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DIY Pond with Optional Waterfall

Backyard pond.jpg

A backyard garden pond with running water, floating plants and darting fish can make a bland space breathtaking. Keeping it attractive and trouble free takes work, but with a little extra care at the planning and building stages, you can create a pond that's almost maintenance-free.

How to Make a Pond: Pick a Sunny Spot

If your yard has only one spot that will accommodate a pond, don’t worry—you can create a great garden pond in just about any location. But if you have two or three spots to choose from, consider the upkeep factor.

If you locate your pond in an area that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight each day, you’ll have a wide variety of easy-to-care-for plants to choose from. Plants that thrive in shade are available too, so you can create a pond in a spot that never gets direct sunlight. But you’ll have fewer easy-care choices and you may have to pay a bit more to get the mix of plants you want.

There is such a thing as too much sun, though. In the Southern United States, choose a site that gets shade in the afternoon. Afternoon sun can overheat the water; that can harm fish and plants and cause algae to flourish.

Order Your Pond Supplies

Before you order your pond supplies there are a few decisions you will need to make. The first decision is the size and depth of your pond. This will determine how big of a pond liner you will need.  When you get your pond liner you will also need underlayment to protect the liner from sharp sticks and rocks. Your pond liner and underlayment should be the same size.

You want to order your supplies now before you start digging so you can put your waterfall and skimmer box in place. It helps to have things where they will go. Also, as you dig the pond, you will use the dirt to backfill around the waterfall. I’m not going to go into too much detail about supplies here, just a short list.

The Pond Kit

The best option to use for this project is a pond kit. Find the right size kit for your project and it takes out a lot of the guesswork. All the components are sized right for each other and will work together in harmony when you use a pond kit. Most pond kits come with everything but the rocks gravel, and flagstone. Glue and attach all the necessary fittings and your water line to your waterfall unit. Place it in its location. Be sure that the unit is level from side to side. You don’t want the water to rush out of one side and not the other. To make the water flow properly make sure it is slightly pitched forward toward the opening.


Don’t be afraid of going too big. This is the one regret people have once they have their pond built. A 10′ x 15′ size seems huge, but when you measure it out in your space outside it may not feel as large. Once you’ve decided “this is it” take a can of spray paint and go around the perimeter moving the hose or cord out of the way as you go. This will give you an even clearer picture of what you are about to do. The next step is to get your flat edged shovel, and chop around the entire perimeter. This will create an edge for removing the grass if you have any. Then scrape off all the grass, about an inch deep. The sod you take out does not make for good backfill, because it will settle quite a bit as the grass decomposes. Another thing to consider is the placement of your water feature and skimmer box. These should be located at opposite ends of the pond to ensure proper water circulation. Again, use a garbage can or something to represent the waterfall unit, and step back to see if it fits your vision. You need to remember that your liner is not just the measurement from one side of the hole to the other. You must double the depth of your hole and add it to your measurement.


Before you begin digging it’s vital to know that there is nothing below.  A simple phone call to 811, or visit will give you piece of mind that you can dig safely. You can be assured you will not run into any setbacks once you start. 


Understand that settling will occur no matter what you do, but in order to keep that to a minimum. One key is to not disturb the ground.

When you begin to dig a pond, you will want dig down in steps or levels. First dig the whole outline down about 12 inches deep. All the while dumping the dirt around where you want your waterfall to go. Compact the dirt as you go. It’s amazing how much settling can occur in a season, so packing it down as you go is very important. If you haven’t received your pond supplies yet you will need them before you go any further. We recommend, waiting to place your waterfall unit before digging anymore. You want to be sure you have enough dirt to cover up and gently slope your waterfall mound. 

Layer Your Pond

Now with the entire shape of your pond dug down to a 12-inch depth it’s time to grab your spray paint once again. Create another shape, about 12 to 18 inches in from the edge. You can either follow the existing shape of the pond, or create a different shape all together. You are creating a 12 to 18-inch shelf for plants to thrive at various depths. This will also help during the rocking process later and when it’s time for seasonal maintenance. These ‘shelves’ will allow you to get in and out of your pond easier.

