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Just add water: create a garden pond

Sharon Amos / 30 June 2022

Some say a garden isn’t a garden without a pond – and our favourite wild creatures certainly agree…

National Trust Acorn Bank pond
Acorn Bank pond © National Trust Images/Joe Wainwright

One of the big themes at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was biodiversity; how to maximise the variety of plants in your garden and attract more wildlife. And one of the simplest ways to do this is to add a pond. Birds and small mammals need water to drink; frogs, toads and newts need it to breed; and many insect larvae spend time underwater in their lifecycle. Dig a pond or repurpose an old Belfast sink and, before you know it, you’ll have a mini nature reserve on your doorstep.

Many gardeners believe that a garden isn’t a garden without a pond. There is also something inherently calming about gazing at water and research has shown that, like green spaces, ‘blue spaces’ have a positive effect on mental health.

The natural ponds in the woodland garden at Acorn Bank in Cumbria are an ideal place for quiet contemplation. It’s one of around 20 National Trust properties that has taken part in the Silent Space movement, where gardens set aside areas for visitors to switch off. At Acorn Bank, visitors are encouraged to put away their mobile phones and just ‘be’. ‘This is a completely wild area, just rushes and flag irises,’ says senior gardener Heather Birkett. ‘And it’s not actually silent, of course. The silence is inside your head, creating space to appreciate the dappled light on the water cast by the surrounding trees.’ The estate’s smaller formal lily pond is equally popular with people and wildlife. Great crested newts breed among the lily pads and retreat to the nearby drystone walls to overwinter.

Even if you’ve only got a tiny courtyard garden or a balcony, there’s no need to miss out on the pleasures of a pond. Emma Robertson of pond-plant specialists Tor Garden Plants in Devon makes mini ponds in anything that holds water, from old fire buckets to galvanised tubs. ‘It’s all about using the right size plant for the container,’ she explains. Whether you dig a full-size pond or grow a water lily in a half barrel, both you and the local wildlife will reap the benefit.

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What every pond needs

1 A shaded end for when things heat up in summer. This can be a tall pond plant that casts shade or a wall or fence – rather than a tree or hedge, which may shed leaves into the pond, affecting water quality.

2 A means of escape. A partly submerged branch or a rock close to the edge allows animals such as hedgehogs, who aren’t very good swimmers, to scramble out. In a larger pond, incorporate a shallow pebbly ‘beach’ or boggy area into your design.

3 Plants that provide cover along part of the pond edge so that newts and frogs can leave the water – and small mammals approach the water – without being picked off by predators.

4 Tall plants growing out of the water so that dragonfly larvae can climb out when they are ready to metamorphose.

Make an instant low-maintenance container pond

You will need a watertight container, such as an old zinc tub 30cm deep (try reclamation yards or junk shops); a heap of rocks; gravel; subsoil or poor-quality soil; planting baskets, flexible plastic pots or ordinary plant pots.

The plants

Emma Robertson’s selection for year-round interest

The corkscrew rush (Juncus spiralis) and variegated sweet flag (Acorus gramineus variegata) are evergreens. For spring colour, Emma suggests marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) with yellow flowers. Plant them in a mix of soil and gravel with a topping of gravel to keep the mix in place. These are marginal plants that grow at the water’s edge. Use the rocks to build a ledge so that the tops of the pots sit just below the water’s surface. You can even add a waterlily. Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Helvola’ is just 5cm across with waterlily flowers. It needs deeper water so sit the pot at the bottom of your container pond. These plants can be grown in a full-size pond too. Tor Garden Plants sells plant packs for container ponds.

What wildlife will I see?

As most gardeners who’ve created ponds will tell you, wildlife just turns up. The charity Froglife advises against collecting frogspawn as this spreads disease (frogs are vulnerable to viruses and fungal infection). Once your pond is established look out for dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies. These will attract swallows and swifts and, as dusk falls, bats. In the water you may see water boatmen, diving beetles and water scorpions – harmless, just vaguely similar in shape. Newts can be hard to spot among the plants. The pale-brown smooth newt is common. Finding a great crested newt in your pond is cause for celebration as this is a protected species. Grass snakes may visit in search of newts, froglets and tadpoles to eat. Don’t add fish – they’ll eat the pond creatures and silt up the water.

Plants for different depths

Marginal plants for shallow water

Marsh marigold Caltha palustris A spring flowering native species with bold yellow blooms. H30cm.

Brooklime Veronica beccabunga This has starry blue flowers in spring and summer. Its pliable leaves are ideal for newts, which lay their eggs singly on individual leaves then fold them over for protection. H:10cm.

Smooth iris Iris laevigata Delicate purply blue flowers with exquisite feathery markings in white and brown. The handsome sword-shaped leaves dieback in winter. Not a native plant, but irresistible. H:1m

For shallow water up to 15-20cm

Arrowhead Sagittaria sagittifolia Another UK native with, as its name suggests, arrow-shaped leaves and spires of white flowers with contrasting purple blotches. Flowers in late summer. 1m.

Flowering rush Butomus umbellatus Much prettier than it sounds with grassy leaves and tall stems of pink flowers that look a bit like alliums. Another native species. H:1m.

For deep water up to 75cm

Nymphaea ‘Gonnere’ A classic white water lily packed with petals and also sweetly scented. It’s been given the RHS Award of Garden Merit as a reliably performing plant. Another Nymphaea ‘Masaniello’ fragrant water lily, with pink flowers and contrasting yellow stamens.

Lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula Buttercup-yellow flowers in summer take over when marsh marigolds finish flowering. 1 H:1m.

Submerged oxygenating plants

Hornwort Ceratophyllum demersum As well as oxygenating the water – on a sunny day you can see it fizzing – hornwort provides a habitat for diving beetles, water boatmen and pond snails. It doesn’t need planting, as it’s free-floating.

Did you know your pond is covered under Saga Home Insurance? To get a quote call 0800 092 3188 or visit


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.