A Pond Revived

As the saying goes, “A man’s home is his castle.” It’s a maxim that rings just as true now as in the 17th century, when it was first written into English law. When a close friend of mine moved to Southern California years ago and found a house near the base of some rolling hills, she knew she’d found her castle. Not only was the location cozy, but the home’s backyard contained something she’d thought she’d left behind in her Midwestern hometown: a pond.

Struck by childhood memories of running back and forth beneath a Michigan waterfall with her siblings, my friend set her heart on this property. For nearly 20 years, she enjoyed the pond in her backyard and it became the keep of her castle, a respite within a respite. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to last.

When the pond was built in 1964, the technologies and techniques were quite different from those in modern usage. At that time, the standard was to dig a depression, pour concrete over it, and build a tall waterfall. The waterfall would provide circulation, but also the all-important sound of flowing water.

It is known that water features with flowing water, or water cascad ing down rocks in a small waterfall, has a calm soothing effect on people. Looking out over a body of water has a similar effect. Sitting in your backyard, looking at a small pond and listening to the sound of water, drink in hand—what could be better?

Unfortunately, the concrete, chosen then for its stability, is what spelled the pond’s doom. While it is long lasting, concrete is also very rigid. Over time, roots from my friend’s adjacent banana palms and birds of paradise pressed into the concrete lining, putting small cracks in it.

These cracks grew into massive fissures and water began to leak, first in a trickle and then in large amounts. When the fish started dying, my friend gave up on the pond because she couldn’t afford to retrofit it. For the next twenty years, the onetime selling point of the property sat unused, having become its biggest eyesore.

More recently, her circumstances changed. She decided to see about fixing this defunct water feature, which bothered her every time she saw it. She contacted Pro Ponds West in Sun Valley, California, a distributor of Aquascape pond supplies. Chad Morrill, the owner, referred her to Sierra Pacific Design of Los Angeles.

When Morrill arrived with the Sierra Pacific crew, he assessed the site. By his judgement, it was a time capsule of do-it-yourself pond design from the 1960s. The previous owners had built it using rocks and other natural objects they’d found in their world travels, for a truly unusual look. He reassured his hopeful client that the barren concrete ditch would soon be home once more to koi, frogs and dragonflies.

“This thing is bitchin’,” he said, when he took a look at the old waterfall. It was formed by a redwood tree root placed atop rocks, decorated by seashell fossils and unusual colorations. My friend’s spirits rose with Morrill’s enthusiasm for the project. She told him that she, too, liked the original design; she just wanted it refreshed and revitalized.

They decided to keep the old waterfall as a unique sculpture behind the pond and build a new waterfall tucked between the birds of paradise and banana palms. This waterfall would be shorter than the old one for a more controlled spillway. Water would flow from a polyethylene biological filtering basin. Called the biofall, it keeps algae growth in check by populating the water with beneficial bacteria.

Morrill kept the same crescent shape of the original pond, but expanded the dimensions from about five-feet-by-ten to seven-feet-byeleven. He planned to put “fish garages” on the bottom of the pond, large flagstone rocks with crevices. The koi could use them to hide if a predator came sniffing around the surface. Morrill also included a small batch of bog plants to go directly in the water, and planted flowers around the pond’s edge for color.

Once the design was finalized, the crew of three men got to work. Their first task was to take apart the old pond. Using a sledgehammer and an electric jackhammer to demolish the concrete took up a good portion of the first day of work. They then built up the waterfall’s height using excavated soil.

Once the broken concrete was all hauled out, they went back to the open hole and leveled off the base of the pond to 26 inches at its deepest. Around the inside perimeter of the pond, they elevated the depth to 15 inches by compacting soil into a step. Their purpose was to give the pond a natural, varied look, rather than a uniform depth the whole way around. That was all in the first day.

On the second day, the foreman double-checked the levels. When everything looked right, he and his team began putting together the new pond. They installed new plumbing and placed a skimmer box opposite the waterfall. Inside the skimmer box, a rigid debris basket and filtration mat collects solids such as leaves, soil, and twigs that find their way into the pond.

Also in the box, a 1/5 horsepower pump draws the water in at a rate of 3,000 gallons per hour. The water is filtered as it passes through the skimmer and into the underground piping, which in turn carries the water back to the biofall. This way, the water is cleaned and aerated for a clear appearance and a desirable pH balance, and rendered fit for fish and other aquatic life.

Once the plumbing was installed, the crew ran into a bit of a pickle. My friend’s back patio had just one power outlet, more than 20 feet from the pump. She would have to bring in an electrician to install a closer plug, but the crew needed a workaround to complete the project in the meantime. They dug down and placed a two-inch PVC pipe to house an extension cord running underground from the skimmer to the power outlet.

Next, they placed an underlayment to stabilize the area and protect the liner from sharp objects possibly poking out of the soil. Then came the liner itself, a black EPDM rubber sheet that was, if nothing else, a far cry from the thick, grainy concrete that once formed the base of the pond. A layer of gravel over the liner formed the bottom of the pond, while larger rocks covered the vertical walls and piled up above the intended water level, to create a natural-looking border around the pond.

Four spotlights also went in, three under the 15-inch step and one angled to illuminate the waterfall at night. The crew stabilized the edges of the pond with more rocks, soil and gravel and placed plants around that. In two days of hard, fast work, they’d transformed an empty eyesore into a vibrant waterscape.

The crew completed construction before my friend’s workday was over. When she came home, the sound of running water coming from the backyard reached her in the driveway. She opened the gate and walked up to the pond in awe. At the sight of a beautiful, natural water feature to call her own, she was overwhelmed with emotion.

Before long, hummingbirds and turtle doves became frequent visitors to the small body of water. She soon acquired four koi and now dotes on them as pets. My friend says that the enjoyment she’s received from this revitalized miniature ecosystem is worth multitudes more than the money that went into it. Over the gentle splash of her new waterfall, my friend wonders aloud why she didn’t do it sooner.

When you install a pond, you not only derive benefit and enjoyment from it, you are effectively creating a habitat for small birds and animals. Moreover, a pond uses a finite amount of water to create an attractive, relaxing environment for humans as well. The ecological benefit is appealing to many property owners who are painfully aware of water restrictions and disappearing ecosystems alike.