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Starting a Fish Pond

How to start a fish pond.

By Stephen M. Meyer

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The idea of a "first" pond might sound strange — even pretentious. After all, how many of us have the yard space for a second or third pond? But the truth is that the vast majority of pondkeepers I meet were already thinking about replacing, rebuilding, remodeling or adding on to their first pond within a few months of completing the initial project.

"I wish I had made it bigger." "I should have built two smaller ponds connected by a stream rather than one big pond." "Putting the pond on the other side of the yard away from road traffic would have been a smart thing to do."

Whatever the particulars of your first pond, I can guarantee that as your pond experience and skills increase you will want your ornamental pond to also change. So start out by saving yourself a lot anguish: acknowledge that no matter how well your first pond turns out eventually you will want to make it "better." With that disclaimer you can then approach your first pond with a spirit of fun, excitement, and experimentation.

Your first pond should be an opportunity to get your feet wet (often literally) in outdoor fishkeeping and aquatic landscaping. And in the spirit of experimentation, I subscribe to no hard or fast rules for creating a first pond. There are too many variables to consider, and, more importantly, too many differences in personal taste and expression. Pond-making — and in particular, first pond creation — is very much a product of the imagination. Art figures here as much as science and engineering.

This does not mean that you should just head out to the yard and start digging. There are decisions to be made and planning to be done. Before you break ground for your first pond you are well-advised to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why are you thinking of building a pond in the first place?
  • Where would you like to locate the pond? Why that location?
  • What size and shape pond were you contemplating, and why?
  • What other landscape features did you hope to tie into the pond? Why?
  • Do you have in mind specific viewing locations and vantage points? If so, why?
  • Do you have specific operation and maintenance requirements (constraints) that need to be considered?
  • How much money do you want to pour into this project?

    Each question by itself probably seems fairly obvious and easy to answer. The problem is that in most instances they cannot be usefully answered in isolation because they are inherently interrelated. An answer to one immediately constrains plausible answers to the others.

    A pond for rearing dozens of quality koi requires a very large volume and surface area, as well as a substantial biological filtration system, none of which may be possible in your preferred location (or budget). If there is only one spot in your yard for a pond, the topography or landscape structure of that location may prevent certain uses. Waterlilies, for example, will not bloom under the deep shade of maple trees. Are you prepared to wipe out a cluster of 40-year-old trees for your first pond?

    Then, too, cost matters. If you have budgeted $250 for your first pond, do not expect to build a 10,000-gallon system of pools, streams and waterfalls populated by show koi and surrounded by a Japanese-style garden.

    Notice also that the first five of my questions ask you to think about why. The idea behind your initial preferences provides the basis for choosing priorities in pond design features and for making tradeoffs, should they be necessary. In other words, be sure you know why you are forcing the pond design into a specific configuration.

    Pond Concept
    Ideally, or perhaps idealistically, the pond concept should be the driving force behind pond design. First-time pond builders should think long and hard about why they are interested in creating a pond in the first place. What is the single-most essential thing you want it to do?

    This focus is extremely important. A surprising number of people consider building a pond merely because they think it will look pretty. For example, maybe they were seduced by a picture in a magazine, or they saw an attractive display at a local garden shop. In either case this is not a pond concept because it offers no guidance regarding desirable or necessary design characteristics of the pond project.

    Although a mature ornamental pond ultimately serves many purposes (such as fish rearing, wildlife habitat, landscape feature, aquatic flower nursery), the concept for a first pond should be boiled down to one core purpose. One way to accomplish this is to complete the sentence: "I would only build this pond if I could..." The sentence should end with a purpose or function, such as the ability to maintain a large collection of koi, grow lotus or attract wildlife. The bottom line is, if you cannot conceive of a specific reason that would compel you to do the project, then you do not have a viable pond concept.

    In the realm of fishkeeping some aquarists gravitate to the idea of a first pond because their aquarium pets have outgrown the glass walls of their tank. A pond seems like a practical way to have a really big aquarium, only it's outside. This is a reasonable, though very narrow, pond concept.

