Wildlife Pond Makeovers: Water Features and RGB LED Strip Lighting
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; without using chemical pest control or artificial fertilisers. The wildlife pond plays an important role by encouraging wildlife to help combat garden pest 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:-
- That it was only small (experimental), made in an hour, and
- 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 in our patio next to the vegetable plot; and landscaped it with marginal plants, including water irises. Once made, I then gradually emptied the original pond (bucket by bucket); transferring the wildlife to their new home.
The main issue 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
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.
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 twelve 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; and having used it 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:-
- More durable.
- Folds easier, to make it look tidy, and
- 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 of 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.
If you have or had a pond would you make it a wildlife pond or a fishpond?
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.
- Laying 40mm (about 1.5 inches) push fit drainage pipe from the soakaway down to the pond; securing the pipe joints with pipe adhesive.
- Installing a new water butt, that re-directs excess water to the drain when it’s full.
While the old water butt was removed and before fitting the new one I took the advantage of easy access to the side of my small garden tool shed to add a bit of cladding. There’s nothing wrong with the shed extension other than it was in need of a lick of wood stain. The shed extension is a simple timber construction made from exterior plywood. Apart from the door, which had warped in the sun, the exterior plywood has weathered well, and is in good condition.
I had some cladding leftover from a previous DIY project so I used that to start cladding the side of the shed extension; to improve the aesthetics. A friend of mine has since given me some spare cladding he had, so during the summer I’ll finish cladding the side; and then just freshen up the brickwork with a fresh lick of stone paint.
While I was at it, I also replaced the warped door with an exterior mahogany door which I salvaged from when we recently had our entire house double glazed with new windows and doors.
Anti-Fox Barrier Fence
To discourage easy access of foxes down the back of the pond I erected an old iron gate on top of the vegetable garden wall; to bloke their normal access point. The gate was originally part of the driveway gate in our front garden, and when it became redundant I’d used it as part of fencing in our back garden.
In choosing how to block off this area I wanted something that would become part of the overall design of the pond makeover and be aesthetically pleasing. I also like to recycle and repurpose whenever possible. Therefore, it was an ideal candidate; especially as I’d already used the gate’s other half on the other side of the pond. That is once I’d disentangled it from the screening hedges between the house side of the back garden and the vegetable/utility area.
I secured the gate in place by:-
- Drilling two screw holes in the metal on one side.
- Screwing a 2x3 inch pressure treated post to the boundary fence.
- Screwing the gate to the post at one end, and
- Knocking a 1.5m (5 ft.) iron rod through the hinge holes on the gate into the ground.
As the gate is only 3 feet high the iron rod goes deeply into the soil next to the brick wall, giving a secure anchoring point; and for extra stability I wedged a brick under the gate, on top of the wall.
Also Acts as Plant Retainer
Although the prime purpose of the barrier fence is to block a popular access point for foxes getting to the back of the pond; I also wanted it to restrain the blueberry bush.
In the early autumn, when the blueberries ripen, the bush becomes so heavily laden with fruit that it overhangs the pond; which means that I have to stretch out over the pond to harvest them.
Therefore, once the gate was secured in place, in its new home, I then wired a metal mesh over the gate so it will hold back the branches (while not blocking out light) and make harvesting easier.
New Waterproof RGB LED Lighting strip
When I originally put lighting in the pond, LED was still in its infancy; the main choices at the time was either solar powered or halogen.
I don’t like the solar powered lights because:-
- They never give a bright light.
- The lights often only last for a few hours after dusk; which can be inconvenient if you’re holding a late night BBQ, and
- The rechargeable batteries have to be changed annually, and access to them is always fiddly.
The halogen is great, except it uses a lot of electricity; and with all the trailing wires buried under the pebbles, the foxes still manged to damage them when rummaging for food.
Therefore, for the pond makeover, I wanted something that would be fox proof, effective and aesthetically pleasing. After extensive research I concluded a 5 metre (16 foot) strip of multi coloured (RGB) waterproof LED lights would be ideal. The back of the pond is 10 foot long, and the side of the pond up to the end of the gate is 4 feet; this would give me 2 feet spare for wiring into the electrics, which was just about what I needed.
The only issue with the LED strip is that although it is fully waterproof, the ends of the strip aren’t. Therefore, although I could have the strip itself trailing in the pond if I so wished, I would need to protect both ends from getting damp.
Planning and Design for the LED Lighting
In planning my design, I could have had the strip lighting in the pond (under the water) or fixed to the back wall; both of which I am sure would be quite spectacular. However, I decided to do what most people do; and that is to hide the lights themselves to get the effect of diffused light.
You can buy special channels to screen LED strip lights, so you only get the reflected light; but I, like a lot of people, decided to make my own bespoke channelling. After discussing ideas with family and friends, and putting a lot of thought into it (considering various materials and designs) I opted for decking.
The advantages of using decking for LED strip light ducting:-
- Capping the top of the wall with decking is decorative and aesthetically pleasing.
- It’s a material that’s easy to work with.
- It’s cheap to buy.
- With being pressure treated will weather well and last for years.
- It provides a convenient platform to decorate with small garden ornaments, and
- It protects the LED strip from damage e.g. by foxes.
On watching videos on the topic I noted most people will cut the LED strip for getting around corners, and then rewiring it to join the cut sections. I decided against this because not only would that loose the integrity of the waterproofing, but also the strip is flexible enough to bend around corners anyway.
