How to Build a Small Wildlife Pond (Cheap & Easy)

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How to Build & Make a Small Wildlife Pond (Preformed or Liner Options)

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What better way to start the new year than by diversifying your garden with a pond? An ornamental or wildlife pond is a wonderful means of introducing new life, color, and beauty to any type of outdoor space. Its uplifting effects on a garden’s ambience are unrivalled, especially as it can serve as a visually and audibly appealing water source for animals and plants.

With today’s ever-growing selection of pond construction tools and online resources, pond preparation and installation are easily considered DIY activities. Medium to larger-sized ponds may require additional contracted labor, but small, preformed ones may be installed with proper planning and just a few cost-efficient tools. Anyone with a passion for freshwater life and with the willingness to work with spades, shovels, and dirt can do it! 

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This step-by-step article will take you through all the vital parts of preparing for, installing, and finally adding finishing touches to your garden pond. Don’t hesitate to get creative, but also consider some of the maintenance requirements that your unique pond design will eventually need. Before beginning your project, canvas your locality for all potential sources of tools, building materials, and pond supplies. Once you’re confident about sourcing these, you’re good to go!

Step 1: Choose the right location for your pond.

Preformed pond shell

Find an area of the garden that can accommodate the size of your desired pond. A preformed pond shell should be light enough to move around the garden while searching for the best location. If the shape’s outline is irregular, test for the best fit by playing with different orientations. It helps to visualize the end result – create an illustration of the finished pond setup beforehand.

An extremely important consideration is the location’s access to water and electricity. Ideally, the sources of these should be just a few feet off the edge of your pond.

Step 2: Use stakes or poles to mark the desired area for the pond.

Wooden poles in soil

Once you’ve determined the exact location and orientation of the pond, you can use upright stakes, poles, or sticks to mark its edges. This is a fairly foolproof way of staying true to the preformed shell’s surface area. If the shell’s edges are irregular or are overhanging, the stakes should be taller than the height of the shell. The height allowance would make it extra easy to align the stake to the edge prior to pounding it into the substrate.

Pro-tip for shells with built-in shelves: before lifting out the shell, use a stick to draw a line around the outline of its base. This outline will come in handy, particularly if the base is narrower than the upper depth levels. You can use shorter stakes to mark the outlines of other depth levels too.

Step 3: Create an accurate outline with sand or spray paint.

Pond outline with poles and sand

Now that the stakes firmly mark the circumference of the preformed shell, you can create a linear outline for the pond. This should clearly mark the outermost edge, along with any narrower levels of the shell. The resulting outline should be a fairly accurate 2-dimensional depiction of all concentric features of the shell.

Give the sand or spray paint marking a width of at least 2 inches (oriented outward) off the initial markings. This will help guide you as you excavate with an outer allowance of approx. 2 inches. The inner outlines should have the same allowance as well.

Step 4: Double-check pond dimensions and prepare to dig.

Pond outline marked with sand

You can use a tape measure to double-check the pond outline’s dimensions. Before digging, you will need to establish the required depth of the hole, along with the depth of each level. Use a tape measure to vertically measure each level, along with the overall height, of the preformed shell. Add 2 – 3 inches to the depth of each level. For example, if the overall height of the shell is 24 inches, the overall depth of the hole should be 27 inches. This depth allowance will later be corrected by the addition of sand or packed substrate.

Step 5: Begin digging outward from the center of the outline.

Dug-out pond center

Once you have obtained the necessary depth measurements, you can begin digging! Use a sturdy garden shovel and a wheelbarrow to remove soil from the center of the outline. If you dig from the edge and move to the center, you will unfortunately lose the sand/paint markings for the concentric levels. Digging from the center would allow you to keep using the concentric markings for the built-in shelves as a guide.

It may be quite challenging to start from the center when dealing with narrow, yet deeper levels. Another option is to begin from the edge, but you’ll have to estimate where to replace the outlines of bottom shelves. Note that different challenges may arise depending on the type of substrate.

Step 6: Continue digging towards the outermost edge.

Partially dug-out pond

Keep in mind that the pond hole should have a depth allowance of 3 inches and a surface area allowance of 2 inches. This likewise applies to each shelf level. Once you have dug out the inner/deeper sections, you can begin breaking up the soil along the outermost edges. Remember to remove any substrates that fall into the base of the hole. Towards the end of this step, the sand outline should disappear completely.

