Arthur has been an online writer for over four years. His articles often focus on DIY home projects.
My Wildlife Pond Experience
I’ve had a wildlife pond in my back garden for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve replaced it four times for something grander; with the occasional makeover in between.
This article describes my journey from our first humble pond to our latest adventure incorporating water features, including a birdbath and the newest technologies in pond lighting.
Our First Pond
Our first wildlife pond was just a small 18-inch deep hole at the top of the garden, lined with sand and PVC pond liner with a few oxygenating plants.
With the exception of potatoes, we are self-sufficient in growing all our own vegetables in our back garden organically. The wildlife pond plays an important role by encouraging wildlife to help combat garden pests naturally.
In this respect our first pond was a great success; to my surprise and delight frogs and newts colonised the pond within weeks of its construction. I was confident the pond would attract the frogs (they’re quite common in gardens), but newts in the middle of a city was a bit more of a surprise. I guess someone, somewhere, in the neighbourhood has a pond where the newts breed.
The issues with the first pond were:
- It was only small (experimental) and made in an hour.
- It was at the top of the garden where we couldn’t appreciate the beauty and wonders of the water and the wildlife.
Therefore, the following year, I made a new bigger pond in our patio next to the vegetable plot and landscaped it with marginal plants, including water irises. Once made, I gradually emptied the original pond (bucket by bucket), transferring the wildlife to their new home.
Pond Three (Pre-moulded)
The main problem with the second pond was that the water irises became invasive within a few years.
Therefore, I dug up all the water irises and transferred all the wildlife to buckets while I fitted a pre-moulded plastic pond in the space. Then, rather than the marginal plants, I landscaped a low-profile wall around the back and one side of the pond and made a small rockery for alpine plants.
The only plants I reintroduced into the pond were a small variety pond lily and the oxygenating plants.
First Major Makeover (Water Features)
The third pond proved extremely successful, with few issues. So after a few years, I dug a reservoir next to the pond and experimented with various water features.
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The wildlife pond was primarily for the benefit of the organic vegetable garden. The water features were primarily for our benefit as a tranquil focal point when having a BBQ with friends or relaxing on the patio.
After 12 years since making my first pond, and having experimented with water features, I was ambitious and confident enough to make a grand pond incorporating water features and lighting.
The pond took up most of the width of the patio and extended back to the boundary. I left access down the side of the pond to the back of the greenhouse, recycling an old garden iron gate as a decorative barrier.
Switching From Plastic to Rubber Pond Liners
This time, rather than using PVC, I lined the new pond with rubber pond liner. Having used it, I would recommend it to anyone thinking of designing and making their own pond.
Although rubber pond liner is more expensive than plastic PVC, the main advantages of using runner are its:
- Folds easier, to make it look tidy
- Will stretch to give natural curves in the design
Apart from solar powered garden lights (which I’m not a mad fan of), the most suitable pond lighting at the time included submersible waterproof halogen pond lights. They run off the mains power (via a transformer) and are designed to look like rocks; the lights came with a set of interchangeable lenses in a range of colours, red, green, blue and yellow.
Water Features and Lighting in Our Old Pond
The following year, while keeping most of the water features as they were, I did a makeover of the vegetable plot wall adjoining the pond. To create a more natural waterfall, instead of water spouting from the top of the wall, I faced it with natural stones, and re-routed the pipe from the pump to exit from behind the top of stones.
In Need of Another Makeover
Over the past seven years the latest pond has served me well, it’s provided:
- A natural breeding ground for frogs and newts, which are good for organic gardening, and
- With the water features and lighting, a tranquil and aesthetically pleasing backdrop when using the patio for leisure.
However, there were some issues that needed addressing, and which prompted me into doing the latest makeover:
- Frogs had contaminated the pond with duckweed, brought in on their backs from a neighbouring pond; and not for the first time.
- Foxes had taken to the habit of chewing the switches on the switch unit for the pond pumps and lighting, and
- Foxes had pulled up and damaged the cabling for the pond lighting while rummaging through the pebbles at the back of the pond hunting for snails; and at the same time damaged one of the water features.
- Also, through natural settlement of the newly built boundary wall a small crack had formed which, although not a structural issue can be a little visually distracting.
Tap Water vs. Bottled Water
Tap water can be used for topping up ponds during the summer months, but rain water is preferable as tap water is too rich in nutrients; which helps to feed the duckweed.
It amazes me how some people spend a small fortune on bottled water, or even waste time filtering tap water; when to all intent and purposes, tap water is mineral water. In fact, in the EU tap water is guaranteed to be at least as healthy as bottled if not healthier. The EU regulations governs that tap water passes 57 tests; whereas bottled water only needs to pass 13 of those tests.
The only real difference between tap water and bottle mineral water is that tap water includes Chlorine, and fluoride which is good for the teeth. Chlorine, as most people who have ponds will know, dissipates within the hour of being exposed to the air.
Some people who keep bottled water in the fridge claim they can tell the difference; but if you put a jug of tap water in the fridge, then there is no real difference.
Issues and Remedies
Previous ponds in my garden have twice been infected by duckweed brought in by frogs from ponds in neighbouring gardens. Each time I was able to eradicate it by:
- Waiting for the pond to freeze over during the winter months, breaking the ice and removing it along with the trapped duckweed, and
- Then diligently removing every single duckweed leaf daily for the next couple of months.
For smaller ponds that can work fine, but for larger ponds it’s a lot more problematic; especially these days with milder winters when the pond doesn’t freeze over very often.
