Planning Your Pond:
Location, Design, Action
by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA
Authors Note: These articles are intended
as general reference only. The information presented represents
my perspective gained from experience as a water gardener and
as a business owner. The views expressed here are also influenced
by the conditions found in the Midwest and may not be as applicable
in other geographic regions.
After reading the two previous articles in this series, you
know I am a big proponent of planning. I find it much easier
to successfully complete a well-planned project compared to one
without a plan. Here I offer guidelines so that your water feature,
water garden or specialized pond will become an enjoyable oasis
instead of an everlasting headache.
The planning phase is simple and uncomplicated, but many people
overlook it. Making notes, placing a few phone calls and verifying
important information rewards you many times over for the time
spent. Keep a notebook or computer file with all your research
and background information for quick reference before, during
and after the construction process.
Perhaps the most critical decision when constructing a water
feature is the location. Too often people consider site location
after they determine other issues like equipment, landscaping
and maintenance. Repeatedly, I deal with customers who decide
the size and look of their water garden without considering whether
their design criteria are appropriate for the location they chose.
Before making any decision regarding location, size, style,
etc., call a utility locator service. Besides obvious safety
concerns, finding the utilities affects site selection more than
all other factors combined. What may appear to be an ideal site
quickly is ruled out if a gas line passes through the middle
of a proposed water garden.
Fountain brings music
to the garden.
Kit Knotts Photo
Do not guess about locating utilities, even if you think you
know where they are. Unless you had the utilities located earlier,
documented the locations with measurements and pictures and accurately
marked the locations, do not skip this step. Here in Indiana,
you become liable for repair expenses unless you call the locator
service in advance. One phone call is a small price to pay for
being safe, avoiding costly repair charges and knowing your preferred
spot is free from hidden obstacles.
Kit Knotts Photo
Once they mark all utilities (also remember irrigation
lines, low voltage lighting or any other service installed by
present or past homeowners, including improperly buried extension
cords that may not be detected by the locator service), identify
two or three potential sites. Determine the pros and cons of
each spot based on proximity to power and water, amount of sunlight,
elevation and line of sight from various viewing points.
View potential locations from the house, deck, patio or any
other place from which you will spend a considerable amount of
time viewing the water garden. Use marking paint or a hose to
lay out the shape. Place a box to simulate the waterfall elevation
you want. With physical cues, it becomes much easier to visualize
the finished project. In an essentially flat yard, these cues
provide a helpful revelation for gauging waterfall elevations
relative to the surroundings.
Avoid low spots. It may seem like a good idea to place a water
feature in a low spot to divert runoff into the feature. However,
most low spots hold water. This can cause difficult problems
including a lifted liner, crumbling excavation and sinking stones.
Moreover, runoff collects dirt, fertilizer, debris and other
contaminants. You will work hard to keep your water clear, so
do not allow groundwater runoff to destroy the health of the
water garden ecosystem.
Be aware of other water problems besides low spots. Down spouts
and tiles may dump large amounts of water during a storm and
flood an otherwise dry area. Survey the general slope of the
area to avoid locating a water garden in the path of any contour
that could divert water. If you use an overflow pipe, determine
if the proper slope exists to drain excess water away from the
pond. Finally, be considerate of your neighbors. Make sure that
changes to the grade due to excavated soil, a mound for a waterfall
or landscaping berms do not result in drainage issues for them.
Factor into site location the amount of sunlight the area
receives. Sun exposure affects not only plant selection, but
also evaporation rate, filter type, pump selection and the overall
usage and enjoyment of any water feature. A water garden in full
sun may seem ideal until you consider the temperature on a July
afternoon with 80% humidity. Will it be enjoyable to spend time
at the waters edge in those conditions? Should a pergola
or a shade tree become part of the overall design? Keep an eye
on shadows and pay attention to how trees change the amount of
light throughout the year. A site that receives full sun in March
may be fully shaded several weeks later when trees show their
While the amount of sunlight is a determining factor in site
location, it does not have to be the make or break factor. As
with terrestrial plants, many aquatic plants (including waterlilies)
tolerate various degrees of shade. Prune trees for more sunlight
if needed. A full sun location allows more plant choices while
shadier areas result in lower temperatures that moderate algae
growth and heat-related stresses on the ecosystem. Do not forget
about winter sun. In mild winter climates, site location must
consider all months instead of the fewer months many of us have
in colder regions.
As mentioned above, the location you choose influences the
equipment used when constructing a water feature. While I will
discuss materials and equipment in detail in a future article,
I mention now that site location plays a vital role in selecting
components. For instance, you may need a UV clarifier in a full
sun location while a partial shade location does nicely without
one. Full sun locations typically benefit from additional filtration;
this requires additional pump capacity. You should also increase
aeration in a full sun location to offset higher water temperatures.
This means designing a fountain, a stream or building a larger
waterfall than a shady location would require.
