There’s probably a reason I raise ducks and feel a sort of kinship with them. I have an obsession with ponds. I am pretty sure I fell in love with our homestead now because one of the first things you see as you meander down our long, steep driveway is a spring fed pond at the lowest point on the property. It didn’t matter that it was in the worst possible location to be useful for permaculture purposes or that it was dangerously close the narrow drive way and would need work to make it stable. It was a beautiful pond, full of life, and I was hooked!
Before moving here, my first pond was a galvanized tub with a water lily. Shortly after I put water in it, frogs showed up. I hadn’t given those poor little frogs much to work with by way of habitat, so they lived in some container plants I had growing nearby. Bees showed up to use the pond too. Unfortunately they drowned because I hadn’t given them a way out of the water or a good place to stand to load up. I later added a few rocks for sunning and standing. Those were my early lessons in creating habitat.
The second pond we made was here, at the reLuxe Ranch. The person who did the excavation work for our shipping container/solar array helped us dig a pond high up in our property (for gravity benefits) and in front of our green house (for microclimate benefits). He taught me to use the excavator and I did some of the digging, but he did the shaping and compacting, etc. This was meant as an irrigation pond, so we didn’t really plan to create habitat. We also used a pond liner because we were concerned that less conventional methods of sealing might lead to disaster on a hill slope and our house and solar array were directly in the flood path if something went wrong.
We had some water catchment from surrounding areas. We also planned to empty our hot tub water into the pond and divert water from our greenhouse roof to it. But it still took months to fill the pond. And as soon as it had collected a few feet of rain water, things moved in. We noticed baby snakes first. Though I suspect we had frogs too which probably brought the snakes. The snakes eventually left, but the frogs took over.
We didn’t love the black pond liner and weren’t using the pond much for irrigation since it took so long to fill, so we did some experiments in retrofitting it as a living pool for personal use. I’d made some progress and then our ducks discovered it and moved in. They ate up all my aquatic plants and pooped a lot. So, the pond seemed a lot less attractive as a swimming option after that.
I learned a lot from that one. Here’s just a few of those lessons.
- I really, really don’t like to see pond liners in our landscape and it is really hard to cover one if you didn’t plan to in the first place.
- If there’s water, stuff will come. All ponds should be habitat.
- Water catchment is key. We get 43 inches of rain in an average year, but between evaporation, leakages, and use for irrigation, we needed to plan for more catchment. Going forward, turnover and usage rates need to be accounted for in our catchment strategies and pond placement, not just fill rates.
- Carefully planned installation is much easier than retrofitting. If I’d know then what I know now, our pond layout would be completely different. For example, the sides are too sloped to cover the pond liner. The bottom is too bowl-shaped to make installation of a living pond type cleaning system easy. Our overflow dam is too narrow to plant much on and we situated our emergency drain too close to the dam, so roots could be an issue if we do manage to plant.
My third pond was another frog pond. I skipped the liner and just did a lot of tamping. The pond held and grew some nice aquatic plants while we had regular rain. But in our first month with no rain and excessive heat, the pond started leaking and evaporating. I filled it with a hose, but was inconsistent in keeping it up, so the frogs left. Without the frogs, the mosquitoes took over. I let the pond dry out to get rid of the mosquitoes. Then I retrofitted it with a scrap of pond liner from our upper pond, taking care to leave myself ways to hide the liner. It worked great. Then, my ducks discovered the pond and decimated the plants and frog population. I poked holes in the liner, filled it with soil, and turned it into a marsh. The ducks are less interested now and stuff grows well, but it’s not a frog pond since the frogs never came back.
After that experience, I realized I needed to either plan for ducks or plan duck prevention for any pond I build. I naively thought that the ducks would only be interested in big ponds. But, they love all ponds, large and small.
With my frog pond turned into marshland, I set out to build another duck-free frog pond. And after all those lessons I learned, it was perfect…or would have been if I’d put it in the same location as the first frog pond. However, I sited it in the path of a dry creek bed that channels water from the 6 acres of property upslope of our house when it rains. I did this intentionally so I would have good water catchment and the pond was fabulous until El Nino hit. Then, one day when we had 5 inches of rain in an hour…that dry creek bed picked up every bit of loose sediment from the slopes above and deposited them in our pond, then overflowed the pond and dumped the rest in my garden, before finally settling in the frog pond turned marsh further down the slope.
After that catastrophe, I did a whole lot of observation including testing theories with hoses and making small adjustments during big rains and came up with a better plan. Instead of just making a pond, I made a pond system. I dug a bigger, deeper pond. I created a sediment bed uphill from the pond. I dug rain depressions and planted all sorts of seeds and starts from almost invasives and natives uphill from the pond to slow down the flow. I also dug several more depressions downhill from the pond and redirected the overflow into those depressions to keep them out of the garden. It worked like a charm even in the worst possible rains. And then we had a three month drought…
And it still held up pretty well. The water level dropped about a foot but since I’d made it 4.5 feet deep, it was still plenty deep for the plant life living in it and frogs still had lots of good cool habitat. Also, using slate stones to extend over the liner and into part of the pond made it cooler and somewhat shady, so evaporation was minimal. I also installed a few of those slate stones so that they wobble when stepped on. This freaks out the ducks and keeps them from getting into that pond making it a safe haven for frogs.
Now, I am building some new ponds. Actually, I am planning on making a network of ponds and channels in our front yard. My goal is to make 4-5 duck paddocks complete with small ponds for bathing and playing. I want to string them together, so that if necessary, I can fill one or two ponds and have it overflow to the other ponds. The channels also run behind our trees so over-filling the ponds can be a method of irrigating the trees if we end up in a drought like we had last year.
I started working on my first pond this week. I am using the roof on the duck shelter as one of my sources of catchment. I can also fill it from the roof of our house, rain cisterns, or the hose if necessary.
We are using the ducks for fertility for our orchard area. So, I can’t make the pond large because it’s sited in a 15 foot wide alley between two rows of fruit trees. But I want it to be deep enough basin that the ducks can swim a little and dunk their heads. Last year, I gave the ducks hose-filled kiddie pools. They managed to have a grand time despite the small size. And, as I learned from our layers, who kept trying to invade my tiny frog ponds, smaller size actually seems to be preferred.
I also want the pond to have a long shallow area for lounging and easy entry and exit. I plan to line the shallows with just barely submerged rocks that will make a cool spot for them to relax underneath our peach trees when it’s scorching hot. I’ve learned from observation that ducks love to sit on wet rocks. And since the ducks that use these ponds and paddocks will be processed as meat, and therefore have relatively short lives, I really want to make this space a kind of duck paradise.
I am also attempting to seal the pond with sodium bentonite instead of using a liner. I’ve never worked with this material before, but it seems a lot like chia seeds. It absorbs water and becomes a kind of gummy sludge. You have to mix it with soil and tamp down to avoid ending up with a free-floating sludge slick.
In my first try, the pond only sealed about half way up. I don’t think I tamped it well enough because in the areas that didn’t seal, when the bentonite swelled after adding water, it poked out in large masses on the surface of the soil. I’m going to do some tweaking this week and see if I can get it to seal the rest of the way.
I doubt I’ll ever be a master pond builder. I just don’t have the engineering skills. But I am hoping that if I have success creating this series of small ponds that I’ll be ready to tackle a couple more big ponds higher up on our property.
In my opinion, ponds are like potato chips (or homemade pork rinds), you can never have just one!