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How to design and build a wildlife pond

Martyn Cox / 06 March 2013 ( 27 February 2018 )

If you really want to attract a wide range of wildlife to your garden then you need a pond. Not just any pond, but one that has been specially designed and planted to provide habitats, cover, food and perches for a wide range of creatures

Garden pond with flowers and shrubs
Making a small pond is really quick and easy

One of the best things you can do to help wildlife is provide a pond. A pond provides drinking water for birds and mammals, and a breeding area and habitat for amphibians and insects. Making a small pond is really quick and easy. A 1m by 1m pond in my own back garden took me less than two hours to build, but obviously the larger the pond, the longer it will take you.

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Designing a wildlife pond

Before heading outdoors with a spade, it’s best to sketch out a rough plan of your desired pond on paper. Avoid geometric shapes, going instead for a gently curved outline, which will look more natural.

Once you’re happy with the shape, mark out the pond on the ground with a line of sand. Choose a spot that is in light shade - some sunlight will help plants to grow, but too much will promote the growth of algae.

Read our six tips for a wildlife-friendly garden

Digging out the wildlife pond

Step 1

Mark out your pond. Find a site that is sunny or partially shady, but not too close to trees to avoid too many leaves falling in. Mark the outline using string.

Step 2

Dig the pond out. The pond should be about 90cm deep in the centre to give creatures a place to shelter over winter. Create a flat shelf (30cm wide and 30cm deep) for standing plants on around part of the perimeter, leaving the rest gently sloping to allow pond visitors access in and out of the water. Avoid steep sides as any creature that accidentally topples in may find it hard to escape.

Step 3

Prepare the surface. Remove any protruding stones and cover the excavation with a layer of sand, underlay or old carpet to prevent rocks piercing the lining. 

Step 4

Line the pond. Now lay a flexible butyl or rubber liner. To work out how much you need, double the maximum depth of the pool, then add this to the length of the pool to find the total length of liner needed. Now add double the maximum depth to the width to give the total width of liner needed. Multiply the two figures together to find the total area of liner for your pond. Carefully place the liner over the hold and push it into place, trying to remove any folds.

Step 5

Fill the pond. Slowly fill the pond with water. Rain water is ideal as tap water is very high in nutrients that can cause algae. Cut off the excess liner, leaving about 15cm all around the outside. This edge can then be buried under soil, or covered with pieces of turf or stones.

Step 6

Line with stones. Make a pebbly beach on the gently sloping sides with a selection of large and small pebbles, and gravel. Use larger stones around the edge of the pond and graduating their size as you work down the slope. Aim to build a ramp with the stones from the outside to the floor of the pond.

Step 7

Place your plants. Carefully select plants that will benefit the wildlife you hope to attract, and select a mixture of oxygenating plants and plants that grow above the surface of the water. See below for more on plants, and a list of British native pond plants.

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Choosing plants for your wildlife pond

To keep the water healthy and provide a variety of habitats you need a mix of submerged oxygenators, floating aquatics, deep water aquatics and marginal plants.

First add your submerged oxygenators. Hair grass (Eleocharis acicularis), hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and water crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) are ideal. Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) or water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos) are perfect floating plants, while dwarf water lilies can be placed in the deepest part of the pond. 

Arrange a mixture of dwarf reed mace (Typha minima), branched bur-reed (Sparganium erectum), Hippuris vulgaris and pretty blue Iris pseudacorus on the shelf around the side.

Look out for plants that meet the different needs of wildlife. Flowering plants such as purple loosestrife and marsh woundwort will attract pollinating insects, while plants with broad, flat leaves that float on the surface, such as amphibious bistort, provide cover for larvae under water and create a space for dragonflies to bask. 

Plants that spread on the surface, such as ivy-leaved duckweed, provide shade for creatures under the water and also a space to hide for invertebrates. 

British native pond plants
British native pond plants, clockwise from top right: pond waterlily, yellow iris, purple loosestrife, marsh marigold.

British native aquatic plants for ponds

If you're planning a wildlife-friendly pond you might be interested in opting for British native pond plants. There is a wide range available, and many of them are both attractive and beneficial for wildlife.

Different plants will require different habitats, some plants are better suited to the wet soil of a bog garden or pond margin, while others need to be submerged. Reputable nurseries will provide information about how deep the plants should go so chck the description before planting. On this list shallow water is anything from 5cm/2" to 20cm/8".