With your next shelf outlined, and your waterfall in place it’s time to start digging again. Dig this layer down another 12 inches, all the while placing the dirt around your waterfall, compacting it as you go.

Keep It Level

One key thing to keep in mind is that water always finds level. As you dig out your pond, make sure the ground around the pond is level. Use a long straight 2×4 or even an extension ladder with a level on top that spans the width and length of the pond to check for level. In my case the ground had a slight pitch to it, so I had to build up one side as I dug. Keep in mind the water level in your pond can never be higher than your lowest point.

Pond Supplies

If you haven’t received your pond supplies yet you will need them before you go any further. I recommend, waiting to place your waterfall unit before digging anymore. You want to be sure you have enough dirt to cover up and gently slope your waterfall mound

Glue and attach all the necessary fittings and your water line to your waterfall unit. Place it in its location. Be sure that the unit is level from side to side. You don’t want the water to rush out of one side and not the other. To make the water flow properly make sure it is slightly pitched forward toward the opening.



















Pond Skimmer Box

Now would be a good time to place your skimmer box where it will go. Place it on the ground where it will go and trace around it. Now dig out its shape. Your water line will be about a quarter of the way down from the top of your skimmer box opening. Keep this in mind when digging out for your skimmer box.

Do not dig deeper than you need to, try not to disturb the ground below the depth of the box to reduce the amount of settling. Remember, it’s important the skimmer box is placed level front to back and side to side. Don’t backfill around the skimmer box at this time in case you need to fine tune it later.







Final Pond Depth

Now for the last of the digging. Again, grab your spray paint and trace another outline for your final depth of your pond. Dig this shape out another 12 inches or so, again placing the dirt around your waterfall, and compacting as you go. Look for any sharp stones or roots wherever the liner will be placed.  Doing this will help you avoid problems in the future.

You can make this final step as deep as you would like. If you live in a colder climate and plan to have fish, be sure to make your pond deep enough so your koi and goldfish can survive. The size of liner and underlayment you have is the only thing limiting the size of your pond.

Keep in mind, these first few steps are some of the most important. Just like constructing a building, the planning and foundation are vital to the success of the project. The same hold true to building a water garden. Now that you have a giant hole in your space it’s time to fill it back in. The fun begins in the next part. This is where you will truly see your water garden come to life.














A Place for Pond Fish

One thing left out in the previous installment of this “how to” guide, was to dig out a place for a fish cave. If you plan on having pond fish in your water garden, it’s a good idea to give them a place to hide from pond predators.

This can be accomplished by digging out a small channel.  The liner will form to the shape you made. After your liner goes in, use a large drain pipe or bucket to be the walls of the “cave” then stack rocks around to hide it. Once I start rocking the whole thing in you can see the cave better. Check out the pictures below.












Liner Underlayment

It will be helpful to have a second pair of hands for this next step. Unfold your underlayment all the way beside the pond. Lift the underlayment over the hole (be careful not to fall in) so it’s centered and put it in the hole. Be sure you have even amounts on all sides. The underlayment should be big enough to go 12 inches or so on either side and over your waterfall and skimmer box (on opposite ends of the pond).

Once the underlayment is centered and placed in the hole, step in. Starting at the bottom kick it into place. Start in the middle of the bottom and work your way around the perimeter. Be sure to remove any sticks, stones, or sharp objects you come across. Move up to the next level and do the same. When you finish the underlayment should have taken the shape of your pond.

How to Rock in Your Pond

Let the fun begin! Let’s start putting all the “pieces” together. This may look intimidating but just take it one step at a time and you will see exactly how to rock a pond. This will be the time when all that hard work pays off. Your pond will come to life right before your eyes!

With the liner in place it’s time to begin placing rocks around the perimeter of your pond. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Dry stacking can be tricky, the rocks need to fit well together so they lock in place. This is a very tedious task.

