How to Build a Backyard Water Garden – Phase 1

Before you get started:

A little inspiration

backyard pond 

Just a little heads up. I did some prep work while I was still in the dreaming phase. I already had a rough idea as to where I wanted my pond, and when I was doing a previous project, I had an outlet installed nearby to power my pond pump, lights or aerators. The waterfall pump I used came with a 25’ cord on it, so as long as there is power within that distance, you will be all set. Just be sure the outlet is GFCI protected and you follow the electric codes for your area.

When you set out to build your vision, change the dimensions to whatever suits you. I am just stating what I used, and that may differ from what you may be trying to accomplish. You can follow this exactly, or put your own spin on it. Either way, something amazing will come out of it! Now, lets get started

Location & Layout

So these first few steps aren’t just about how to build a backyard water garden, but also WHERE to build one. This is an important step. Remember that choosing a location so your garden can be viewed in all four seasons is important to maximize your enjoyment. Your chosen location will allow you to enjoy it during the winter months or on a rainy day. A view from your dining room, kitchen or living room is ideal. I see many people opt to put their ponds in their front yard. If that’s where it needs to go so you have maximum viewing time throughout the year, so be it. One word of advice, before you even get out your shovel, be sure there are no underground utilities on your site.

Now that you’ve chosen your location and are completely satisfied with it, it’s time to lay out the shape you envision. Location and layout go hand in hand. Sometimes the location will dictate the shape, where some locations are a blank slate, like in my case. Either way, use a garden hose or extension cord and place it in the shape that you want your pond. Take your time with this step. After you have done this, step back and look at it from various locations, inside and outside of your home. You may even want to leave it for a day or so and see if it suits you.

Don’t be afraid of going too big. 10′ x 15′ seems like a good size, but when you measure it out in your space outside it may not feel as large.

Once you’ve decided “this is it” take a can of spray paint and go around the perimeter moving the hose or cord out of the way as you go. This will give you an even clearer picture if what you are about to do. The next step is to get your flat edged shovel, and chop around the entire perimeter. This will create an edge for removing the grass if you have any. Then scrape off all the grass, about an inch deep. The sod you take out does not make for good back fill, because it will settle quite a bit as the grass decomposes.Pond outline

Another thing to consider is the placement of your water feature and skimmer box. These should be located at opposite ends of the pond to ensure proper water circulation. Again, use a garbage can or something to represent the water feature and step back to see if it fits your vision.

Order Supplies

The reason you want to order your supplies now before you start digging is so you can put your waterfall and skimmer box in place. It helps to have things where they will go. Also, as you dig the pond, you will use the dirt to back fill around the waterfall. I’m not going to go into too much detail about supplies here, just a short list. For a more in depth discussion on that topic click on the product reviews tab in the main menu.   One convenient way to be sure you have all the supplies and that they will fit together is to use a pond kit.  That’s what I used to build this project.  Any way, here is a list of common supplies you will need.

  • Pond Liner
  • Liner underlayment
  • Waterfall
  • Skimmer box
  • Filter media
  • Submersible pond pump
  • Check valve
  • Return line
  • Beneficial bacteria
  • Lava rocks
  • Waterfall foam
  • Submersible lights (optional)
  • UV light (optional)
  • Rocks and boulders (more than you think you will need)
  • Gravel
  • Flat flagstone

Time To Go To Work

Now that’s out of the way we can begin. In my case I ordered my materials, and while I was waiting for them to ship I waterfall basebegan to dig. Like I said, I am on a tight budget, so that means no heavy equipment rental. All I have is a vision, a shovel, and a will! I wanted a 36-inch drop from where my waterfall spilled out to the surface of my pond. In order to achieve that I had to build up the ground and make sure it wouldn’t settle. I used 8 inch cinder blocks directly under where my waterfall was going to be placed. I filled the hollow cores of the blocks with dirt and compacted it down. This gave me a level surface, with minimal settling to rest my waterfall unit.

Now, with all my items ordered, My outline set, and my cinder blocks in place I began to dig down to my first layer. When you begin to dig a pond you want to go down in steps or levels. First dig the whole outline down about 12 inches. All the while dumping the dirt around where you want your waterfall to go. Compact the dirt as you go. It’s amazing how much settling can occur in a season, so packing it down is very important.