Protecting the LED Strip Light Ends
With regards to the ends of the LED strip lighting not being waterproof; one end would be plugged into the remote control unit and transformer housed inside a waterproof cable box, and the other end would be protected by a waterproof in-line connector box. To fit that end into the connector box I had to cut the plug connector off the end of the lighting strip; and then as an extra precaution I squeezed generous blob of silicon in the sealed holes at both ends of the connector box.
Making and Fitting the LED Lighting Channel
The decking is about 5 inches wide, with the distance from the fence post to edge of the wall being just over half that distance; giving a good couple of inches overlap for the lighting channel.
Prior to making the channels I measured and cut the two pieces of main decking to size. I then pre-drilled the fixing screws holes for the back decking and dry fitted them e.g. laid them in place to check fit. While I had them dry fitted I drilled through the pilot holes into the brickwork to mark the locations for final fitting.
After removing the decking I used a 7mm masonry drill bit to make the fixing holes, and then plugged them with rawlplugs (wall plugs); ready for final fitting.
To create the back channel, I used a bench saw to cut a piece of decking in half (length ways), which I then used to face the front of the decking.
The side wall is a few inches lower than the back boundary wall, so the decking for the side wall had to be made slightly differently; to sit on top of the wall rather than being screwed to it. So to create this I screwed a piece of half width decking on the underside of the back edge of the decking, and then fixed another half width piece to the front. To fix the half width sections on I used decking screws and reinforced the join with small angle brackets; screwed from the underside.
Before fitting the edging and the LED strip lighting to the decking I stuck down a strip of self-adhesive aluminium tape (leftover from when I did some insulation work in our front porch). The tape, designed to permanently stick thin sheets of insulation to any surface (including brick and wood) seemed ideal for this project because of its reflective properties.
Once the ducting was ready I fixed the LED strip lighting to the decking using the small rubber fixing clips supplied with the lights; leaving a couple of feet at one end for fitting into the electrics.
I then folded the small ducting over on top of the main ducting (as the two were now hinged with the lighting strip) and carried them across the pond for fixing into place; ready for testing.
Previously I’d run everything from a waterproof switch box with three toggle switches. However, as the foxes liked chewing on the toggle switches I decided to replace this with a new waterproof switch box that has push buttons instead.
Also, as I wanted the new LED lighting to go the full width of the back of the pond, it wasn’t long enough to run from the switch box. So I decided to run a mains power cable from the switch box to a waterproof socket near the far corner of the pond. The lights would then plug into this socket via a waterproof cable box that would house the remote control unit and transformer.
For extra protection (particularly from foxes pulling at the cables) I fed all electrical cables and wires through 20mm conduit; which conveniently fed through behind the fence posts, and predominately hidden from view by the ducting for the lighting.
All that remained before I could wire in the two pumps and test everything was to plumb the pumps into the water features. Therefore, in the meantime, I ran an extension cable out from the shed to plug in the newly installed lights and give them a test run.
Water Features and Pond Pumps
Pond pumps do get clogged, and once a year should be removed for a good clean. To minimise clogging I keep the pumps on an iron metal mesh supported at both ends by bricks; to keep it off the bottom of the pond.
One of the pumps feeds the main waterfall cascading down the stones propped up against the vegetable garden wall. The other pump fed the three smaller water features, this second pump was much older and not as powerful; so as part of the makeover I replaced it with a new more powerful pump.
The other water features were:-
- Small standalone waterfall with otters.
- Small pot feeding water into a dish slightly above water level, and
- A frog feeding water into a birdbath.
The standalone waterfall was originally a self-contained water feature, with its own small pump, that my wife bought me one Christmas years ago. When I incorporated it into the pond I removed the pump in the back and plumbed it up to the main pump in the pond.
The small pot and dish were smashed by foxes, so I replaced this with a fish that spouts water.
The birdbath was originally intended as a garden feature, but keeping it topped up with fresh water and clean (for the birds) is a chore; so when I bought the frog I thought the two were made for each other. In the pond, the frog water feature keeps the birdbath topped up with fresh water, and the birds love it.
Pipework Maintenance and Upgrade
After years of use, some of the pipes had become partially blocked and brittle; so while installing the new water pump and fish water feature I also inspected all the pipework and replaced some of it as appropriate.
I also upgraded some of the pipe fittings. Small water features connected to the pump with small bore pipes don’t need as much water as the larger ones, so you can run two or three from a single pump. When I first experimented with these it was a series of ‘Y’ and ‘T’ connectors to split the water flow.
These days you can buy fork shaped splitters with individual taps on each of the three outlets. The one I bought was great, except the tap sections just pushed onto the inlet, and not very securely e.g. they slipped off too easily. So during the final fit I glued them in place with pipe glue; also for securing and joining pipes it’s advisable to use jubilee clips wherever possible. The potential advantage with each outlet having its own tap is you have the option to reduce the water flow to one water feature; which then increases the water flow to the others.
For large water features such as cascading waterfalls, you should be looking to use one pump per water feature; with the largest size opening and pipes the pump allows. The greater the water flow then the more spectacular the waterfall; and obviously in this respect, the more powerful the pump the better.
New LED Lights Gets Approval From Blackbird
Once everything was complete, it was just a case of refurbishing the pebbles at the back of the pond, clearing up, and giving everything a full test.
With all the water features fully working it was just a case of observing the lightshow during daylight hours, at dusk and after dark.
When I first turned on the lights they shone vibrantly in alternating red, green and blue; which was brilliant. After a few days I tried the ‘Auto’ button on the remote; and although not all the colours are vibrant (some are quite pale) it’s a random display that’s equally cool.
Once you start using the remote control, it remembers your last setting; and you can program it to display up to seven colours in sequence. So come the summer I might be tempted to play around with the controls and set my own sequence of colours and their mode of transition.