Common name Latin name Description Habitat
Amphibious bistort Persicaria amphibia Bright pink spikes of flowers, large floating leaves. Loved by dragonflies. Deep water
Arrowhead Sagittaria sagittifolia White flowers with purple middles. Shallow water
Brooklime, water speedwell Veronica beccabunga Tiny blue flowers that spreads across the pond surface. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water.
Common cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium Fluffy cotton wool-like seedheads on grassy foliage. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water. Prefers acidic soil.
Devils bit scabious Succisa pratensi Round purple flowers. Bog garden
Dwarf lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula subsp. minimus A dwarf version of lesser spearwort. Yellow buttercup flowers. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Flowering rush Butomus umbellatus Beautiful pink and purple clusters of flowers. Shallow water
Fringed waterlily, floating heart Nymphoides peltata Star-shaped yellow flowers with floating leaves. Shallow to deep water
Frogbit Hydrocharis morsus-ranae Tiny lily pad-style leaves with a delicate white flower, overwinters at bottom of pond. Floats freely on the surface in summer
Giant duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza Large leaves with a reddish tint forming a mat on the surface. Floats freely on the surface
Greater pond sedge Carex riparia Decorative black seedheads that open to brown seeds in summer. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum Produces clusters of pale pink flowers on upright stems. Bog garden or pond edge
Hornwort Ceratophyllum A submerged oxygenator with feathery foliage. Floats under water
Ivy-leaved duckweed, star duckweed Lemna trisulca A pretty native duckweed that provides shade and habitat for invertebrates. Submerged
Lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula Yellow buttercups with sprawling foliage. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Lesser water-plantain Baldellia ranunculoides Lime green foliage with very pale purple flowers. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Marestail Hippuris vulgaris Spires of dark foliage, oxygenating. Not to be confused with Equisetum, also known as mare's tail. Bog garden, pond edge, shallow water or submerged
Marsh cinquefoil, bog strawberry Potentilla palustris Maroon star-shaped flowers. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Marsh marigold, kingcup Caltha palustris Buttercup-like bright yellow flowers with rounded leaves. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Marsh pennywort Hydrocotyle vulgaris A creeping plant with glossy, rounded leaves. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris Nettle-like spears of flowers. Bog garden
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria Tufty white flowers. Bog garden, pond edge
Pond waterlily Nymphaea alba  A large white waterlily that floats on the surface with roots underwater. Up to 90cm under water (roots)
Purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria Purple spears of flowers on clumps of long stems. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water.
Ragged robin Lychnis flos-cuculi Tufts of pink flowers on long stems. Bog garden
Slender club rush Isolepis cernua  Small stems with white seedheads, an oxygenator. Shallow water
Spiked water milfoil Myriophyllum spicatum Submerged oxygenator with tiny red flowers peeking up above water. Floats under water
Sweet galingale, cypress root Cyperus longus Spikes of foliage with clusters of seeds. Shallow water
Tufted cottongrass, hare's tail cottongrass Eriophorum vaginatum Tufts of cotton wool-like seed heads. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Water avens Geum rivale Brown and peach nodding flowers. Bog garden
Water cress, fool's water cress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum Small white flowers and leaves both above and below the surface. Oxygenating. Shallow water
Water crowfoot Ranunculus aquatilis A submerged oxygenator with small white flowers. Floats freely in deep water, ideally moving
Water forget-me-not Myosotis scorpioides Clusters of minute blue flowers. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water
Water mint Mentha aquatica A scrambling plant with dark leaves and purple globes of flower. Bog garden or shallow water
Water moss Fontinalis antipyretica Dark green submerged stems, an oxygenator. Floats under water
Water plantain Alisma plantago-aquatica Small white flowers with large light green leaves. Shallow water
Water soldier Stratiotes aloides Floating spikes of olive green foliage. Floats on surface of pond
Yellow iris Iris pseudacorus  Bright yellow drooping petals with broad green leaves. Bog garden, pond edge or shallow water

Pond plants to avoid

Since April 2014 it has been illegal for certain pond plants to be sold in the UK. This list was updated again in 2017 to include more banned plants. These plants are extremely invasive when they escape to rivers, lakes and streams.

  • Azolla filiculoides (water fern, fairy fern)
  • Crassula helmslii (Australian swamp stonecrop)
  • Eichornia crassipes (water hyacinth)
  • Elodea crispa
  • Hydrocotyle ranunculoides (floating pennywort)
  • Jussiaea grandiflora (water primrose)
  • Lysichiton americanus (yellow skunk cabbage)
  • Myriophyllum aquaticum (parrot's feather)

Due to the risk of invasive species spread always buy your pond plants from reputable nurseries, and check any gifted plants you receive carefully to make sure you aren't bringing any into your pond. 

For more on invasive plant species see Be Plant Wise, which also includes instructions on disposing of invasive pond plants.

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Bog gardens

You'll be able to plant a wider range of plants by turning your pond into a bog garden at one end. A bog garden is created by digging a very shallow pond and covering the liner in topsoil to create a moist area. To see the creation of a wildlife pond with a bog garden next to it see this video produced by the Sussex Wildlife Trust:

Creation of a pond and bog garden by Sussex Wildlife Trust.

What wildlife you'll see by your pond

It won’t take long for wildlife to find a new pond, so once it has been filled and the new plants are in sit back and watch the new arrivals. 

Lookout for frogstoads and newts, and numerous tiny creatures, such as water boatman, pond skaters, freshwater leeches, pond snails and water beetle larvae. 

Dragonflies and damselflies may perch on taller marginal plants, and if you're lucky they might lay their eggs in it.

The pond will be a valuable water resource for animals in the area, and birds, hedgehogs and other mammals will drink at the water’s edge. 

Having a large variety of wildlife will help control the number of slugs and snails in your garden as many animals that are attracted to ponds, such as hedgehogs and frogs, will them.

Find out how to control slugs and snails

Pond safety

Be safe. Near water, young children need adult supervision at all times. Please visit the RoSPA website for more information on pond safety.

Maintaining your wildlife pond

Once you have made your pond you will need to maintain it, especially during the warm summer months when water evaporates quickly and plant growth can take off. Read Martyn Cox's guide to looking after your pond in the summer for more tips.

As with plants on dry land, many perennials in the pond benefit from being divided when they get too large. To make this easier a pair of long pond gloves will save you getting too wet when lifting plants from the bottom. 

A small net will also be useful for skimming fallen leaves, fruit and other debris that might end up in the pond. 

A wildlife pond does not need a pump but if there is too much algae it can be controlled using natural methods such as barley straw.

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