Step 7: Clear out substrate until the excavation matches the pond’s outline.

Fully dug-out pond

What you want to achieve is an excavation that is the spitting image of your preformed pond shell. If you can’t get it to be exactly alike, or if you’ve removed more than the recommended amount of soil, you can use sand to make amendments later. For now, the idea is to match the shell’s outline as realistically as possible.

If the soil is loose along the edges, you may need to do some finetuning with a smaller spade. If your substrate is sandy or markedly porous, you may need to reinforce it with sturdier materials. Fortunately, with preformed pond installs, you need not worry about suspended substrates increasing turbidity later on.

Step 8: Clean the hole’s edges and make sure the surfaces are level.

Dug-out pond with a torpedo level tool

Go over the ledges and bottom of each level, taking care to make them neat, flat, and uniform. Make sure to remove any stones, roots, or buried materials that can skew the position of or cause dents on the preformed shell. Also, you can double-check the depth of each shelf using a tape measure, making sure the additional 3 inches are accounted for.

Once you’re satisfied with the form of each depth level, take a straight plank of plywood and place it across one of the shelves. Horizontally place a box beam or torpedo level on the wood and check for level alignment. Do this for each shelf (you may also do so along several locations per shelf) and the pond floor. Make adjustments in case of uneven results.

Step 9: Line the bottom of each depth level with wet sand.

Dug-out pond lined with sand

Once all bottom surfaces have been levelled, line each with a layer of sand. The sand makes for a nice sturdy base to support the preformed shell. It also creates a smoother and more evenly solid surface. If your hole’s depth allowance is 3 inches, it follows that the layer of sand should be 3 inches thick.

You may wet the sand beforehand to ensure that it is compact. The walls of each shelf need not be lined with sand.

Step 10: Level out the sand.

Dug-out pond being checked for level alignment

To evenly spread the sand particles, you can use a hand rake. Level out the surface with a spade, the back of the rake, or with a gloved hand. Once you’re done, you will need to check for levelled surfaces once more. Follow the same procedure that was indicated in step 8, making amendments by adding or removing sand.

Depending on how flush or level you’d like the pond’s edge to be with the surrounding substrate, you can modify the height of the sand lining. To prevent run-off from entering the pond, you can adjust measurements to ensure that the edge is 2 – 4 inches higher than soil level.

Step 11: Install the preformed shell into the hole.

Installed preformed pond shell

Once the sand is completely levelled out, you can finally install the preformed shell! If the dimensions of the hole are fairly accurate, the built-in shelves should easily ease into the ground. You shouldn’t have to force in the structure, as the 2-inch allowance would account for small deviations. If you have trouble installing the shell, make sure it is oriented in the proper direction.

Note that the outermost shelf may be a few inches higher than the surrounding soil level, depending on the depth allowance and amount of sand used.

Step 12: Slowly add water to weigh down the shell and check for alignment.

Preformed pond shell being filled with water

If you’ve been eager to start filling in the pond from the very beginning, then this step is definitely for you! Don’t be hasty, however, as it makes more sense to fill gradually. At this stage, the water should simply help weigh down the structure and keep it flush with the excavation. Always be sure to de-chlorinate your water when your add more to ensure it’s safe for wildlife and fish.

You should also be able to check for imbalances, as the water level can be used to gauge alignment. If the shell is tipped over toward one side, as indicated by a sloping water level, some areas of the excavation may require more or less sand. Again, you can use the torpedo or beam levels by placing them across the installed pond shell.

Step 13: Fill in the gaps and edges with more sand.

Partially filled preformed pond shell

When you’re finally satisfied with how the pond shell sits in the hole, you can begin filling in any remaining gaps, including underneath the overhanging edge, with compact sand. The end result should be a shell that fits tightly into the ground and does not wobble or budge. Ideally, the margin should smoothly transition into the surrounding sanded edge.

Note that water and unwanted particles can accumulate in exposed gaps, so it would be best to pack the sand tightly.

Step 14: Begin landscaping the edges.

Pebbles placed around the pond edge

This step makes much more room for creativity! Though preformed ponds can seem inorganic, a uniquely landscaped edge provides enough character and texture to offset any rigidness. Try to illustrate a design beforehand as this will help you distribute materials more efficiently. A planned design would also hasten the purchasing process and would help you pinpoint which materials can be recycled or gathered from within your garden.

