How to: Build a Wildlife Pond
One of the most important elements of any habitat is water.
Wildlife from birds to bees all need to drink daily, and many also need to bathe regularly to maintain their plumage or coat in good condition even in the winter. Other creatures, including amphibians and a huge range of invertebrates rely on water to breed; indeed some spend their entire lives around water sources. There are many different things you can do to attract wildlife to your garden and give nature a space to thrive but providing water is, I think, one of the most exciting and rewarding. Whether your home is in the heart of the city, or in a rural spot, by building a pond in your back yard (or your school/community garden), you will soon find wildlife moving in.
Of course, if you’ve never built a pond before it can be daunting, and hard to know where to start. Not every pond is a wildlife haven – the unyielding concrete forms of strict formal gardens, with their steep sharp sides and limited flora, offer less opportunity for colonisation than a softer, greener approach. But that doesn’t mean you need to turn over half your plot to an overgrown jungle of reeds, pond weed and hidden depths of mud and water. Wildlife ponds can be both beautiful and safe, and come in all sorts of shapes, styles and sizes. Whatever its design, to be a successful thriving wildlife habitat, each pond will share a few common guidelines on planting and features.
Access – It’s no good building a pond for wildlife if the wildlife can’t get in our out! Most invertebrates using ponds such as dragonflies and water beetles can of course simply fly from one pond to another. Other animals such as amphibians need a shallow edge or ramp to allow them to crawl in and out of the water. Birds and mammals will also come to the pond to drink, and need somewhere safe to reach the water. Hedgehogs come to drink but also to search for food in the damp margins of ponds. They can swim but will soon tire trying to get out of the water and are at risk of drowning if there isn’t an escape route.
Planting – when it comes to planting a pond you can get really creative. Ponds are a great opportunity for ‘plantaholics’ to expand their collection to include plants that simply wouldn’t be happy growing in drier areas of the garden. Some of our native wildflowers are delightfully pretty, and you could be helping to preserve species disappearing from our wider countryside.
The three main groups of plants you need for a great wildlife pond are:
- Oxygenator plants– these plants, often in the form of submerged weed, put oxygen into the water as they photosynthesise, essential for a healthy pond.
- Emergent plants– these are the plants such as reeds and rushes, which grow out of the water and provide a perfect place for creatures such as dragonfly and damselfly larvae to climb out. You can plant them in baskets and place on ledges or bricks in and about the pond itself. Different varieties of plants prefer different planting depths so do a little research first.
- Marginal plants – some plants like to grow beside water in damp places, but outside the main body of the pond. The bright yellow Kingcups, tall Purple-loosestrife or the scented Water Mint are examples. Amphibians will use the moist shelter of these plants as they travel to and from the pond, to hide from predators and search for invertebrate prey.
These plant categories include both British natives and their cultivated cousins. Be careful of exotics, especially if near to natural watercourses such as rivers, as some can be very invasive and soon escape and spread (which could get you into trouble!).
Niches and shelter – a variety of spaces or ‘micro-habitats’ within the pond will maximise the wildlife you attract. Try to incorporate different depths of water, some open water and some covered or planted, plus places for wildlife to hide. Broken terracotta flowerpots or bits of old pipe are ideal, as well as planting and pond weed. An old log floating on the surface or laid across the water from the bank is a great place for amphibians to hop in and out, and birds to perch for drinking.
My wildlife pond filling with rain water, soon after construction, early March 2017
This is my wildlife pond. It is constructed from half an old water butt, part-buried into the bank along the boundary of my allotment. I built up a pile of rocks and stones on one side to create different levels with nooks and crannies, and used an old semi-circular hanging basket filled with washed gravel to form a partly submerged platform. An upturned flowerpot resting on two bricks makes a dark hiding place, and a stick emerging from the water is a welcoming perch. Oxygenating weed keeps the water fresh and the surrounding plants have been chosen for their wildlife friendly properties.
I use a pair of rubber gloves and fish out any fallen leaves from partly overhanging trees, to stop them rotting which would otherwise encourage green algae to clog the water. I always leave the leaves on the edge of the pond for a day or so, to allow any tiny creatures to find their way back into the pond, before tidying the rubbish away to the compost heap.
Building a wildlife pond is a project that can be started at any time of year. Late winter is perfect, as wildlife will begin to move as the weather warms up, and your water feature will quickly be discovered and welcomed by all sorts of creatures through the spring and summer.
There is lots more advice and help online, a few sites I have found useful are:
Ps. I’d love to see pictures of your wildlife pond creations, big or small. Perhaps you’ve been creative with a container, or transformed that part of your garden that always collects a puddle?
I always welcome comments on the blog, or I can be found for a chat on Twitter @sxfieldnotes or Facebook/SussexFieldNotes.