10 tips on creating a nature pond

by Owen James

Frogs provide a fun alternative to fish in a nature pond

Frogs provide a fun alternative to fish in a nature pond

(Image by: belgianchocolate)

Over the past 100 years, pondlife has been in retreat as natural wetlands have been drained and old farm ponds filled in. One excellent way to help arrest the decline is to create a nature pond in your back garden.

Any body of water is a haven for wildlife, and you’ll be surprised just how popular your nature pond will become with the local plants and animals. Even if you live in a big city, you’ll soon find your pond is colonized by a wide-range of interesting flora and fauna.

Here are 10 tips on making the local wildlife feel at home.

1. Any sized pond will attract wildlife

If you’ve only got a small area that you can dedicate to a nature pond, don’t give up. Even a tiny pond made from waste liner offshoots or a dustbin lid will provide a natural water feature – and give some animals a home.

Position a small pond in partial shade, as otherwise algae can be a problem. Make sure the pond doesn’t dry out in summer, but in cold areas you’ll have to let it freeze in winter.

A larger pond of six-feet or more at its widest point will provide lots more ecological niches for wildlife. But a small pond is much better than no pond, so do the best you can.

2. Position your pond away from trees

If it’s to remain a pond not a muddy puddle, place your nature pond away from trees that shed leaves. Falling leaves can quickly silt up a pond, as well as providing too much shade and so stopping aquatic plants from growing.

The ideal nature pond gets a few hours of sunlight each day, to warm it up and power the photosynthesis of aquatic plants.

3. Provide hidden depths

Try to include both broad shallow areas and deeper water in your pond.

Shallow water will warm up quickly and encourage the growth of micro-algae and the tiny creatures that feed on it. Deeper water of at least 24″ in depth should stay liquid in winter. Such deep water gives pond wildlife a refuge in the coldest months.

4. Give your pond slopes and shelves

The ideal nature pond has some gentle sloping areas that run to the edge of the water. These slopes allow certain animals to access the pond, but more importantly they provide a way for others to get out. Hedgehogs, for instance, will drown in a pond they can’t scramble out of.

Shelves positioned 6-12″ below the water surface can support baskets of marginals, rushes and other plants. Waterlilies and oxygenating plants are best planted in baskets in the deeper areas.

5. Use a modern pond liner

It’s possible to build a pond by ‘puddling’ clay, but I can tell you from experience it’s not easy to keep one. Farm ponds relied on the trampling of sheep and cows to stop them cracking – not something your cat or dog is likely to do for you in your back yard!

It’s much easier to build your pond using a modern liner such as butyl, which can be shaped and folded to provide exactly the pond you require. Installed properly, such liners last decades.

6. A small pump won’t hurt your natural pond

You don’t want a fountain shaped like a mermaid in your nature pond, but a small pump is a good addition.

Gentle water movement will increase the gas exchange and improve circulation in your pond. You may even want to create a small stream or mini-waterfall.

A solar powered pump is a nice compromise, keeping your nature pond ‘off-grid’. Consider removing the pump in winter, to enable the water to naturally settle into temperature zones that wildlife can use as best suits them.

7. Plant the margins as well as the pond

Don’t just think about pond plants. The best nature ponds have only vague boundaries, as the marginal planting at the edges gives way to hostas and rushes, which in turn bleed into the garden borders.

Such planting provides a safe way for wildlife to move unmolested by predators such as cats and birds. It also looks more natural.

8. What about a bog garden?

While you’re thinking about near-pond planting, consider creating a bog garden. A bog garden is simply a wetter area of ground near the pond, which you can create by burying a piece of pond liner in such a way as to stop some but not all of the water seeping away.

Some pond experts suggest you have the lip of your pond spill over into your bog garden, so that after heavy rain the water runs over the pond edge and into the bog garden. I don’t suggest that though, since you’re just as likely to find mud and detritus running back into your pond.

To really make wildlife feel at home in your bog garden, pile up some logs or rocks to give animals such as toads and newts a place to shelter when they’re not in your pond.

9. No fish – except tiny natives

Ever fed small live food such as daphnia to your tropical fish tank? Did any of the tiny creatures last more than two minutes before being snapped up? Thought not!

Fish are voracious predators, and it doesn’t take many to denude a pond of natural life. I’d keep fish out of any pond less than six-foot in width or length.

If your pond is bigger than that, a few small fish such as sticklebacks won’t hurt. It’s very entertaining to watch them build nests in the shallows, and to hover in the water as they hunt their prey.

10. Keep it clean

So your natural pond is built and planted up, your marginals are blooming, and animals have started mysteriously arriving to live in your pond.

Job done? Not quite.

Even a nature pond will benefit from a helping hand. True natural ponds come and go as pools are formed and silt up over time. Presuming you want to keep your pond for years to come, I’d suggest you:

  • Clear marginal planting as it begins to die back
  • Give the pond a dredge with a net to remove leaves and gunk
  • Net floating leaves before they sink in autumn

Carefully inspect anything you take from your pond to make sure you’re not throwing away the wildlife you’ve worked hard to attract!

One idea is to pile the waste by the pond edge for a few days before composting. This way, smaller animals such as dragonfly larvae, newts and snails have a chance to crawl back into the water.

Bonus tip: Let your pond life come naturally

Do the planting yourself in spring, but let animals find your pond naturally.

Dragonfly seem to have a radar for water, and will often be spotted within 24 hours. It might be a year or two before you see any frogs or newts but come they will, especially if your pond is near to another natural body of water in a local park or preserve.

Note that it’s illegal to disturb many threatened native species. In the UK, you can only move Great-Crested Newts with a licence, for example.

If you find protected animals in your pond, prepare to be a nature warden as well as a pond owner!

Check out Katy's Tropical Fish Guide for more aquarium info.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

joe 02.09.09 at 8:34 pm

i love nature and im building a small pond in my garden soon

Owen James 02.10.09 at 9:38 am

Good stuff, Joe. Let us know how you get on! 🙂

brian 04.03.09 at 8:26 pm

great article. just starting a small pond myself, might need a few more tips in the future. Thanks

karl 12.31.09 at 11:27 pm

going on our fourth year with a smallish combinati0n fish/wildlife pond. would like to exchange information and share lessons learned.

Eric Myers 08.11.10 at 3:31 am

Helpful tips. I will have to adapt this advice into the care of my pond. I recently have been adding new plant life and fish and have been very weary of the problems that can occur. Interesting hints about the liner and clay base.

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