    Expanding on this idea, some people (including many who have never kept fish before) become infatuated with the fun, excitement and camaraderie of koi shows and competitions. Their ponds are just vehicles for rearing and displaying high-quality show koi. The fish are the important element, not the pond.

    Still others want to try their hand at raising native freshwater fish, or even game fish in their backyards. Nothing impresses dinner guests like fishing for fresh rainbow trout out the dining room window. (The laws in some states may prohibit keeping game fish. — Ed.)

    In all these instances the needs of the fish would determine some of the key pond characteristics (e.g., size, water recirculation rates, maintenance and operation requirements) and supporting filtration needs. Others, such as pond shape or landscaping around the pond might be of secondary importance. Viewing aspects (the directions from which the pond may be seen) could be fundamentally important for some concepts (a koi display pond) but irrelevant to others (a catfish pond).

    The details may be quite different for those lured to pond keeping by the beauty of aquatic flowers and vegetation. The entrancing quality of an ornamental pond with waterlilies floating effortlessly on the water surface and cattails waving gracefully in the breeze is hard to resist.

    For these people, fishkeeping is just one of several elements of the pond, and perhaps a minor element at that (just to keep mosquitoes at bay). Fish might even be absent entirely.

    In this case, viable locations for the pond will be determined by — among other things — considerations of sun exposure. For example, six hours of midday sun are a minimum for consistently healthy blooms of waterlilies and lotus and for dense leaf cover. Water recirculation rates would have to be low because surface turbulence hinders floating leaf plant growth.

    Taking the garden pond concept further, the pond itself may be conceived of as little more than one of many contributing elements in a larger landscape plan. The pond is not intended to be the center of attention. Rather, integration into the surrounding environment might be the guiding principle.

    If, for example, the pond is to be placed inside a formal Mediterranean-style garden, then its size, shape, location and viewing aspects may all be determined by other, non-pond elements in the landscape. Pools and water courses would be formed in rectangles, squares, triangles and circles. The water features would run parallel to foot paths and be designed to be viewed equally well from all sides.

    A Japanese-style pond garden (of which there are many styles) would call for the opposite approach. Size, shape, placement and so on would be designed for an informal effect, mimicking nature but presenting a clear human touch.

    Another concept is the pond as a wildlife magnet. As the name implies, the purpose is to attract a variety of local wildlife by providing water, food, shelter and perhaps breeding space to native species.

    Here, pond characteristics such as shape and location may be very dependent on the wildlife species of interest. Small trickling streams running among shrubs and trees are far more successful in attracting songbirds than are wide ponds placed in the middle of a lawn (which attract ducks and geese). Some pond areas would remain largely unseen (except, perhaps, from one viewing spot) in order to provide a secluded feeling for skittish animals.

    The range of pond concepts for you to consider is limited only by your imagination. For your first pond, settle on one that has the most meaning for you.

    Location
    Although it would be nice if something as cerebral as pond concepts could always determine pond design, the fact is that practical considerations often force changes in the concept. Most of us live on fairly small properties and do not have unlimited budgets, and like it or not, the pond concept must be amended to conform to reality.

    For example, house, driveway, septic system and patio placement, as well as local zoning ordinances, may conspire to limit pond location to just one place in your yard. If that is the case, you had better be certain that your pond concept is viable in that location.

    In most instances, however, there is usually some choice in location. Curiously, I have found that few first pond builders spend much time thinking about pond location. But location alone may determine success or failure both in terms of actual outcome and personal satisfaction with the pond.

    Begin with the pond concept. What site would be optimal, all else being equal? Then look at the site specifics.

    Does the site offer the other conditions necessary to implement your pond concept (e.g., sun exposure, topography)? Will it accommodate the size pond you need? Is the site dangerously close to pedestrian traffic or will it make parts of the yard inaccessible? Might that location attract too much unwanted attention from neighborhood children, pets or worse? Would the pond be too close to the house, complicating normal house maintenance (e.g., painting)?

    Consider your yard maintenance practices. At first it might seem smart to put the pond near your award-winning rose garden. But if your rose beds demand frequent spraying with insecticides you should think about a different pond site.