Therefore this time, I introduced a colony of water snails a couple of years ago that love munching on duck weed. Now the colony is well established they are having some effect but the duckweed grows far quicker than they can consume it.
I could probably introduce fish to feed on the duckweed, that would almost certainly resolve the problem; but it’s a wildlife pond. Fishponds and wildlife ponds are two different beasts requiring distinctly different disciplines for maintenance and care.
Duckweed, which grows exponentially, and can smother a pond within weeks if left unchecked, feeds on nitrogen and other nutrients in the pond. Water snails can help reduce these nutrients by feeding on the natural pond waste; but they can’t do it all on their own.
Tap water, which is often used to top up ponds during the summer months (to compensate for evaporation) is mineral water and therefore only serves to feed the duckweed. Therefore, in the makeover I will be looking to divert rainwater from the roof of the nearby garden shed to the pond; as a natural means for keeping it topped up during the summer months.
Although foxes are a welcome guest to the garden (with snails being a main part of their diet, helping with organic gardening) their discriminate rummaging around the back of the pond and chewing on switches is not so welcome.
Therefore, as part of the makeover I will be:
- Erecting a fence on the vegetable plot garden wall above the pond; to discourage the foxes from going around the back.
- Installing a new switch box that can’t so easily be chewed on, and
- Using plastic trunking for all exposed electrical cabling.
Although most of the initial settlement will be complete, there’s likely to be some minor movement with the seasons and climate. Nevertheless facing the wall with rendering will give it a new lease of life, and the rendering should be flexible enough to give with any minor movements.
Wildlife vs. Fishponds
As an organic gardener, and one who is self-sufficient in vegetables 12 months of the year (except for potatoes) the wildlife pond plays an important role in helping me to garden organically.
The key differences between a wildlife pond and a fishpond are that:
- The wildlife pond requires less maintenance, as it develops its own natural ecosystem.
- It’s a breeding ground and safe haven for wildlife like toads, newts and frogs who during the growing season feed on garden pests.
- Unlike a fishpond you don’t need to keep the pumps running 24/7 to oxygenate the water for the fish; oxygenating plants dropped to the bottom of the pond is sufficient to keep it healthy.
Although fish may be an attractive addition to a pond they don’t add any value to a wildlife pond; they just put more strain on its ecosystem:
- Fish use up oxygen in the water, which requires replenishing e.g. water pumps running 24/7, and
- They add their own waste to the pond that requires extra maintenance and expense to keep the pond clean and healthy.
The Third and Most Recent Makeover
For this makeover I will be:
- Rendering the back wall
- Upgrading the water butt for rainwater from the garden shed roof, to one which diverts excess water to a drainage system.
- Laying drainage to re-direct surplus rainwater from the shed roof to the pond.
- Erecting a barrier fence on the vegetable plot wall above the pond, primarily to discourage foxes from accessing the back of the pond.
- Replacing the old halogen pond lights with the latest in technology for coloured (RGB) waterproof LED strip lighting.
- Replacing the old pond switches damaged by foxes with one that isn’t so easy to chew.
- Laying new electrical cabling in ducting, and
- Upgrading one of the pumps to a more powerful one.
- Giving the other pump a good clean and replacing some of the pipes.
- Replacing the water feature damaged by foxes.
- Replenishing pebbles dislodged from the back shelf of the pond by foxes.
Rendering the Back Wall
This was easier than I thought it might have been. Rendering itself is easy enough, I’ve done it before in previous projects, but the issues were:
- Getting myself and the cement on the other side of the pond to work on the wall
- Being able to work along the full length of the wall without being knee deep in water
- Being mindful of any pond wildlife, and
- Most important of all, not allowing any wet cement to contaminate the pond water; as it’s lethal to wildlife.
With respect to the first two issues, I designed the pond with a shallow shelf along the back edge, backfilled with pebbles, specifically to give a ledge that could be used for maintenance. To gain access to it I placed a ladder across the pond and laid a piece of plywood across the top of the ladder.
The nest two issues required me to be extremely careful in what I was doing, not to rush the job, and to keep a spare float (rendering tool) directly beneath the area I was working to capture any cement that fell.
The best time to do maintenance on a wildlife pond is during the winter months; when most of the wildlife is in hibernation. Unfortunately, it’s also this time of year when we can get frosts, which can damage drying cement; not that we get the frosts like we used to. Therefore, I chose a week when (according to the weather forecasts) frost were less likely. Although amusingly, when I inspected the wall the morning after rendering it, foxes had left their mark with two paw prints set in the rendered wall.
For the render I used 1 part cement to 4 parts sand, mixed to a smooth paste with a dash of washing-up liquid. The washing-up liquid makes the cement smoother and easier to apply.
Water Butt and Diverting Rainwater to Pond
During the summer months the pond needs periodically topping up because of evaporation. I’ve always used tap water, but rainwater is far better for ponds because it’s not been in contact with the ground to absorb minerals, and therefore isn’t rich in nutrients.
My garden shed, with over 250 square feet of roof is a natural large collection area for rainwater, most of which (apart from what was collected in a water butt) previously went to waste in a soakaway.
Therefore, part of the strategy for the makeover was to capture this excess rainwater and channel it to the pond. I achieved this by:
- Removing the old water butt to gain access to the drain for the soakaway.
- Filling the bottom of the soakaway with 6 inches of concrete.
- Digging a trench from the soakaway down the pond; ensuring a gradual downward slope the whole way.