The environmental movement that began back in the 1960s has gained momentum through the decades and on into the 21st century. As human population numbers explode, natural resources grow scarcer because of the infinite appetite of commercial and developmental concerns. Environmental issues have become more and more central to our national debates on both sides of the political aisle.

If we’re not careful, and we’re unable to act swiftly, we will continue to lose more and more valuable habitats and wildlife around the world.

Parks and reserves where wilderness and wildlife can prevail are only one part of the solution. But now this concern is spreading to consumer property and more people are becoming ecologically aware.

Backyard wildlife habitats

With roots in the environmental movement, backyard wildlife habitats have developed and small, urban lots around the country are being transformed into miniature nature preserves—some homeowners are even having their backyards certified as wildlife habitats.

Native trees and plants flourish and provide local insects and other creatures with the food and shelter necessary for their survival. Ponds and streams are also built to supply the inhabitants with clean water. In fact, a water feature is one of the main ingredients in a genuine backyard habitat, and is required if the habitat is to be certified. Precious, life-giving water is in short supply. Local rivers and ponds are becoming more and more polluted and/or filled in because of unchecked urban growth and commercial development.

Because of this, more and more people are adding naturalistic water features into their own backyard living spaces. In designing a natural-looking feature, we need to look no further than Mother Nature herself for ideas.

Pond design

Let’s start with the shape—using irregular flowing lines is critical in the planning stages. Homes, driveways, patios, and decks are just a few of the items intertwined with a water garden design. Ponds vary greatly in shape and size. There are many design considerations that are based on the desired size of the pond.

When designing large ponds, usage needs to be considered. Why is your customer interested in such a large pond? Do they dream of lakefront property? Lots of fish? Swimming? A few other things need to be considered when you’re designing a larger pond. Remember, the only difference is in the size of the project. The process is basically the same, the components are just larger and/or more numerous.

Building smaller than average ponds can actually be really challenging, because everything that goes into a regular pond has to be squeezed into a much smaller space. Skimmers and biological filters are still used in the small pond, and a waterfall is still built to provide aeration. Since the ponds are smaller and therefore contain less space, the placement of each component needs to be carefully planned.

One of the most important parts of pond design is the edge, and it’s important to transition naturally into the surrounding landscape. There are several different ways to treat the edges of a large pond, but the common goal is always to hide the liner and create a transition from the pond to the terrestrial areas of the property.

On large projects, the perimeter stones are typically larger, but not around the entire pond. The large rocks look large because of the relatively small rocks that surround them. If the entire pond is filled with large rocks, things will look out of proportion. The same goes for using only small rocks. The best ratio is 1:2:1 (1 part small, 2 parts medium, 1 part large). However, this isn’t the be-all and end-all. You should be sure to keep your customer’s desires in mind.

The next thing is planting the pond. Make sure you leave enough room for plenty of aquatic plants, as they not only help naturalize the pond, but they also play a huge role in keeping it healthy by removing excess nutrients. Don’t forget about the option of plant pockets spaced throughout the pond so that pots can be hidden and plants have somewhere to root.

Remember to add those rocks and some gravel. How many crystal clear ponds in nature do you see without rocks and gravel? None! It’s part of the ecosystem, housing beneficial bacteria, and it’s a great way to protect your liner from UV light.

Stones can be worked into the pond’s perimeter, creating a huge planting area. They can also be located further away from the pond, which will help make a natural transition from the pond to the other landscaping. If this method is used, simply have the water flow back to the main pond as a stream or waterfall.

You’ll also want to make sure that there’s enough room to place your skimmer on the end of the pond. Skimmers are essential for drawing in surface debris and keeping it from decomposing and settling on the bottom of the pond, producing noxious gasses. Along those same lines, leave some room for the waterfalls, which should be kept in scale with the size of the project, so larger boulders and berms need to be created.

Designing the stream is most people’s favorite part of the project, and it provides the greatest interest and interaction. Have your customer help to decide on the twists and turns. Streams are highly versatile and they create nature’s music as they change gradients and cross the landscape. Streams can be followed by pathways and traversed with stepping stones and bridges.

Streams are fairly easy to build, but can become very difficult if a few rules aren’t followed. When designing streams, the main thing to look for is elevation changes that can work for or against you. Elevations working for you will have the slope coming towards the viewing area. You can simply carve out the hillside to create a natural area for a water course. Be sure the stream traverses across the slope to increase the viewing area and exposure, and to create a more natural looking streambed.

Views from the home and surrounding seating areas are always targeted first when designing streams and falls. If the budget allows, start the stream far enough away from the viewing areas so people are drawn into the landscape to explore the source of the water. Interactive water features will get the greatest responses because they’re fun. We’re all drawn to water for many different reasons.

The benefits of the stream

The shoreline is where everything happens. The greater this area, the greater the enjoyment you’ll get from your feature. The shoreline is where the marginal plants interact with the terrestrial plantings, where we feed fish, and the path we follow during walks.

So how do we increase this shoreline in a small space? With streams.

Deep streams are more pond-like, allowing fish to swim up into them, while shallow streams are fastmoving and produce beautiful sounds. A winding stream will give you the greatest shoreline for your buck. Combining a long stream with a pond is the best scenario. And don’t forget about the filtration and oxygenation of the water. Crashing falls will add lifegiving oxygen to the anoxic pond depths. And larger projects should always have a stream for this purpose alone.

It is advisable to build shelves into each and every pond for a variety of reasons:

Safety: Creating ledges allows easy access in and out of the pond for maintenance. This is much better than the traditional sharp dropoff in which someone can slip and get injured trying to get in and out.

Stability: Terracing is much more stable and it reduces the risk of the walls collapsing into the pond.

Pondscaping: Shelves create areas for aquatic plants.

Aesthetics: The shelves create interest on the pond’s bottom as well as giving it a more naturalistic appearance.

Efficiency: Shelves create a more efficient utilization of materials and installation practices because it’s easier to build a series of small walls over one large one.

Accessibility: Shelves provide ease of accessibility to areas of the pond.

Human interactions

If nobody is around to hear, see, or interact with a water feature, it might as well not exist. Ponds and streams need to be designed with people in mind. Take advantage of human nature and cater to your customers’ needs and wants. It may be as simple as aiming a waterfall toward the master bedroom window, or placing a bench in the right spot. One important tip: do not put the pond in a low-lying spot of the yard that already gathers water, no matter how convenient it seems. Allowing ‘outside’ water to seep into a pond can introduce nutrients that could cause excessive algae blooms or other adverse circumstances for the pond and fish.

Always bring a portion of the project right up to viewing areas such as a deck or patio. This is extremely easy to do, and it will complement the present structures. In cold areas, leave a soil buffer to allow for some expansion near paver or flagstone patios or walkways so the base does not collapse into the pond. Decks are easy to work into the pond design because they can be cantilevered over the water, giving it a dock-like feeling.

A complete environment can also be built around a simple pond. Building new hardscapes can help create the perfect spot and the ultimate exterior living space, complete with a pond and a seating area alongside; it will complement the perfect planting balance. Once you install a pond, it’s much easier to gain future work from that same customer.

Either you have it or you don’t

If you’re just getting started with water garden installation, or even if you’re an old pro, it is important to keep these design elements in mind when designing a pond of any size. You should always know what your customer wants before you start digging. Then you can build off their ideas and you’ll give them the pond they’ve always wanted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Helfrich is construction manager for Aquascape Designs, Inc. in St. Charles, Illinois.