Make sure the rocks are placed in the corner where the bottom meets the step. Never go higher than two rows where the seams line up without putting a rock across. You can see in the picture what I mean. This helps add stability. Place larger rocks on the bottom row and build up from there. Be sure to set aside the best looking rocks for the very top of your pond, where the waterline will be.

Do not concern yourself with the liner too much when laying the rocks. The liner is tough and flexible. Rocks can be placed on the liner without worry.  Try to avoid dragging the rocks across the liner, as it can be easily sliced.

Another way to add stability is to use waterfall foam. It’s similar to spray foam insulation used to seal up cracks around the house. This foam is a dark gray so it can be easily concealed. Use it sparingly, as it will expand as it cures.

Fill all gaps with gravel first, this helps save on foam. Add a small amount of spray foam, then more gravel to hide the foam. Use gravel to fill in any large gaps as you go, again this adds to the stability of the entire pond.

Building a Dry Stack Stone Wall – Underwater

As you can see you will need a lot of rocks! The goal here is to essentially build a dry stacked stone wall. Save the biggest boulders for your waterfall itself. Notice how in nature, a stream and waterfall are usually framed in by large rocks and boulders. If you try to mimic nature, you can’t go wrong.

Once you’re done with a layer fill the bottom up with about two inches of gravel. I used river rock for mine. There are all sorts of gravels you can use depending on the look you are going for and what is native to your part of the world. Keep moving up one layer at a time. Stop rocking when you reach your skimmer box.

Setting the Skimmer Box

Be sure the hole you dug out for your skimmer box is flat on the bottom and the dirt is compacted below it. Once you put your skimmer box into place you don’t want it to settle or move.

Place your skimmer box in the hole and check that it’s level from side to side, and front to back. Remember, your water line will be approximately ¾ the way up from the bottom of the skimmer box opening.

Read the Directions

Before you begin it’s a good idea to read over the installation manual that came with your skimmer box, so you can familiarize yourself with it.



Now push your liner into the corner where the skimmer box meets your first shelf. Allow for some slack there. You don’t want any tension on the liner around the skimmer box. Now lay the liner vertically across the face of the box, so that it sits flat. Now, using a nail or other sharp object poke a hole in the liner in the top right corner where the first mounting screw will go. Do the same for the other side all the while holding the liner steady.

Keep the nails there to hold your liner in place. From inside the skimmer box using a pen or marker, trace the opening. Fold the liner toward you and keep the nails in the liner. This will help to realign where you dry fit the liner.

Now place a ¼ to ½ inch bead of sealant about ¾ inch in from the opening you traced. Be sure the bead is continuous and there are no gaps.

Using the nails that are poked through the liner as guides place the liner against the skimmer box pressing firmly all around the opening. Rest the mounting plate on the nails. Remove the first nail and place in the first screw. Do the same for the other side.

Now using a nail make a puncture where the next screw will go, then install the screw. Do this repeatedly all the way around the mounting bracket until all the screws are in.

Hook Up Your Submersible Pond Pump

The skimmer box is in place, now is the time to attach your submersible pump to the waterfall return line. When hooking all the pieces up it goes pump, check valve, then return line. Be sure to install the check valve in the proper orientation, since it allows water to flow one way only.

All the connections are made with rubber boots and hose clamps. Be sure to orient the hose clamps so you have easy access to the screw. This will help during spring startup or any pond maintenance and you need to remove and service your pump in the future.

Finish Dry Stacking the Rocks

With your skimmer box set, finish rocking around the whole pond. Once you’ve completed a step, add gravel to the bottom and move on. When you get to the last course be sure to mix large and small rocks to make it look more natural. Be sure the rocks go up and over the bank of the pond. When you are stacking the rocks try not to rely on waterfall foam. Make the rocks ‘fit’ together and lock on their own.  Use small rocks and stones between larger ones to lock everything into place. If you are using waterfall foam be sure to hide it with small rocks as you use it. Don’t over do it with the foam, and keep in mind that it does expand.


How to Build Your Waterfall

Keep in mind as you build your falls, that if you want to add any lighting, now would be the easiest time to do it. It may be more difficult to hide if it’s done later. I used a strip of waterproof led lights tucked under two of my spill rocks. This lighting allows me to change the color with a remote.

