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Plan a Water Feature

Whether it's a small, quiet reflecting pool or an elaborate waterscape complete with bubbling fountain, a well-designed ornamental pond provides hours of enjoyment for the entire family.

Water features.

Water Feature Safety

Safety is the most important factor in planning a water garden. One of the biggest concerns about water gardening is the safety of small children. Never leave children unattended, even around shallow water. A toddler can drown in just an inch of water in a 5-gallon bucket. No water garden can be made absolutely childproof, but there are a number of ways to make yours safer. Begin by controlling water depth, especially around the edges of the pond. Plan a foot-deep shelf or ledge around the edge of the pond to provide an easy exit. Also, strategically place boulders and install fountains built for safety to prevent accidents from happening.

Make sure your plans comply with local building codes. Depending on where you live, regulations may consider a pond beyond a certain depth a safety hazard, requiring it to be fenced in. There may also be rules concerning its placement and size. Always check with your local authorities.

Choosing a Location for a Water Feature

The best location for a pond is on level, well-drained ground. Plan the most direct line possible between the house and the pond for electrical wiring. Also, when planning the pond, make sure the site isn't directly over any existing underground pipes, cables, sewer lines or septic fields. Ensure there's a nearby outdoor faucet so you can add water to the pond from a garden hose as needed. Small ponds may require additional water every week or so during the hottest months of the year. Always choose one or two alternate sites in case your preferred location won't work.

A proper balance of sun and shade is essential to a successful pond. The pond site will require plenty of sunlight if you plan to grow flowering water plants. The more direct sunlight the pond receives each day, the more choices of water plants you have. If you plan to add fish to the pond, balance the sun with some shade during the hottest part of the day. Shade can be provided from water lilies or lotus pads, plants or shrubs, or a portable shade screen. Small ponds benefit from partial shade since high water temperatures promote excessive algae growth and increase water evaporation.

Avoid placing your pond near large trees. Falling leaves or needles contaminate the water and accumulate on the bottom of the pond, clogging the pump / filtration system. If there's no alternative, place netting or screen mounted on a wood frame over the pond to catch leaves during the fall season. Also, avoid locating your pond in an area subject to strong winds to prevent debris from entering the pond and to ensure your fountain works properly.

Garden Pond Styles

The style of your pond is a matter of personal taste and should complement the style of your house, garden and other landscape features, like decks or patios. Ponds are usually formal or informal. Whether a pond is formal or informal depends on the shape and edging materials. Formal ponds are usually strict geometric shapes and are intended to look man-made. If your garden style is formal, the pond should follow suit. Informal ponds are similar to pools and streams found in nature. They usually have an abstract shape and often include a short stream or small waterfall trickling over natural rocks. Overhanging rocks and border plantings are used to hide the pond edges above the waterline.

Lighting Your Pond

You'll need electricity if your water garden includes a pump, underwater lighting or perimeter lighting. When in doubt, call a professional electrician to set up the system for you. Many communities require that a licensed electrician perform any electrical work involving water or outdoor wiring. Obtain advice and use equipment especially designed for garden and pool use. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Choose from several options to illuminate a pond for night viewing. Underwater lights are a popular choice. In order for these lights to be effective, the pond water must be fairly clear and the lights positioned to avoid excessive glare. Some fountain systems come equipped with underwater lights. You can also use spotlights to illuminate surrounding trees or tall shrubs and reflect light on the pond surface. Similarly, placing lights at the pond edge to illuminate waterfalls or fountains creates a nice effect.

Choosing a Pump

Still water in a garden pool is beautiful, but moving water adds excitement. Pumps make fountains spray, ponds drain and water recirculate. Choose from a variety of pumps made specifically for water gardens because they sustain continuous, round-the-clock use.

The first step when choosing a pump is to select a size. To determine the size you need, first calculate the volume of water in the pond. Choose a pump that can move half the total volume in one hour. For example, if your pond holds 1,000 gallons of water, buy a pump that delivers at least 500 gallons an hour. If your water garden includes a waterfall or stream, it needs a more powerful pump. When in doubt, buy a more powerful pump.

Pond Capacity

The most successful garden ponds are 18 to 24 inches deep. This depth is considered optimum for growing water lilies, other aquatic plants and for raising most types of fish. However, provide an area at least 3 feet deep where Japanese koi can escape heat in the summer and frozen water in the winter.

