Steps to Building a Backyard Wildlife Pond; So Easy Even a Child Could Do It (With Guidance and Supervision)

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Several years ago, my then nine-year-old child, research, designed, and build a backyard wildlife pond almost entirely on his own with a little supervision and guidance from his responsible adult (Me, that would be me, I’m the responsible adult. Don’t snicker.) I wrote a post about how me got me to agree to it and the basics of what he used in the process. You can read all about it in;

How A 9-Year-Old Built A Backyard Wildlife Pond (With Adult Guidance and Supervision)

At the end of that post I promised that I would soon be following up with a post about the steps to building a wildlife pond. So, here it is. Step-by-step list of how we got our pond in the ground and things to consider along the way. Complete with affiliate links to the products we used or that might be useful when making a pond.

Read on to see what we did.

Steps to Building a Pond

Research – There are a lot of factors that go into creating a pond.  Location in the landscape, location on the planet, local environment, laws in the area you are building the pond.  Before you start planning what goes into your pond, research what is legal to do in your community. You also need to understand the intricate dynamics of pond life. One of the books which my kid found most useful was titled “Pond Life”. He read it repeatedly and it is still with his books somewhere. For an adult version try “Ponds and Small Lakes; Microorganisms and Freshwater Ecology”.

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Plan Location – Once you know the general guidelines which your state, county, city, and community (or whatever local government that regulates your property development) have set regarding ponds you can begin planning how and where you are going to put your pond.  Too much sun can result in algae blooms.  Too little sun means your plants might not flourish.  Pond water can contain things that are bad for pets so you might not want to place one where your pets can get to it.  (Though a neighbor’s cat that had taken up residence under my back porch regularly drank and fished in my son’s pond.) 

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Animals – What type of fish/animals do you want? The depth and size of your pond will determine the types of fish/animals that can be kept in it.  Larger animals like large fish, turtles, or ducks will need a sizable pond.  Small animals like young goldfish, minnows, or mosquito fish can make do with a pond of only a few cubic feet.  If you are breeding fish they will have different needs for the various stages of their life cycle.  You will need to research what animals are suitable for your size pond and what their life cycle needs are.  Will those animals survive the temperature in your part of the world.

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Plants – What plants do your animals need for food, either plants that they eat or plants which their prey eat.  What plants do they need for shelter?  What plants do their prey need for shelter?  What plants do you want just to have?  Will any of those plants survive the local climate?  What are the nutritional requirements of those plants?  Do those plants meed the need for oxygenation?  Will the oxygenators be eaten by any of your animals?  Will you need a backup unappetizing oxygenator to make sure your animals don’t eat all of their air producing plants?

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Water Conditioner – Unless you have fresh rainwater available for filling your pond regularly, it will be necessary to use a water conditioner for treating tap water prior to adding it to a pond. 

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Freshwater Master Test Kit – This is particularly important for small ponds.  The larger a body of water the more stable the water condition will be.  However, as ponds are dynamic and ever-changing, a small pond owner will want to test the water quality regularly to make sure it is still a safe habitat for their aquatic friends.

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Food and Supplements – If none of the plants in your pond are edible for your animals of choice, the animals will need to be fed.  Some animals will need special supplements.  My son’s freshwater sponge had maintained the water quality of his pond admirably (it consumed massive amounts of the “green-water” algae) but had to be regularly provided with dissolved silica since that is what freshwater sponges use to build their exoskeletons. 

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Algae Control – Nuisance algae is a problem.  There are chemical ways to control it like algaecides.  But since this pond was going to be maintained by a child, I wasn’t so keen on putting any more chemicals into it than was strictly necessary.  The first year my child chose to use pond blue, which is a very concentrated blue dye that will limit the amount of sunlight that absorbs through the pond.  This will limit the amount of light all aquatic plants under the water receive and may not be the best choice if there are a lot of submerged or emergent plants.  After the pond blue wore off my son opted for biologic control methods.  Daphnia and other algae eating invertebrates.  These were by far the most efficient form of string algae and clumping algae control.  The invertebrates also made for good forage food for our fish and attracted dozens and dozens of teeny-tiny frogs to our backyard.  For three years, every spring was announced by the chirping croak of breeding frogs.  The frogs needed the algae for their eggs and young, but they needed the plethora of small aquatic life to feed their young even more.  It made our pond a more appealing home than the stream a block away.

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Plan Pond Liner – There are several different ways to line a pond or make a hole in the ground waterproof enough to be a pond.  The way my son chose was a Reinforced Polyethylene pond liner.  They are less flexible than EPDM Rubber liners, less permanent than sealed concrete, and less organic than pressed clay.  Clay is most commonly used with large, multi-acre ponds.  Liners made of flexible materials like EPDM and RPE will need a protective material both below and above it for maximum protection.  People in the UK and EU will have access to an amazing clay sheet liner which is hydrated clay about an inch thick sandwiched between two cloth type sheets.  It comes in rolls and can be rolled out as an easy pond liner or stream liner.

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Dig a Hole or Build a Form – Once you’ve figured out everything you want in your pond and all the requirements for it, dig the hole or build the form to put your pond in.  If using a flexible pond liner you will need to dig a hole then dig a trench at least six inches to several feet deep around the hole.  Or use a pre-made one.

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Put in Pond Liner – If using a flexible pond liner, don’t forget underlayment.  My son lined up his underlayment with his pond liner and put them in together, making sure to overlap the edges past the trench.  The first time around he didn’t use a protective material on the top side of the pond liner and ended up with a hole where some trespasser stepped in the pond.  Whoever it was had left an enormous boot print so we were aware it was a person and not an animal.