The effect is, really cool. Check out the video and pictures. As you build up from where the water line will be, make sure you “frame in” your waterfall. Mimic nature and you will have something spectacular! Use large boulders on the edge and flat slate for the spill over rocks.



Setting Your Waterfall Spillway

Setting your spill over rocks can be tricky. You want the water to run over them properly so be sure they are set level across, and pitched slightly forward. One thing to look out for is to be sure the water doesn’t run behind them. This is where the waterfall foam comes into play again. You won’t know for sure how the water will flow until you actually turn your waterfall on. If you foam between your spill over rocks and your liner, the water should flow over the rock instead of behind it. Hide all the foam with gravel before it cures completely. Stop rocking when you get close to the waterfall unit.

Attaching Your Waterfall Unit

There may be specifics that aren’t mentioned here, so be sure to read the manual that came with your waterfall unit. Just like previously when we attached the liner to our skimmer box, we are going to follow the same process. The key points are the same.

  • Be sure there is no tension on the liner

  • Make sure the liner goes beyond the waterfall

  • Use one continuous bead of sealant

  • Have no wrinkles in the liner between the waterfall and the mounting plate

  • The sealant goes between the liner and the waterfall, NOT the liner and mounting plate

Go All the Way Up

Allow your sealant to cure, and continue to build up your rock framework. Continue rocking up to the waterfall unit. Use larger rocks as a border. Be sure the liner is under the bordering rocks. Backfill behind the liner with dirt or other rocks to hold it in place.

Again, avoid the temptation to trim the liner at this point. It will be done with all the finishing touches later after everything is up and running. 

This is where the waterfall foam comes into play again. You won’t know for sure how the water will flow until you actually turn your waterfall on. If you foam between your spill over rocks and your liner, the water should flow over the rock instead of behind it. Hide all the foam with gravel before it cures completely. Stop rocking when you get close to the waterfall unit.

Dry Water Garden Pond

Once you’ve covered everything with rocks, it’s a good idea to wait at least 24 hours to let all the sealant, and waterfall foam cure. Everything needs to be washed down at this point. I purchased a cheap, dirty water pump from amazon to accomplish this. If you have encountered any rain during any of this, the pump is handy for that as well.

Spray down all the rocks with a garden hose and pump the dirty water out of the bottom. It’s amazing how much dirt is actually on the rocks and gravel. Keep doing this until the water is fairly clear. Don’t get crazy, you will never get it all.

Pond Filter Media

The kit used in this writing came with the needed filter pads. For an extra layer of filtration it’s a good idea to add lava rock to your waterfall unit. This will help with the formation of beneficial bacteria that will keep your water looking great all season long.

Rinse the bag of lava rock to remove all the dirt and dust. Then place it in a mesh bag in your waterfall unit. The lava rock will house the beneficial bacteria that will help to break down waste and keep your water clear.




Fill the Pond

Time for the moment of truth. Start filling your pond. This may take some time, depending on the size of your masterpiece! At this point it’s a good idea to test your lighting systems and make sure everything is working properly. At least that’s what I told myself… I am a bit impatient and I couldn’t wait for nightfall.

In all reality, this is a perfect time to sit back, grab a drink, and relax a bit… you deserve it. All that digging and stone work takes its toll. Once the water level is where it should be, about ¼ of the way down from the top of your skimmer box opening its time to test the system.

Avoid the temptation of turning on your submersible pump too early. If it runs dry you will do damage to the pump, so be patient.

Make sure you have an audience, and a drum roll is a must! Turn on your pump and watch your backyard come to life as you add a new dimension to your outdoor space. Let your pump run for at least 24 hours and keep an eye on your water level. If it goes down you may have an issue somewhere and will need to resolve it before you go any further

If your water level goes down don’t panic. The most common reason for this is water is splashing out, or getting around the liner somehow. This can usually be resolved with waterfall foam and redirecting the water flow to stay within the liner. If your water level goes down don’t panic. The most common reason for this is water is splashing out, or getting around the liner somehow. This can usually be resolved with waterfall foam and redirecting the water flow to stay within the liner.


