The Cranky Gardener

3 Conversations

Ponds and Water Gardens1

Hi gang. I'm back. I'm cranky, but I'm back.

This has been one of the most frustrating gardening summers in recent memory. Mother Nature has gone totally senile on those of us living in good old Zone 6. It's hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement one day and cold and rainy the next. We're fighting the fungus among us, tomato blight, a cedar-born disease on our apple trees, and grasshoppers.

Our wildly fluctuating weather is adding stress to our neighbourhood
wildlife - well, except the grasshoppers. We have been talking about the importance of recreating a natural habitat in our gardens for wildlife and had begun discussing ways to add water features. Constructing a backyard pond or adding a water garden are two wonderful ways to add interest to your garden and provide necessary water for local wildlife.

I know what you're thinking. Building a pond is going to require a ton of work and will cost a fortune. Both of those could be true. But they don't have to be. If you have a large property and want to build a natural, earth-bottomed pond that will be large enough for large flocks of migrating geese, an island with a gazebo and a dock, then good luck to you. But if you are like me, you are thinking of something a tad smaller.

Earth-bottomed ponds are great if you happen to have an area that will hold water naturally or has a spring nearby to continually feed it. They give wildlife a place to burrow into the mud and hibernate and provide an idea place for natural plant growth. However, most of us need to use a liner of some kind to keep the water from seeping into the earth. Garden centres sell preformed hard plastic liners in a variety of sizes and shapes. These are very popular and most of them include shelves to hold potted, aquatic plants. Or, you can buy a roll of flexible sheeting. The latter will save you money and allow you to be more creative.

The first thing you're going to need to do is decide where the pond will be located. If you can, you should place it where it will be visible to you from a porch or patio. I mean, why build it if you can't sit and enjoy it? Locate it where it will receive both sun and shade and won't fill up with leaves in the autumn.

The easiest way to create a design for your pond is with a garden hose. A simple oval shape is always attractive or you can vary the design by making it larger on one end than the other or going for a free-form style. By using a hose, you can experiment with shapes until you find one that looks good and fits your space. When you have your perfect design, take a can of spray paint and go around the inside edge of the hose. It's possible to leave the hose in place, but I usually kick it or trip over it or wind up needing it to water the garden. Paint works best for me.

Now it's time to plan the depth of the pond. If you live in a very cold climate, you will want a deeper pond than if you live in a warm climate. If the pond freezes completely, you will lose your fish, reptiles and other aquatic wildlife. Normally a depth of 30 inches is sufficient in a moderate climate. In hard winter areas you will need a depth of 48 inches.

You don't want the pond to be the same depth in all places. You will need some shelves at different depths to hold plants and to allow for entry and exit of amphibians. You will also need a shallow area for birds to drink and bathe. It's a good idea to plan your pond on paper before you begin to dig. This will let you experiment with ideas until you arrive at the best underwater arrangement for your pond. Then determine the exact depth and slope of each of your shelves. This will give you a guide to refer to as you dig.

Dig the pond. Go ahead. You can do it. See, isn't it a good thing that you don't want to make it large enough for migrating geese, an island with a gazebo and a dock?

You will need to make sure that the pond is level. Otherwise the water will spill out on the low side. The easiest way to do this is to put a 2 x 4 across the pond at various places and place a 4-foot level on the 2 x 4. Once the pond is dug, use a rake to smooth out the soil at the various levels and make sure that you remove all stones and other debris that might puncture the liner. Add a layer of builder's sand if you can to further protect the liner.

Now it's time to add the pond liner. Unroll it in a sunny place and leave it for a few minutes until it warms up. This will make it easier to work with. Place the liner over the hole and press it into place with your hands. Start at the centre and work your way to the edges. Don't get in a hurry. It's important for you to smooth it out as much as you can and press it into the contours of your shelves. You'll have some wrinkles, but don’t worry about them. The water and plants will hide the wrinkles. Make sure that the liner extends about a foot from the top all around the perimeter of the pond. Otherwise, after a heavy rain, water might drain underneath the liner.

I live in a mining area where it is relatively easy and inexpensive to find stones. If you have access to stones, place them around the top of your pond to secure the liner and to add decorative interest. You could also add a large rock to one or more of the shallow shelves so it will extend out of the water. This will give turtles a place to sunbathe. If you don't have rocks you can use garden staples to secure the liner then make an edging with quickcrete and one of the forms used to create walkways and patios. Or you can use brick.

You'll probably want to add a pump or perhaps even a fountain. Birds
especially like the sound of moving water. For a small pond, a solar
powered pump will be adequate. The larger the pond, the bigger the
pump will need to be. Make sure that you have an electrical outlet that is suitable for outdoor use. You'll also want to add some logs or branches that extend from the edge of the pond into the water. Large flat stones can also be propped on a shallow shelf. These will be used by wildlife as ladders. And you will want native plants in and around the pond to be used for food and shelter and to control algae. Remember, your aquatic plants will need to be potted if you are using a plastic liner.

If you have access to a local pond, you can add a couple of bucketfuls of pond water to your new pond and some leaf mold. These will jumpstart your new ecosystem. And don't panic if you have an algae bloom. This often happens in new ponds before the plants become established. It usually takes a couple of months for a pond to develop a natural balance. Be sure not to let fertilized wash into the pond from surrounding plantings. There is a special kind of pelleted fertilizer that you can use to fertilize aquatic plants if necessary. You can also add organic barley straw to reduce algae. Lastly, don't add too many fish. Fish poo and uneaten fish food will encourage the growth of algae.

Check with a local garden centre or university extension office to find out which native plants are suitable for water gardens in your area. In my area we are able to use among others Typha latifolia (cattail), Eupatorium fistulosum (Joe-pye weed), Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower), Iris versicolor (blue flag iris), and Hibiscus moscheutos (crisom-eyed rosemallow).

You say that's all very fine, but you live in a rented house or have a tiny garden and aren't able to have a pond. It is possible to create a container water garden to fit almost anyplace. One of the easiest container gardens to make uses half whiskey barrels, but you can also use troughs, old bathtubs, hot water tanks cut in half lengthwise or just about anything that will hold water. You will need to add plants to container gardens just like you do to ponds, or your wildlife won't use them. For deep containers like half barrels, it will be important for wildlife to have something to use for a ladder to get out of the water.

Some interesting websites that give instructions for creating container gardens are:

Next time we will conclude our habitat series with a discussion of creating nesting places for wildlife. Happy gardening.


It's blackberry season. I just love blackberries. But it's hard sometimes to find interesting ways to fix them. Here is a simple, delicious way to use fresh blackberries. It is equally good with strawberries, raspberries or blueberries.

Blackberry Pound Cake


  • 1 pound cake2 baked in a loaf pan - frozen or bakery bought work just fine
  • 1 cup - 100g, 4oz - ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup - 225g, 8oz - sugar, divided
  • 1 quart - 500g, 1lb 4oz - fresh berries, divided

Split the pound cake into three horizontal layers. In a bowl combine the ricotta cheese and ¼ cup of the sugar and mix well. Gently stir in 1 cup of the berries. Place the bottom layer of cake on a serving platter and top with half of the cheese/berry mixture. Repeat the layers and finish with the top cake layer. Wrap plastic wrap around the cake and refrigerate for two or three hours.

Stir the remaining berries and sugar together and chill. To serve, cut the cake into slices and top with the sweetened berries.

The Cranky Gardener


12.08.04 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.2Basic Sponge Cake... ed

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