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Weight Down Pond Liner – Once the pond liner is in place, place weights around the edge and fill the overhanging liner in the trench with backfill.  My son used a combination of soil and gravel in the trench and flat stones around the edge of the pond.

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Add Pond Substrate – This isn’t strictly necessary if plants will be in pots.  But your plants will need to be pulled annually and re-potted.  My son chose to take his plants out of pots and to just plant them directly into the substrate.  Some people say substrate shouldn’t be used at all in ponds to reduce algae.

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Plant Deep Water Plants – As long as water will be added within an hour or so, it is possible to plant plants in the pond before adding water.  If being left in pots it doesn’t really matter as the plants will be weighted in their pots.  Any plant in rock wool needs to be removed from the rock wool before planting in the pond.  Rock wool, will (READ THAT AGAIN, IT WILL) fall apart and make a nasty, gross, fluffy mess in any aquatic environment it is kept in.

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Condition Water in a Bucket – Do not put unconditioned water in the pond.  Condition the water in a separate container and then gently pour it into the pond after it has mixed.  Do this until you almost reach the next level you plan to put plants in. 

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Plant Shallow Water Plants – Yeah, almost there.  Plant shallow water plants and add whatever substrate they need around them.

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Condition More Water – And fill your pond until you reach the bog level (if you have a bog in your pond). 

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Plant Your Bog Plants – Situate your bog plants and add whatever substrate they need around them.  (Carnivorous plants are super sensitive to chemicals and may not fare well in freshly conditioned water.  It’s best to wait a few days before adding sensitive plants like live peat and carnivorous.)  Bog plants may need “peat”, by which I mean a peat substitute made of straw known as “straw peat”.  Peat is extraordinarily hydrophobic, it does not like to absorb water when it is dry.  However, once it gets moist, it can suck up the water.  If using “peat” it will need to be prehydrated starting at least a week (preferably two weeks) prior, otherwise, it will float out of the bog and cover the surface of the pond.  It will also tint the pondwater a dark tea color. 

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Condition More Water – Finish filling the pond.

Cover Any Pond Liner Showing – Using soil from the hole you dug, cover any pond liner which is still showing around the pond.

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Wait to Add Fish – Give the pond at least a day, perhaps as long as a week for the plants to get comfy and the water to settle.

Add Pond Start Microbes – To reduce the production of nitrates and nitrites by the decay of organic matter in your pond over time, beneficial bacteria are necessary.  There will already be bacteria on the plants but there will not be enough yet to support an entire ecosystem with fish and whatnot defecating and urinating in it.  Luckily, these bacteria are sold in stores and online so you can buy some to add to your pond.  It should be done before you put fish in it.  Giving your pond a week to settle will allow time for the microbes to get established. 

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Landscape Around the Pond – If you want to fuss with your pond while waiting to add fish and other animals, you can certainly spend your time landscaping around it as my son did.  He built two experimental strawberry patches with heirloom varieties of strawberries.  He wanted to know if the strawberries would fair better in a mound of soil or in a raised bed with sides.  The raised bed with sides also has a solar-powered waterfall that was fed by and flowed into his pond for aeration and water circulation.  This waterfall used a pump from a solar fountain set which he repurposed (smart I know) into a custom-built mini waterfall.  Eventually, the pump burned out and he decided not to replace it.  Blueberries, artichokes, and perennial flowers filled the empty spaces around his pond.

Test Pond Water – Use a Freshwater Master Test Kit to make sure the water is safe for fish.  Follow any recommendations in the test instructions to change the water to acceptable parameters. Keep testing daily until water is safe for fish.

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Fish and Other Creatures – After a week or two, you can add your fish.  Yes, it possible to add fish before that, but for best survivability, the beneficial bacteria need to be allowed time to develop a sufficient colony to process fish and animal waste as it comes.

Test Water Weekly and Enjoy the Pond – Small ponds are not a set-it-and-forget-it sort of deal.  To keep the living things in the pond alive, it is necessary to keep water quality in the “good” range.

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Watch Wildlife Accumulate – If you have a fence around your yard or pond, you won’t get a whole lot of large wildlife.  But frogs, toads, dragonflies, salamanders, beneficial insects, and birds will flock to your pond.  More so if it is the only readily available source of fresh water in the neighborhood. 

Add More Pond Plants – Adding plants to a backyard pond or garden can become an excellent source of family time.  My kid planned outings for us to check out different garden stores every year so we could find new plants to add to the pond, and later, to his garden.  Of all the activities we have done together, I think the things he has the fondest memories of are the things he wanted to do that I not only agreed to do with him but supported wholeheartedly.

These were all the steps my kid went through when designing and creating his pond.  At the age of nine!  When he saw all the birds which came flocking to bathe in his pond he insisted that we set up birdfeeders.  When bees began drinking from his pond (arguably the first beneficial insect to make an appearance in our yard) he decided we needed to make a garden for them and to attract more insects like butterflies, moths, and native pollinators.  Our yard was constantly alive with beautiful examples of wildlife and we spent many lazy weekend afternoons birdwatching and identifying the insects and amphibians which came to live in our yard.

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If you are interested in making your own water garden but don’t want to do all the research involved in putting one together, or don’t know what you would want to put in it I’ve created a list of products necessary to create several different styles of pre-researched water gardens. Check them out when I post my next gardening post;

Sumptuous Pre-Designed Water Garden Ideas

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