Gardening adventures,  Permaculture and Edible Forest Gardening Adventures,  Ponds

Re-Ponding: Changing a lined pond into a natural pond


Draining the pond with a hose syphon.

The little upper pond which my daughter and I laboriously created about seven years ago has finally come to the end of its life.  Home to dragonflies, mosquito fish, snails, and some interesting black flatworms, and having provided habitat for snakes, birds, mice and frogs, this lined pond has been beautiful and most satisfactory.  Having been given the black flexible pond liner sheet, a lot of very heavy flagstone and some stones, we had cut down a juniper, dug out the roots in heavy clay and rocks, shaped the earth into ledges for nursery pots of waterlilies, and leveled the edges.  Everything I read about ponds said to put gravel into it, so against my better judgement I did, and immediately regretted it.  The gravel prevented me from walking barefoot in the pond, was a danger to the liner, made walking on the ledges in boots very slippery, and has trapped sediment and roots (end of anti-gravel rant).  The pond was aerated by a series of very expensive pond pumps, which trickled water down a little waterfall and impacted my electric bill.  This pond was a maintenance problem; I would pull out the algae (carefully picking through it to save trapped fish, snails and dragonfly larvae), but the waterlilies got the better of me.  I had no idea that they would grow so huge and disgusting underwater. (See my post The Monster in the Pond, March 2, 2010.)  Anyway, after the last pump died this summer, and after the enormous success of the two natural, unlined ponds Aquascape created for my permaculture gardens, I decided that I would change this pond into a natural one.

Digging a shallow end for the pond.

This area is also the one in which we do our Project FeederWatch bird count for Cornell (, and was our original National Wildlife Foundation Wildlife Habitat ( ), which now has extended to our entire property.  I wanted a shallow end to the pond with planted waterplants that would clean the water and provide shallow habitat for all the Pacific chorus frogs that come up in late January to breed in the pond.  In fact, they’ve been croaking their way up the property already, so now I’m in a rush to get the pond finished for them.

The liner was covered with a mat of plant roots and gravel.

Once again I found myself moving large pieces of flagstone and rocks, although I’m seven years older than I was last time, and my back let me know it.  Then began the draining of the pond.  I tried to start a syphon the way I do to clean my fishtank, by sucking air through a hose and very, very quickly dropping it before I sample the water.  I couldn’t get it started. I did get an interesting circular red mark on my lips, which I had to explain that afternoon at my dentist appointment.  The difference in elevation between the top and bottom of the hose was not great enough, even though we put together all our hoses and strung them out down the property.  I tried to fill the hose with water, but it didn’t work.  A phone call to the pond expert, Jacob from Aquascape, made me slap my head with an exclaimed, “Duh!”  He recommended attaching the hose to a spigot, sending water through to the pond to fill the hose, then removing the end from the spigot.  The water would flow back and the vacuum would start the syphon.  Probably everyone in the world knows this, and I knew there was something about attaching a hose that I should do, but couldn’t figure out.  Anyway, it worked, but the syphon was a trickle.  After many starts and stops, and running back and forth up and down the property, my daughter and I discovered in the morning that the syphon had worked, and almost a quarter of the water had drained.  I kept restarting the syphon, until only about a quarter of the water was left.  The aroma of the sludgy water infiltrated the house and the yard.  I made a fire in the fireplace figuring that for once the smoke was a good thing!

The monster in the pond, revisited.

My dear daughter, before returning to college, tackled that monster in the pond.  The waterlily was so huge and slippery that she managed to break pieces off but not pull the whole thing out; in fact, she was in danger of being pulled in by it!

Saving water lily chunks to make new plants.

Today, with Jacob’s help (actually, he did most of it!), we pulled all the lilies out of the pond.  The root systems of the three, which had outgrown their meager nursery containers years ago, just about filled the bottom of the pond.  I scraped gravel up with my rubber-gloved hands and then began scooping the remaining water and sludge out with a bucket.

An egret looks hopefully into the sludge.

I threw the water onto the plants, and then when the sludge of decayed algae, plant material and soil became thick, I poured it over my bulb beds as a fertilizer.  There may be a high concentration of salts in the muck, but the nutrition value should be wonderful.  And it makes the ground around my bulbs a lovely black color!

Sludge makes good fertilizer!

I almost finished, half-bucketful at a time, hauling water up and out of the pond and onto various areas of the garden, and indeed I meant to finish.

Scooping sludge into a bucket.

But with about an inch or more of sludge to go, with yet more gravel to scoop, my body said, “Nope!  You’re done!”  I also had missed breakfast and had only snacked today, and had been exercising,  hiking, planting and weeding for the last few days so I told my self that I had a decent excuse to stop.  I took a long hot bath to soak the splashes of yuck off of me, and will continue into the muck and mire tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

Our fat cat Pippin, who has nothing to do with this story!

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