Introduction: Backyard Pond and Waterfall: No Experience Necessary!
I have wanted a pond my entire life. When I was seven I begged my mom to let me build one. and kept begging for the next nine years. When I turned sixteen, she finally said yes.
Five minutes later I was in the backyard with a shovel.
It took a few months to complete, though I only worked on weekends, and totaled around $2000. I had no experience, and was only going on the advice of the guy at my local pond store. It was a lot of work, but the result is beautiful. My mothers trepidation at the project was unnecessary; she loves it.
The point being, you do not need any fancy tools or experience in the concrete industry to make your backyard a paradise. If you have the time and the money, trust me, it's worth it. Your backyard should be a place where you can relax and unwind, and there is nothing more relaxing than the soothing sound of running water.
Step 1: Planning
Do your research first. The internet has a wealth of information, but an actual person with experience will be invaluable to you. Find a local pond store and pester them with every question you can think of. I'm not joking, ask them about absolutely everything. If they can't answer a lot of questions, find someone who can.
Now find a space in your yard. It is preferable to build it on a hill, but anywhere that looks pleasant should do, as you will see in the next step. It also helps to go see other ponds that have already been built.
Draw pictures of how you want it to look and show them to your pond supplier. It might also help to take a picture of the area and print it out, then you can draw directly on it.
I chose this area because is easy to see from the house and looks gorgeous underneath that tall Japanese maple.
Step 2: Digging
First dig the outline of your pond so you can see how big it will be. Pile all of the dirt where your waterfall will go as this will be how you will sculpt the contour of the falls. This is especially important if you are building it on flat ground, as it will give you the height you need for the falls. You may not need all the dirt, especially if you are on a steep hill like mine.
How big you want the pond depends on aesthetics, but also think about what you want in the pond. Koi need a LOT of surface area and it is best to have it at least 3 feet deep to prevent them getting eaten by birds. Goldfish are much smaller, and can stand a smaller pond. My pond ended up being about 9 feet wide by 4 feet and 3 feet deep. You might also want a shallower shelf around the perimeter of the pond to put potted plans on. Also be sure to slope the sides slightly so that it is easier when you put in the rocks later.
If you are make a deeper pond, dig the sides in steps so that each wall is shorter, and therefore more stable. The walls on the deep end of my pond are about 3 feet, but that really is a bit tall (I didn't have the room for more steps). Aim for the sides to step in segments of less than 3 feet.
Step 3: Sculpt!
We will be covering the dirt in a sheet of rubber liner and then stacking rocks on top of it, so first we need a general outline of how the water should move. I put in three small reservoirs with tall falls spilling into each, one after the other. Again, check out lots of pictures online to get inspiration for how you want your falls to look.
Make extra sure the walls of the falls are high enough. Mine weren't quite high enough so I had to glue a lot of rocks around the perimeter of the pools to keep it from spilling over.
Also keep in mind that the bigger the falls, the bigger the pump you need to buy. Your pond supplier will be able to tell you more, but my pump is 6600 gallons per hour and it was $600, the most expensive part of this project.
Step 4: Rubber and Rock
Go back to the pond store and pick up some rubber liner for your pond and waterfall. Measure the approximate surface area of your pond and then get a lot of extra liner. Too much is better than too little. Then simply drape the sheet over the contour of the dirt. As you can see in the second picture, I used a separate piece for my pond and my waterfall.
Ask your pond supplier where there are good places to get rock. Mine directed me to a lovely quarry where we got 3 tons of basalt stones. You want a mix of large and small and of different shapes. You shouldn't need any glue yet. Find rocks that fit together somewhat snugly and they should stack up nicely.
Step 5: Skimmer
You may want to also consider a skimmer, especially if you are building a larger pond. The have filters that take in debris and make cleaning a bit easier. Though skimmers are expensive, so talk about it with your pond supplier.
It is at this point that I apologize that I did not take pictures of the skimmer being installed. So I will attempt to describe it using pictures of it already installed.
The skimmer goes in a separate hole dug next to the pond so that the skimmer intake is right along the edge of the pond. There is a line on the front plate of the skimmer. This is where the water level should be. Dig the hole to the correct depth so that the intake is positioned at the right height for the water level to be where you want it. It is very important that the skimmer sits level in the hole. Make sure that the soil underneath is very compact and level. It might also be a good idea to put gravel and sand at the bottom so that you can get the skimmer perfectly level.
Once you have your skimmer in the position you want, you need to attach the liner. The faceplate of the skimmer comes off. The liner is screwed in tightly between the faceplate and the rest of the skimmer (see pic 5). The faceplate doubles as a gasket which seals the skimmer so that water can't leak between the skimmer and the liner. make sure that there are no folds in the liner around the faceplate as this will disrupt the seal and it will leak.
Once the faceplate is screwed in over the liner you will cut out the square of liner that is now covering the intake.
Lastly, cover everything up. As you can see in the sixth picture, I used a large piece of slate to cover the main body of the skimmer and smaller rocks around it and in front of the intake. It still shows in a couple places, but no one really looks close enough for it to matter. I even know its there, and I hardly ever see it because your eye is drawn to the rocks rather than the plastic.
Step 6: Keep Stacking! Your Almost There!
This is the part where you finally need glue. You'll need to seal around your spillover rock to keep water from just going under it. As you can see in the second picture, I used flat pieces of slate at the top of each waterfall. Use a foaming waterfall sealant like the one in the picture to glue and seal any rocks that you need to. As I said before, my walls weren't high enough so I glued rocks on either side of each spillover rock to keep the water on the right path.
(Pro tip: use rubber gloves when gluing. That foam is sticky and will stay on you hands for weeks and your clothes will be ruined forever, so don't wear your Sunday best)
As for everywhere else, just keep throwing rocks on until all of the liner is covered. I used small river rocks to fill in small crevices between larger rocks. I also covered the bottom in river rock.
Again, sorry for the lack of pictures. I did this three years ago.
Step 7: The Pump
The pump assembly is pretty simple. Pump attaches to pipe. Pipe takes water to top. You'll need to glue the pipe into the outlet on the pump, and maybe splice in a ball valve if you feel inclined to turn down the flow a bit, but this really isn't rocket science.
How you assemble your pump depends on what pump you have, if you're using a skimmer, and what other attachment you might want, so I won't go into detail on it. Again, talking with someone who has experience is your best option when deciding how to layout your pump.
Step 8: Fill 'er Up!
You might want to test the falls with your hose once, but after that you're done. Fill it up and fire up the pump. Add plants and rocks in and around the pond and enjoy your beautiful piece of nature!
Step 9: Final Notes
I have very hard clay where I live. This made it hard to dig, but it also means that the end product is very stable. If you have softer soil where you live you may want to add sand and compact it very well so that things don't sink when you add the rocks and water. Using larger, flatter rocks will also help.
Something else to think about is shelter for your fish. You can see in the picture that I used a piece of slate and a rock to create a hiding place for my fish. Before I did that there were herons coming to my yard and eating my fish!
Above all, trust yourself. You will make mistakes, but they won't ruin the project. Use your ingenuity, it won't fail you.