This is where I ran into trouble. At about 12 inches down, my shovel hit something. Wouldn’t you know it, there was conduit (plastic tube that protects an electric line) running right through the middle of my pond location! I didn’t let this stop me. I had to dig around it, and then reroute it. It took some time, and it was a minor setback. Remember, “nothing worthwhile is easy”! Another of my “dad sayings”. OK enough with this tangent, now back to the task at hand.

Now with the entire shape of your pond dug out to a 12-inch depth its time to grab your spray paint once again. Create another shape, about 12 to 18 inches in from the edge. You can either follow the existing shape of the pond, or create a different shape all together. You are creating a perfect shelf for plants to thrive at various depths. This will also help during the rocking process and when its time for seasonal maintenance. It will allow you to get in and out of your pond easier.

At this point you may want to wait for all of your supplies to arrive. I recommend, waiting to place your waterfall piece before digging anymore. You want to be sure you have enough dirt to cover up and gently slope your waterfall mound.

The Supplies Have Arrived

Now that you have all your supplies, Attach all the necessary fittings and your water line to your waterfall and place it in its location. Be sure that it is level from side to side. You don’t want the water to rush out of one side and not the other. You also want to make sure it is slightly pitched forward to ensure the water flows properly.

Another side note, as you dig you want to make sure the ground around the pond is level. Use a level on top of a board that spans the width and length of the pond to check for level. In my case the ground had a slight pitch to it, so I had do build up one side as I dug.

With your next shelf outlined, and your waterfall in place its time to start digging again. Dig this layer down another 12 inches, all the while placing the dirt around your waterfall, compacting it as you go. At this time it is a good idea to dig a trench as seen below, from your waterfall to your skimmer box. This trench does not have to excessively deep. 12 inches or so will suffice. After you have done this, lay your water line in the trench and make sure its long enough. In my case it was 4 feet short, but a quick trip to the store fixed that. I added an extension using a rubber boot and pipe clamps.

Now would be a good time to place your skimmer box where it will go. Trace around it and then dig out it’s shape. Your water line will be about a quarter of the way down from the top of your skimmer box opening. Keep this in mind when digging out for your skimmer box. Again, try not to disturb the ground below the depth of the box to reduce the amount of settling. Male sure your skimmer is placed level front to back and side to side. Don’t back fill around the skimmer box at this time in case you want to fine tune it later.

The Final Step Down

Now for the last of the digging. Again, grab you spray paint and trace another outline for your final depth of your pond. Dig this shape out another 12 inches or so, again placing the dirt around your waterfall, and compacting as you go. After you are finished, go around the entire area and look for any sharp stones or roots that may cause a problem in the future and remove them.

In Conclusion There’s No Where To Go But Up

In conclusion to the first installment, I hope this has been helpful, and given you a good idea as to how to build a water garden. Now that you have a giant hole in your space its time to fill it back in. The fun begins in the next part. This is where you will truly see your water garden come to life.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them below and I will get back to you.




9 thoughts on “How to Build a Backyard Water Garden – Phase 1

    1. Last summer the algae was tough to stop. Using barley straw, about one pound per 2000 gallons helps to prevent the initial growth of the algae. However it does not kill it, it only prevents it from growing initially. If there is already algae in the water then the use of a UV light will be necessary to kill it.

      Thanks for commenting, best of luck on all your future projects!

  1. An amazing article that inspires many I’m sure. Backyard water gardens are the best, and love looking at them when I get the chance. Being in a northern climate, is there any worry about the freeze of winter and affecting your liner and equipment?

    1. I’m in a northern climate myself, and as far as the liner goes there is no worry of damage. I did remove the pump for the winter, but my main concern was keeping my fish alive. It’s not the temperature that would harm them it’s if the water freezes over. This causes gases to build up, and could harm the fish. To solve that I installed an aerator to keep the water moving. If you have any more questions please feel free to ask. Thanks for visiting.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    really interesting article. It would be great if I could create something half as good as your photos! looking at my own garden something similar could be achieved following your helpful guidelines. I am wondering if there is any way of checking for utilities before I start.

    1. The most difficult part is getting started. Once you start you will look back and say, well I can’t stop now, I’ve come this far. Before you know it you will create something amazing. Where I live there is a phone number I can call and they will come out and mark all the utilities. I failed to do that, and caused myself a headache. If you do start your project and have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks for reading.

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