and decide what suits your pond environment and your personal taste. Apart from their aesthetic value, plants play an important role in maintaining water quality by producing oxygen and taking up excess nutrients that support algae growth. Some aquatic plants grow in soil just slightly submerged, and this is why ledges or shelves in the pond are useful. Other varieties can be more deeply submerged, thriving in pots on the bottom of the pond. Then there are those that grow entirely underwater, and others that actually float. Having plants covering some portion of the water’s surface will shelter fish from predation while helping to keep the water cool, but if plants grow or propagate so prolifically that they nearly cover the entire water surface, thinning will be necessary. Aim for a mixture of plants, but go slowly so you can keep them in balance.

Similarly, fish play a part in aquatic ecosystems, and they bring a backyard pond to life, providing far greater entertainment value than the average reality television program. If you have filled your pond with municipal tap water, do not introduce fish until you have treated the water with a chemical solution to break down harmful chlorine or chloramine additives. Even then, introduce them gradually, with due consideration for growth, reproduction, and the compatibility of different types. Plain old goldfish are inexpensive and fairly forgiving in terms of their living environment. Koi, a Japanese carp, can be quite visually impressive and carry a little more prestige, but they require more space because they can grow to a length of two feet or more.

Fish can overwinter in a pond as long as the water does not completely freeze—which can be achieved with powerful circulation or with a small floating disc heater. Because their metabolism slows to a crawl in winter, fish do not need to be fed at this time. (Some people who have small ponds actually overwinter their fish in a plastic storage tote in a cool place like the basement or the garage.) If fish thrive in your pond, you could end up with too many, which will compromise their health and diminish overall water quality. One rule of thumb is an inch of fish per square foot of pond surface area. If you ever need to reduce their numbers, give a few fish to a fellow pond owner, but do not release them into the wild—because it’s illegal to introduce invasive species that can be detrimental to native fish populations.

To keep things simple for first-timers, kits are available that include all the equipment you need for a basic pond, ranging in price from about $1,500 for a smallish one about eight feet by 11 feet, up to $3,500 for one that is 21 by 26 feet. Additional expenses include the cost of sand and rocks, plants and fish, and any ornaments you may want to add. If you have the pond installed by one of the many landscaping companies that offer this service, you could easily spend a couple thousand dollars for labour. Some say the investment is roughly on a par with getting a hot tub. The difference is that a pond offers not just relaxation but also an ongoing learning experience, and even an artistic outlet.

Sure, it is possible to have a low-maintenance pond, but be aware that water gardening has an addictive quality. You may start out with a simple project, then find you can’t resist expanding it. If you indulge the urge to add another water feature, more plantings, some lighting, or different fish, there is a risk that this could become a hobby. Of course, you can have it both ways, enjoying hours of tranquility at the water’s edge while contemplating how to refine your pond design for next year.

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