Finish the edges

At this point you’ve filled your pond and are running your waterfall, but the entire thing is bordered by wrinkled rubber liner. Take the excess liner and wedge it between two rocks, so that it is sticking up between them, then trim the excess.

I know it sounds like common sense, but be sure your liner is higher than your water line, or you will have issues. This may be tough to see at some points, especially where the water flows down your waterfall.

I used river rock on one side of the garden, and on the other side I added large flagstone. The flagstone provides an inviting walk up for viewing and feeding the fish.

If river rock, or any kind of small rocks are going to be used around the edge, be sure to place landscape fabric under it. That will stop the small rocks from sinking into the ground. The fabric is also a great weed barrier. Weeds can be easily removed if fabric is used.



Clear Pond Water

It’s important that there are enough plants planted in your pond. It is recommended that 60 percent of the water surface be covered with some type of vegetation. This controls the amount of nutrients in the water, starving any unwanted algae that may be present.

This is one critical mistake that I made when finishing my water garden. The water started out crystal clear, but a few weeks later the water began to get murky, and by the end of summer the only time my fish were visible was when they would come to the surface for feeding. One way to combat this is by using barley straw.  You can get it in bundles or barley straw extract. It will not kill existing algae but it will prevent new growth.

UV Pond Clarifier

Another way to combat the threat of algae is by using a UV clarifier. It is nothing more than a tube with a UV light in the center. The water flows through the tube around the light. This light exposure breaks the cell wall of the algae, thereby destroying it.

If your pond is in really bad shape it may take a few weeks before the water is clear according to some UV light manufacturers. The important thing here is to be sure the flow rate is set properly and it is sized right for your pond size. Once the water is pumped through your filter media you are left with crystal clear water.

I chose not to install a UV light when I set up my pond, and the very next year put one in. I suggest making this part of your filtration system right in the beginning. In general, having a UV light is a good idea whether you are going to have a heavily planted pond or not.

Solar Light Kits

These have come a long way over the past few years. Their light output has increased tremendously due the technology of LED lights. From my experience they are not as reliable as a kit that is hard-wired. The trade-off is in the ease of set up.

Solar lights can be placed just about anywhere as long as they are not in absolute shade, so if getting power to where you need to shed some light these may be your only viable option. Just remember when shopping for solar lights that you get what you pay for. Don’t expect too much from the lights you picked up at the dollar store.

Low Voltage Lighting Kits

There is no shortage of choices when it comes to outside lights for the house. Low voltage light kits are perfect for the surrounding garden, and along pathways. Putting these on a timer is a very good idea. Some kits come with spotlights, for that “feature” in your garden. There are a range of price points for these lights.

I purchased a kit with 7 lights and a photocell control box. The photocell allowed the lights to turn on as soon as it was dark. I like the photocell better than a timer because when it’s dark they are just on, no adjustment necessary. The only drawback is that they stay on all night. If that is an issue for you then a timer is better suited for you.

There are low voltage also submersible lights.  These can also be used in conjunction with a photo-cell thus making the whole system more automatic.  On at dusk, off at dawn!

Led lighting

This type of lighting is my favorite, not only are these lights super bright but they also are energy efficient. You can leave them on all night without worry.

Be sure the lights you buy are for outdoor use. Depending on your system, this type of lighting allows you to change the color to suit your mood, or for the different seasons or holidays. Why go out and “put up” the Christmas lights when, with the press of a button it is already done.







Pond Plants

Use plants around the edge as well to soften the appearance. The types of pond plants used will depend on what zone you live in. Use the hardiness zone map that the USDA publishes to determine if a plant is suitable for your area. The plants add to the natural look of your water garden. Plants are a great way to hide the liner as well. Tuck your plantings right behind the liner to help hold it up.