    Similarly, consider your neighbor's yard practices. That spot by the back fence may seem like the right place for your koi pond until your neighbor begins spraying his apple trees for tent caterpillars. Or perhaps he is a heavy user of herbicides to keep his lawn looking like a golf course. It is unlikely that your pond plants will fare any better than his dandelions.

    Size and Shape
    In most instances pond size and shape should be determined by more significant factors, such as the overall pond concept or location. For example, a summer home for tropicals suggests a wide surface area to maximize solar heating, thereby extending the period your fish can stay outdoors. And a fairly substantial volume will be needed to stabilize water temperatures at night. And the pond floor should be defined by a long gradient between shallow and deep areas so that the fish can seek out the appropriate temperature as average pond conditions fluctuate daily, weekly and monthly.

    For conventional ornamental ponds a simple kidney bean shape has both natural appeal and is practical for maintenance. Steer clear of round pond shapes (unless your goal is to simulate a meteor impact site). Small round ponds often look like puddles or trash pits, and are treated as such by others. Large round ponds look incredibly fake, and make maintenance very difficult because the center of the pond is virtually inaccessible — except to the fish, which, intent on frustrating you, stay in the middle where you can neither see them nor get to them. An exception to a round shape would be a formal fountain pool.

    A wildlife pond should have an irregular shape, with many shallow areas (and heavy vegetation both in and around the pond perimeter). Pond size may be irrelevant because wildlife is easily attracted to very small bodies of water bodies.

    Suppose, for instance, you have a long but narrow yard. No room for a pond? How about a nice meandering stream running through the garden? A stream 40 feet long, 2 feet wide, and averaging a foot deep will hold 600 gallons. This would be a fine habitat for a few koi, pool comets, many tropical species and even native species.

    No matter what the pond concept, I advise first-time pond owners who intend to have some fish to stay at least above 300 gallons, and preferably twice that. Anything smaller is just asking for trouble because water quality is incredibly hard to maintain in low-volume ponds. Moreover, in smaller ponds your plants and fish are within reach of every predator you can imagine (including human ones).

    Landscaping Near the Pond
    Too often landscaping around the first pond is little more than an afterthought. Existing flora are given little thought and a scheme for new plantings is at best a vague notion. This is unfortunate because a pond is itself a landscape feature (far more than the typical aquarium is an element of interior design).

    A pond's visual impact is strongly influenced by its vegetative surroundings. Near-pond landscaping may determine whether your first pond is perceived as a hidden woodland pond, a desert oasis, a formal European waterscape or an accident resulting from a septic system failure.

    Conversely, a pond designed in the context of a larger landscape plan can bring the other elements together. For example, a rectangular reflecting pool with luxuriant waterliles may be the touch needed to bring a Victorian flower garden back to life. A series of small pools connected by trickling waterfalls can transform a rather pedestrian rock garden into an imaginative alpine mountainscape.

    And as I have written many times before, near-pond vegetation does strongly affect the physical and biological characteristics of a pond. Tree shade can moderate water temperature changes. Pond-side shrubs may hold the soil firmly and prevent serious erosion and sedimentation in the pond during heavy downpours. Dense evergreen shrubs can shield the pond from blowing debris and wind evaporation. And substantial plantings around the pond perimeter may be what is needed to coax those shy fish of yours up to the surface and pond edges, where they will be more visible.

    All pondkeepers should understand that the ornamental pond -as both a human creation and an ecological entity — does not stop at the pond edge. Terrestrial plants are a vitally important part of the total pond environment. By the way, most of the advice written about which plants and trees should not be near a pond is quite worthless. Falling leaves and seeds are not going to poison the pond water.

    Viewing Aspect
    I always urge those considering their first pond to think about the viewing aspects of their project. Where do you want to see the pond from, and what elements of the pond do you want to see from there?