When judging sunlight exposure, take into account shade and
sunlight byproducts. A full sun area with no trees makes for
an ideal lily pond, but without wind protection, it may be difficult
to keep tall plants from suffering wind damage. Conversely, a
shady location shelters a water garden from damaging winds and
storms, but at a cost of leaf debris and potential root penetrations.
Since no spot is perfect, base your decision on what works best
for what you wish to grow.
With utilities, site elevations and sunlight considerations
completed, choose your optimum location. Next comes the fun part
designing your dream water feature.
The physical characteristics of the chosen area influence
the design phase. First, the location picked dictates size, even
more so than a budget does. Proximity to a house, trees, patio
or other landscape features place limits on size. Secondly, topography
is hard to fight. A relatively flat spot does not lend itself
very well to a high waterfall any more than a steep grade change
would yield a slow running brook. Changing the grade of an area
consumes time and money, so work with what you have. The third
physical constraint involves the substrate. How much excavating
do you need and what will you do with the fill? Sandy soils cave
and crumble in deep excavations; dealing with clay may require
heavy equipment in some situations.
Dig a test hole to inspect soil quality and to search for
any other hidden obstacles. Once I discovered broken bricks and
charred debris while enlarging an existing water garden. A neighboring
homeowner told me that the spot had been a brick masons
dump. Details like this often come as a surprise. The biggest
mistake is to expect no problems. Allow extra time, money and
materials for unwanted surprises.
At this point, you have completed the basic framework. Now
add the finishing details. You have selected the structure type
(water feature, water garden or specialized
pond), found an optimal location from a viewpoint of utilities,
topography and sun exposure and set parameters regarding size,
shape and depth. So far, factors beyond your control have affected
your choices. From here on, the quality of your research and
planning controls the projects pace and progress.
The most important element of this stage is finding reputable
suppliers. Ask friends, neighbors and relatives for referrals.
Visit suppliers to gauge how confident you feel about doing business
with them. Inquire about inventory levels, ordering lead times,
delivery costs and warranty terms. Develop a list of materials
needed for the project and find a primary and secondary supplier
for everything you need. Finding PVC elbows for plumbing a pump
may seem trivial, but selecting a supplier that also carries
unusual or special application fittings will save time later
when a problem arises. Knowing in advance where to turn can save
numerous headaches later.
Kit Knotts Photo
While considering suppliers like a stone yard, equipment rental
store, nursery and a hardware store, the most obvious supplier
you need is a water garden/water feature company. Although I
strongly recommend finding a local water garden supplier, it
is not always feasible. Online sources exist, also. Nevertheless,
do your homework in much the same way you would check out local
suppliers. The main advantage online companies have usually comes
down to price. You cannot overlook the importance and convenience
of buying locally, especially when you want to finish a project
and need something immediately. Saving a few bucks is nice, but
not at the cost of waiting days for a component and delaying
the projects completion.
Build a relationship with your suppliers. Once you complete
your project, you will make future purchases. People often expand
and remodel water gardens and water features after only a few
years. It is always nice to know companies you trust for future
projects, replacement parts or for troubleshooting. My vote goes
to local firms instead of online suppliers or big box stores.
A website does not talk to you and cannot provide the same quality
of information that an experienced employee possesses. Quality
is worth paying for; that applies to knowledgeable employees
as well as products.
With location, dimensions, suppliers and prices in hand, next
comes your action plan. Write a basic description of the work
to do and then diagram a flow chart or time line. As simple as
this seems, it is more involved than meets the eye. For example,
must you install the skimmer before or after the liner? Will
you bury the tubing before excavation or dig it in later? Should
you build the waterfall first or last? Answer these questions
before starting work or else simple details might derail the
It helps to have all the components available so you can read
the installation instructions before making a flow chart. Knowing
your suppliers in advance and being familiar with their inventory
simplifies this step. Often they allow customers to preview components
and even provide installation details and hints. Your action
plan should include ordering materials, scheduling deliveries
and planning for demolition and disposal of waste if needed.
Allow for unforeseen circumstances. Do not expect everything
to go perfectly. If you pick suppliers well, they will be invaluable
when trouble occurs. The saying Failure to plan is a plan
for failure applies more often than not.
In conclusion, planning is the key to the successful completion
of a water feature, water garden or specialized pond that will
provide years of enjoyment. Research and legwork pay dividends.
Seek diligently, and you will find a wealth of knowledge readily
available. While planning is not complicated, failure to plan
can complicate a simple project. Discuss your plan with experienced
installers. Listen to their suggestions and criticisms. Finally,
remember a plan is a guide to help you, not the answer to every
problem. By developing a comprehensive plan that anticipates
all aspects of a project, you have planned to handle whatever
challenges may arise.
Introduction to this multi-part
Your Water Garden
< Water Features, Water
Gardens, and Specialized Ponds
Materials and Components
for your Pond >
Filtration Systems for Water Gardens
and Koi Ponds >
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