Avoid filling in the pond completely at this stage. Residue, debris, and disturbed substrates can make their way into the pond shell, which may need to be cleaned prior to being filled in completely.

Step 15: Consider reinforcing surrounding substrates with stones, rocks, and liner.

Pond liner weighed down with rocks

The area around the pond can be fully lined, establishing some continuity between the preformed shell and the landscaped edge. Neatly tuck the liner underneath the margins of the preformed shell. Some elevated patches within the landscaped edge can be left unlined.

Make sure to weigh down the liner with small boulders and heavy stones. To add some depth, you can opt to partly bury some of the larger rocks. This would pleasantly contrast the smooth edges of the adjacent preformed shell.

Step 16: Mark/secure the edges of your setup with bricks or stones.

Stone slabs around the pond liner edge

Weigh down the outermost layers of your liner with some bricks or stones. This creates a deliberate, yet somewhat natural, edge to the landscaped pond setup. The orientation and structure of this outer edge should complement the shape of the pond itself.

Neat lines can accentuate organic curves and be more visually relaxing. Here, the square stone slabs are neatly arranged next to one another, forming a circular outline for the landscaped edge.

Step 17: Create openings for plants.

Pond liner decorated with plants & rocks

As edge plants will require access to the underlying substrate, you can create perforations in the liner to accommodate them. It would be prudent to make use of species that have a high tolerance for wet feet, as the surrounding liner may significantly reduce soil evaporation times.

Another option is to place a layer of substrate directly onto the liner instead. However, this may only be suitable for plants that produce shallow roots, such as ground cover species.

Step 18: Make sure the water source remains unobstructed and is secure.

Empty pond shell with decorated pond liner

For ease of maintenance, a water source that is compatible with a hose should be situated close to the pond. Make sure that it is located in an area that is fairly free of obstacles. Boulders and densely planted edge grasses may cause hose entanglements. These may also get in your way whenever you wish to conduct water changes or clean the pond.

Use natural colors, such as white, green, or black, for hoses, outlets, valves, wires, etc. as these are more likely to blend into the background of your setup.

Step 19: Leave gaps for substrate and lining toppers.

Pond liner with pebbles & plants

To create texture and contrast, or to achieve an organic finish for the pond edge, you can make use of an assortment of pebbles and substrates as toppers. Place these on your setup once you have designated areas for larger decorative elements and plants. Simply leave gaps in between these elements so that you know which spaces will need to be filled in later on.

Step 20: Use a desired substrate topper for depth levels in the pond and around the edges.

Pond liner topped with pebbles

A mix of natural-toned pebbles and stones makes for a beautiful and relatively low-cost topper. It effectively hides the liner underneath and reduces the need for more edge plants, which inevitably will require more maintenance. Use your creativity and experiment with topper thickness, spread, and color.

If you would like to have elevated mounds, use sand or soil to build up a base. You need not pile on layers of the topper unless working with excess material. This will help you cut down costs as sand is cheaper than pebbles and larger stones. 

Step 21: Tidy up any inorganic elements on the pond’s edges and margins.

Fully covered pond liner

Once you’ve put all edge materials and plants in place, clean up and remove any excess portions of unwanted debris. You can then add your finishing touches!

A great way to get the pond shell to blend in with the edge features is by naturalizing the built-in shelves. Here, some pebbles and stones have been distributed throughout the uppermost shelf. This subtle touch also helps hide the black pond shell. You can add a few potted marginal plants to help cover the shell’s outline.

Step 22: Fill up the rest of the shell with water.

Hose filling pond shell with water

Clear out any excess sand or dirt that has settled onto the surfaces of the preformed shell. You can finally fill in your pond with water! Avoid doing so before you have finalized working with substrates as these can get lifted and may settle into the pond. ALWAYS dechlorinate water as chlorine can be very toxic to both fish and native wildlife. 

Consider investing in a pond pump to prevent the water from becoming stagnant. Keep in mind that stagnant water, especially in the absence of predators, may accumulate pathogens and encourage mosquitoes to breed in your garden. A pump and filter will effectively improve water conditions, reducing waste accumulation and pathogen growth.

Step 23: Enhance the edge with grasses, shrubs, and trailing plants.

Plants around pond edge

Over time, your edge plants will grow and spread to create vertical dimension and complexity. These are vital elements for ponds that are made to attract wildlife. Pond inhabitants and visitors will benefit from the structure and shade provided by plants. They may also feed on plant material.