    It is with the view that location, topography, orientation and landscaping come together. For example, you may want to see your pond's masterfully designed cascading waterfall from the porch, but not that big ugly biological filter box behind it (unless you are an engineering nut). Using soil from the pond excavation to create "hills," judicious planting of dense shrubs and appropriately orienting the pond can focus viewers' attention on certain areas and block visual access to others.

    In fact, you may want to enhance the visual appeal of your first pond by making it impossible to see all parts of the pond from one place. Force viewers to wander around in order to appreciate the pond. Among other things, this creates the impression that the pond is much larger than is actually the case.

    In my yard, for example, three fairly small ponds are linked by a series of streams. By intentionally manipulating the viewing aspect, guests first entering the garden believe there is only one pond. As they walk around to see its partially obscured side, they suddenly happen upon a small stream leading from a second pond. Some further strolling and they encounter the third pond. The surprising thing is that the three ponds are no more than a few feet apart!

    Maintenance and Operations Considerations
    Ponds require maintenance — some a lot more than others. Regardless of whether or not you think you will enjoy continually puttering around your pond you should consider how you will maintain it.

    In particular make sure that all key maintenance areas can be reached easily. This means that all areas of the pond floor should be within reach of your nets. And all pump, filter and plumbing components should be accessible without effort.

    This may mean shifting the location, shape or size of the pond a few feet one way or the other. You will be glad you did later on. Human nature being what it is, the more difficult or impossible maintenance tasks are, the more unlikely they are to get done.

    Cost
    There is really little that I need to say here except that it is very important to set a budget for the first pond. Your first pond is an experiment. Ponds are not for everyone. Make sure it is something your really enjoy before you take out that second mortgage on the house.

    Set your budget realistically. You need to compare what can you afford against what your pond concept requires. You will not get much enjoyment from that pond you built for fancy goldfish if you spent far more than you could afford.

    On the other hand, if you plan to lay out the money to buy a half dozen $5000 koi, don't skimp on the pond! More than once I have watched someone plunk down a couple thousand dollars on fish and yet refuse to buy the proper pump and filter equipment because they did not want to "waste" a few hundred dollars more.

    If I have any financial advice for first pond owners it is this. Spend your money on the pond, pumps, filters and so on. Skimp on the fish. Buy inexpensive comets or pond-grade koi. Feeder goldfish make great pond fish.

    Choose Liners or Pond Forms
    Although you may not think so, no matter how well your first pond turns out, you are going to want to change it, or perhaps refill it with soil and replace the lawn. Ornamental ponds are not for everyone — including dedicated aquarists.

    There's not much that could be worse than having a 2000-gallon cement pond sprawled across your yard when you decide your real hobby interests are in restoring antique furniture. And given the frequency with which Americans move, you should consider the possibility that a prospective buyer of your property may not appreciate the joys of pond keeping. Ripping out a liner and backfilling the hole is much easier than dynamiting a cement pond two days before closing the sale on a house.

    For all these reasons I strongly advise that the first pond be constructed using a liner or one of the pre-fabricated plastic or fiberglass pond forms now so widely available. Do not get talked into a permanent pond installation — you will regret it. A first pond, like a first aquarium, should be something you can walk away from.

    Stocking the Pond
    It is very important to keep the fish load in your first pond very low. The 1 inch of fish per gallon rule is worse than useless — it can lead to all kinds of problems with dead and dying fish.

    If you make the classic mistake of filling your first pond with fish I can assure you that you will learn lots about netting dead fish, getting cash from ATM machines and learning the shortest route to your local aquarium store. Overstocking is simply the number-one way to ruin a great hobby.

    Consider no more than one goldfish or one 6-inch koi per 100 gallons. For that matter, you should limit yourself to just two fish for your pond even if it holds well over 200 gallons. Pond fish have significant mass for their length, so the bioload is far higher than it might first appear. Follow this advice, and you will avoid the typical fish health problems.

    Conclusion
    As I said in so many words at the beginning, consider your first pond an exciting experiment — a learning experience. Think through the issues raised here, but don't try to make your first pond perfect.

    Use the first pond to development and hone your pondkeeping skills. You will soon find yourself thinking about modifying your pond to match your knowledge.

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