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  Planning Your Pond:
Location, Design, Action 

by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA

Author’s 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.

Location Planning

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. 

Typha latifolia
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 water’s 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 leaves.

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.

 Design Planning

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 mason’s 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 project’s 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.

'Sandra Lynn'
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 project’s 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.

Action Planning

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 process.

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 series
Your Water Garden

< Water Features, Water Gardens, and Specialized Ponds
Materials and Components for your Pond >
Filtration Systems for Water Gardens and Koi Ponds >
Pumps > | Lighting >

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