Pond capacity is important when you size the pump, filter and when you determine correct dosages of plant fertilizers, algaecides and other chemical treatments. The most accurate way to determine pond capacity is to attach a flow meter to the faucet or water supply line and record the number of gallons needed to fill the pond. A less accurate, but easier and less expensive, method is to follow the basic formulas listed below:

  • Rectangular Ponds:  Length x Width x Depth x 7.5 = Gallons (Example: 10-ft. x 20-ft. x 1.5-ft. x 7.5 = 2,250 Gallons)
  • Circular Ponds: Diameter x Diameter x Depth x 5.9 = Gallons
  • Oval Ponds: Depth x Width x Length x 6.7 = Gallons
  • Irregular Ponds: It's difficult to calculate accurately the volume of an irregularly shaped pond. Determine the average width and length, and then use the equation for oval ponds.

Pond Liners

Choose flexible liners or preformed shells to build your pond. Either material can be used to create a formal pool or an informal pond. Flexible pond liners allow you to create ponds in any size or shape. Flexible liners are also relatively inexpensive and easy for do-it-yourselfers to install. Polyethylene liners resemble the black plastic sheeting sold in hardware stores but they're much thicker. Liners made especially for ponds are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or synthetic rubber, either butyl rubber or ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM).

Rubber liners are more durable than PVC because they're stretchable and more resistant to ultraviolet light. Thicker liners of any type generally last longer, too. EPDM rubber liners are available in thicknesses from 30 to 45 milliliters and will typically last about 20 years. PVC liners are available in thicknesses from 20 to 32 milliliters. The disadvantage to flexible liners is that they're less durable than preformed shells. They tend to degrade more quickly and are easier to puncture.

Preformed shells can last from five to 50 years depending on composition, thickness, quality and installation conditions. The best material is rigid fiberglass, which is easy to repair and extremely durable. It may fade when exposed to sunlight, but should last 10 to 30 years. Shells are available in a number of shapes and sizes. Your design choices are limited in comparison to flexible liners, and these shells are usually more expensive for their size.

Pond Liner Size

Flexible pond liners come in a variety of standard sizes. Some garden suppliers carry large rolls of liner material in standard widths. To estimate the amount of liner you need, determine the actual size of your garden pond. The liner must fit the pond and overlap the edges for proper fit. Follow these easy steps:

  • Outline the Shape: After clearing the site of plantings and other obstacles, outline the pond shape on the ground. For irregularly shaped ponds, use flour, paint or a garden hose to mark the perimeter.
  • Measure Pond Dimensions: Measure the maximum width and length of the pond; then determine the smallest rectangle that would enclose the pond area.
  • Calculate the Liner: To allow for pond depth, decide on the maximum depth of the pond (usually 24 inches), double it and add this figure to the width and length of the rectangle. To provide a 12-inch overlap, add an additional 2 feet to the width and length of the liner.
  • Formula for Width = Width of pool + (depth x 2) + 2 ft.
  • Formula for Length = Length of pool + (depth x 2) + 2 ft.
  • Example: Pond is 24-in. deep and fits inside a 10-ft. x 12-ft. rectangle.
  • To figure the liner:
  • 10 ft. (the width) + 4 ft. (the depth doubled) + 2 ft. (for overlap) = 16 ft.
  • 12 ft. (the length) + 4 ft. (the depth doubled) + 2 ft. = 18 ft.
  • So you'll need a 16-ft. x 18-ft. liner for a 10-ft. x 12-ft. pond.  For irregularly shaped ponds, you may need to trim excess liner material to provide an even overlap around the entire pond.

Pond Filtration

The purpose of a filter is to trap floating matter, including fish waste, decaying organic matter, floating algae and leftover fish food. Some types of filters also remove ammonia and other toxic chemicals. Filters help maintain a healthy, balanced pond and significantly increase water clarity. If your aim is to have a small ornamental pond with a few fish and plants, slightly cloudy water from time to time may not be a problem. If you want crystal-clear water or will be raising large numbers of fish, a good filter will certainly help.

There are two basic types of filters:

  • Mechanical Filters: A wide variety of mechanical filters are available for ponds. Most small ponds use an in-pond cartridge-type filter. The effectiveness of a filter depends on the overall size of the filter and a high water flow rate. Purchase a pump that can circulate the entire volume of water through the filter once every two hours.
  • Biological Filters: These filters rely on beneficial bacteria that feed on impurities in the water. The filter contains two or more layers of gravel that harbor large concentrations of nitrifying bacteria naturally found in ponds. As water slowly flows through the gravel, the bacteria break down fish wastes and other organic matter. In the process, toxic ammonia is changed into harmless nitrates, which return to the pond to nourish plants. Unlike mechanical filters, biological filters don't require a high flow rate to operate efficiently.