Hello, Pond! Or, So You’ve Realized Your Backyard is an Arid Wasteland of Despair

Perhaps the sound of flowing water soothes you. Maybe you want a spot for birds to drink and bathe.  Even if your house sits on a busy street and the only birds that visit are screeching blue jays, the day might arrive when you decide that your backyard must have a pond, and you must begin work that very afternoon with nothing more than high expectations and your own two hands.

This desert just needs a charming little pond to spruce it right up!

Planning Your New Pond

Expect this project to cost between $50 and $30,000, depending on how well you can control yourself from impulse buys at home improvement stores (note:  inflatable dragons are unnecessary for this project). You will need a shovel, decorative rocks, a pump, a filter box made from a Rubbermaid storage bin, filters, a pond liner, and enough paving stones to hold the liner along the pond’s edge. Later, you will also need an actual filter box because the Rubbermaid bin has split down the sides and failed entirely.

Next, decide on the location of your pond. This could be right outside your back door, where there might already be a covered outlet to power your pump. Maybe the oak tree in your neighbor’s yard shades this patch of land and will prevent the fish you plan to add from boiling alive in the subtropical sun. This is a good spot. (Never mind that the tree also dumps leaves year round, and you’ll spend every other day scooping them out of the water. Now’s the time to dig and dream, not think about long-term consequences!)

The finished project will definitely look exactly like this.

If you prefer not to flail around with a heavy, uncooperative sheet of black, stinky PVC, you can buy preformed pond liners of hard plastic, like kiddie pools with shelves. These are expensive, and the shape and depth constraints of a preformed pond liner can be frustrating when dealing with the sticky hell-clay that makes a poor excuse for your yard. Okay, maybe just buy the PVC liner that looks like a big black tarp and reeks of plastic off-gassing. Don’t worry about toxins leaking into the water; they probably won’t kill your fish and turn your charming pond into a noxious dead zone.

Building the Darn Thing

After an hour or so of battling the hell-clay with an ineffective shovel, you’ll realize that you need to determine the size and shape of your pond. Above-ground ponds fluctuate temperature more frequently than in-ground ponds. They also require additional costs in terms of material for the pond walls. Digging an in-ground pond will seem like the easier route. You might aim for an oval five feet long and three feet wide. Two feet is the recommended minimum depth for a pond with fish. It’s also the perfect depth for grabby little raccoon paws to snatch up your pets.

racoons love ponds
Be prepared for your new pets:  fifteen of these rolly-polly fish thieves.


After the second hour of ineffectual digging into your sticky hell-clay, you may be second-guessing your plans (what plans? you’re living in the moment!). Try to live somewhere with soft, pliable dirt, such as Iowa or in an episode of  TLC’s Gardening By the Yard. If that is not an option . . . eh, well, your pond hole is probably deep enough.

Although you planned for twenty-four inches of depth, eighteen should be enough for a subtropical climate that doesn’t see a hard freeze every winter, right? The ground will also insulate your pond. Yeah, this is sounding better.

Oh wait, but you hit a pipe twelve inches below the left half of your pond. Definitely stop digging. You were supposed to call 811 to have your utilities marked before starting, but you didn’t, did you? That’s okay; we’re living in the moment. Now your pond will have two depth levels. Fancy.

Like this! And not at all like a muddy hole in the ground.

Wrestle the pond liner into the hole and weigh it down with decorative rocks. As the pond fills with water of questionable quality from your hose, try to figure out what to do with the mountain of leftover, sticky hell-clay. Keep in mind that wherever you shovel it, the mountain will not dissolve. It will linger like the bad memory of joking about someone’s hearing only to later discover that they were deaf.

Arrange stones around the perimeter of the pond to hold down the liner’s edge. Stack more stones (perhaps ones you have “borrowed” from a public park; judgment-free zone!) into a waterfall at the shallow edge. Place your pump in the deep end of the pond, and run a hose along the pond’s edge from the pump to the waterfall. The two-tier structure will help ensure water circulates from one end of the pond to the other. Claim the design was intentional. So fancy.

Adding Life

Most sources advise waiting a month or more before adding fish so the water can develop a nitrogen cycle. You, however, are special and do not need to wait. Wearing smears of brownish-gray mud like war paint, drive to the pet store. Leave a trail of clay clumps from the parking lot to the wall of glowing cerulean tanks. Your pond is, oh, 200 gallons? Capacity doesn’t matter. Buy around 30 of those little feeder goldfish. When the associate asks what you’ll be feeding, jokingly say “raccoons.” Look into the little black eyes of your new pets. Gulp down the guilt. Circle of life and all that.

fish pond
These are koi. Only buy these for your whim-pond if your other hobbies include throwing money at the ocean.

If one day you worry that having a giant hole right beside your house’s foundation might be causing the structure to shift, you can adapt these steps and rebuild. Perhaps you’ll try an above-ground pond and avoid slogging through more of that miserable clay. And maybe after that, you’ll decide an in-ground pond is better after all, and hey, let’s add a little winding stream and ducks and tadpoles and stop lecturing me about self-control, Mom.