A setup designed like this one allows for quick modifications of the pond’s edge. Annual plug plants can easily be incorporated into the underlying structure. Arrangements of stones and pots can also be adjusted through the year to create some seasonal variation.

Step 24: Leave room for the hose and any electrical components for ease of pondside maintenance.

Small garden pond

Regularly maintain your edge plants and other edge features to ensure that any maintenance materials and technical requirements remain unobstructed. Easy access is key to rapid maintenance. You definitely wouldn’t want your hose getting entangled in shrubs or lost underneath stones.

Step 25: Consider using turf and installing a pathway around the pond setup.

Garden pond with stone pathway

Let’s not forget the garden area around the pond setup! Good design takes into consideration accessibility and comfortable observation. Well-maintained, healthy turf can go quite a long way in terms of elevating small gardens and complementing simple ponds. A pathway made with evenly colored stone slabs makes for a subtle, yet inviting, feature to lure visitors toward the pond’s edge. A pebbled or brick path should do the trick as well!

Step 26: Add the final touches & watch your garden pond environment thrive!

Small pond in a garden

Now that the pond is fully installed and edge features are finally in place, you can work on designing the pond itself! Add a few ornamental fish or aquatic plants to naturalize the pond. A mini-fountain, water spitters, or pondside sculptures are nuanced additions that can truly set apart your garden.

Don’t forget that every living addition to the pond comes with its own set of survival requirements. Try to choose a combination of species that share the same preferences. Lastly, pat yourself on the back as a DIY garden pond is something anyone can be proud of!

Brief Instructions for Creating a Wildlife Pond Using Liner

If you’d like to use a PVC pond liner instead of a preformed pond shell, browse through the steps below. Many pond enthusiasts opt to use liners as they provide more flexibility when it comes to pond design. A truly unique, freeform pond can easily be created with liner and provides more room for error. The hole need not mimic an exact shape and can be made as wide or as deep as one would wish. Hidden pipes and machinery can also be bonded to the liner.

Step 1: Dig out a hole for your pond and spread out the liner.

Pond liner being spread out
Joseph C/

You’ll need to first determine your desired pond shape and size. These would be largely affected by the features of your garden. Use sand or paint to mark the periphery of the pond. You can begin digging from the edge of the shape, gradually making your way towards the center. You are free to determine the steepness of the slope from the edge. You can also create shelves.

Make sure to clear out any roots, stones, rocks, or rough debris. Once you are satisfied with the overall shape and depth of the pond, you can begin laying down the liner. If the substrate is rough or porous, consider using an underlay.

Step 2: Secure the liner and fill the pond with water.

Pond liner filled with water
Joseph C/

Once the liner fits in a snug manner on all the contours of the hole, you can begin to weigh it down. For an irregular pond, work from the center toward the edges of the hole. Depending on the size, level, and structure of the bottom, you can make use of planks, large stones, soil, bricks, or even pots. The edges should be securely weighed down, or they can be folded into an anchor trench.

Next, fill the pond with water. The water should weigh down the liner, allowing it to fit even more snugly into all the curves of your excavation.

Step 3: Add a bottom substrate and water features.

Small pond with a mini fountain
Joseph C/

After trimming any excess liner and securing the edges, you can begin to modify the contents of your pond. As wildlife ponds are most effective when they are highly naturalized, it would be best to use substrates and plants to hide the liner. These would also contribute to a more organic finish.

Stones that are placed in the pond should be cleaned beforehand to prevent the water from becoming muddy. A water feature, such as a miniature fountain, would help generate a current, regulate temperature, and increase dissolved oxygen levels.

Step 4: Create planted margins and edges.

Man placing soil around pond edge
Joseph C/

The most effective wildlife ponds are those with planted edges and margins. These ensure that visiting animals are afforded some protection prior to entering or after exiting the pond. As many animals will simply visit the pond for a quick drink, they are likely to rest in the cool shade of vegetation.

When choosing plants for your pond’s margins and edges, prioritize native species. These are more likely to have a manageable growth rate and would be more effective at attracting local fauna. Note that the substrate level for your planted edge should be lower than the pond margin. This should prevent pond water loss and accumulation of run-off.

1 thought on “How to Build a Small Wildlife Pond (Cheap & Easy)”

  1. Thanks for these two designs. Very well planned and turned out beautifully. With all the work that goes into making one of these, it’s good to have a guide such as this one.


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