Not only are plants great to hide the transition from land to water, they are vital to achieve balance in a complicated pond ecosystem. They provide oxygen for fish and reduce the spread of algae. They also act as a natural water filter. Water plants, such as water lilies provide not only shade, but also protection from predators. Be sure to use the hardy variety (you can get them right on amazon with this link) Giving your fish cover is essential for their survival, especially when they are small.

Not all pond plants are suitable for use in a pond with a liner. Beware, pond plants like cattails that are typical in my area, are not recommended to use in a pond with a liner. These plants have been known to grow their roots right through it, causing leaks.











A Splash of Personality

How you want your outdoor decor is up to you.  My wife is very crafty, and loves to add her finishing touches to things. The rocks pictured add that little special personal touch to the water garden. Rock painting is a great way to add your own flair to the landscape.




Tips How to Make a Pond: Build in ‘easy-care’ features

1. Leave workspace all around the pond. For convenient care of plants and the pond itself, it’s best if you can reach all parts of the pond easily. If you locate your pond right next to a fence, wall, hedge or building, you’ll have to get into the water to tend that part of the pond. Instead, leave a workspace at least 2 ft. wide all around the pond.

2. Provide a winter home for plants. One way to preserve plants through harsh winters is to keep them in buckets indoors. A more convenient method is to create a deep area in your pond. Keep your aquatic plants in pots or root sacks and you can move them to the deep water in the fall. The necessary water depth depends on your climate and plants. Placed in 3 ft. of water, hardy plants will survive in even the coldest climates.

3. Extend the liner to prevent a plant invasion Even plants that normally grow on dry land love water, and some want to spread into the water along the pond’s edge. To prevent an invasion as you determine how to build a pond, run the liner 12 in. or more beyond the pond’s edging stones and cover it with mulch or gravel. The rubber liner will block water-seeking roots.

4. Make a mow-over border where garden meets grass. Flat stones set at ground level create a lawn mower–friendly transition between your pond and lawn. Instead of trimming the grass where it meets the pond-surrounding boulders or plants, you can run the lawn mower right over the stone border.

4.  Make your pond easy to empty. To prepare for winter or to clean the pond, most pond owners occasionally pump out the water. To make your pond easy to pump dry, slope the floor gradually toward a sump hole. That way, you can set a pump in a single spot to discharge all the water. Make the sump hole dish-shaped and no more than 3 in. deep so the liner can conform to it.

5. Place the skimmer in an easy-access spot. Skimmers, filters and waterfall tanks collect debris (mostly leaves and other plant parts) and require occasional cleaning. If you plan to use one, don’t put it in a spot that can only be reached by crawling over rocks or trampling plants. The stuff you take out of a skimmer is great fertilizer for plants. Plant a patch of hostas or other leafy cover next to the skimmer. The large leaves hide the debris while it decomposes and nourishes the plants, and you save yourself a trip to the trashcan.

6. Cut steps into the soil for easy access Steps make it easy to get in and out of your pond, whether you need to clean it, care for plants or just cool off on a hot day. Steps also act as shelves for pots, providing different water depths for different plants. If it will hold plants, the top step should be covered by at least 6 in. of water. Steps that fall 12 in. or more below the water line should be at least 20 in. wide to accommodate large pots. If your pond is too small for built-in steps, create an entry point where the side of the pond is vertical. Sloped sides make getting in and out difficult.

Backyard pond.jpg

Drain Runoff Away from Pond

Runoff from your yard can carry silt, grass clippings and other debris that lead to murky water. It also contains lawn chemicals that can support algae growth or harm plants or fish. You can protect your pond from runoff by simply forming a slight ridge around it as you begin figuring out how to build a pond. It doesn’t have to be very high; 3 in. is usually plenty. If the pond is on an incline, you can create a shallow channel with a slight slope to divert runoff to a garden or flowerbed.


Stop Leaks Before They Start

Use tough EPDM liner and Underlayment obtained from your local supply store for the pond as you start planning how to build a pond. Underlayment cushions the EPDM liner from rocks and roots. To save money, you can substitute old carpet for commercial underlayment under the EPDM. Make sure all the nails and staples are removed.

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