Last year I came across a fantastic graphic from The Wildlife Trusts on Instagram (unfortunately I can't share the graphic, as it's copyrighted, but I think I can probably provide a link to it here). Ever since then, I've been obsessed with building a wildlife pond in our garden. Our neighbour has the very rare great crested newt in their pond, and I'd love to provide some sort of stop off/pathway for creatures like that as they meander about the countryside (as ponds have fallen out of fashion, so too have the numbers of pond-dwellers, like frogs, toads and newts). Admittedly, her pond is around ten times the size of what mine became, but then, her garden is around ten times the size of mine! In any case, I reckon any small area of water should help more than if there was no water at all.
It was the middle of summer last year when I started to really put the pond plan into motion, but our house is built on clay, so it goes rock hard in summer: not a good time to start digging. Instead, I marked out the pond and sowed wildflowers all around it. Then, as the first few warm days turned up in February this year, we got out there and spent half a day digging it in.
STEP 1 Mark out your pond.
Do you want a curvy pond (we went with a kidney bean shape for a more natural look)? A contemporary square pond? A sixties round pond? Whatever you're after, mark out the shape and check you're happy with it. I discovered we could get a slightly bigger pond after marking it out.
STEP 2 Dig, dig, dig
Get your shovel ready, it's time to dig! Wildlife ponds should be around 30-40cm deep, so luckily you don't have to dig too far! They should also have sloping sides and a couple of 'shelves' or 'steps', that will help any animals that can't swim very well to get in and out (hello little hedgehogs). We dug in a shallow end, graduating down two steps (about 10cm deep per step) to a deeper end. We also left a 'shelf' running all the way around the back of the pond to put pond plants on (we dug this about 10-15cm down from the top of the pond). It's also a good idea to dig a very shallow trench (2-3 cm) all the way around your pond, because the top of the pond lining will sit in the trench and get covered with earth, hiding the lining, but remaining level with the earth around it.
STEP 3 Pat down the sides
We then pressed and patted down the sides of the pond until it seemed more 'solid', and removed any hard roots or stones. A good base for a pond liner.
STEP 4 Add sand
Next, you want a layer of sand coating all over the inside of the pond, to give a really smooth surface for the pond liner to go over. We actually just grabbed soft children's play sand from the garden centre down the road. We needed 3 bags for our approx 1.5 (length) x 0.7 (width) x 40cm (depth) pond
STEP 5 Line the pond
(We searched everywhere for pond liner, driving all over the place, so I suggest purchasing it online prior to digging if you can, or heading to a specialist aquarium/water centre.) Place the pond liner over your pond and then push down. This was quite tricky, as you have to get as many of the folds out as you can and get it as flat as you can before filling. It won't ever lie perfectly flat, so don't worry about any little creases or folds, they'll probably help little animals get a grip/lay eggs anyway. Adding water early can also help to weigh the liner down, then when you move one side, the other side won't shift as easily. When you cut the liner, leave at least 10cm running around the edge of your pond.
STEP 6 Add stones
This is an optional step. We added a layer of (limestone-free!) gravel to the bottom, which means that any oxygenating plants we put in there have something to grip onto and grow on. You can also add larger stones around edges, creating a ramp up to the higher 'shelves' which will help wildlife get in and out of the pond
STEP 7 Cover the liner
Cover the top edges of the liner with mud, check your sides are level (if you want them to be!)
STEP 7 Fill!
Fill your pond! If you're lucky enough to have a water butt outside, the best thing to fill your pond with is rainwater. If you don't, you might have to fill it with tap water (which is what we did, from the hose). If you fill it with tap water, check with your water supplier to see how long you need to leave it to 'off gas', so that the chlorine leaves the water. Ours took 4 days before we could put anything else in.
STEP 8 Add plants
All good wildlife ponds have three different types of plants: marginal plants, oxygenating plants and floating plants. They provide shelter and food for all sorts of animals, as well as keep the water healthy. We bought ours from wetland-plants.co.uk
Marginal plants go around the edges of the pond and sometimes just outside of it. Some of them can be planted in the water, and some of them need to be planted on a soggy/marshy bank. Check the descriptions when you purchase. We also made sure we bought native, non-invasive plants (this is really important if you don't want a massively overgrown pond!). We chose: water forget-me-not, marsh marigolds, lesser water plantain, watercress, a royal fern (which got planted on the banks) and pink flowering rush.
Oxygenating plants get dropped in the pond itself and will live happily at most depths. They oxygenate the water. We chose willow moss, and I put three in the bottom of our pond.
Floating plants can often grow quite big, so we only bought one for our little pond, but they are important as they will provide shade for the pond below (willow moss likes it dark, for example), and provide somewhere for dragonflies and the like to land. We bought a water soldier, which spends winter at the bottom of the pond and then surfaces for spring.
To add your marginal plants it's a whole other ballgame. One thing you can do is purchase plastic pond baskets, fill them with pond plant soil, plant the plants in that, cover with a layer of gravel to keep the soil in, and then just put them on the shelves around your pond. Me being me, though, wanted to try and make this project as eco friendly as possible, so I searched for other ways to do it. Turns out you can dig out clumps of turf, turn the turf upside down (so that the grass is pointing downwards), put that on the shelves in your pond, and then plant the pond plants in the now upright soil. I guess the theory is that the roots of the grass hold the soil together, so it doesn't float away in your pond. I actually did it this way and it worked fine, but I did muddy up our pond quite a lot and it took quite a few days for it to settle properly. So, if you're after a pristine pond, I suggest going with the baskets. Oxygenating and floating plants can literally just be thrown in the water.
STEP 9 Wait
Everything's done and dusted, the plants are in (beware, at the time of year we planted them - the beginning of March - they can look a little sad, and even dead, but they do revive in spring), we've not-very-artfully arranged some rocks and logs around the outside to provide shelter for smaller animals. We've sown wildflower seeds around the edges (I imagine them growing up to provide a corridor for wildlife that runs around our garden, allowing newts and frogs to hide in the undergrowth). And now we wait for everything to grow and - hopefully - some new wildlife to move in.