One of the first things many people say when looking out over a few acres is, “I wish I had a pond.” Ponds add scenic beauty to a property and provide opportunities for boating, swimming and fishing. There also are many practical uses for a pond — livestock watering, crop irrigation, fish production, wildlife habitat and as an emergency source of water for fighting fires.
In 1956, when my parents bought 15 acres in the country, the first thing they did was build a pond. Actually, Mom and Dad didn’t build it themselves; they hired a man with a bulldozer. The huge, yellow machine quickly scooped out a natural depression along an old fence row. Soil was piled thick and high at the lower end of the slope to form a modest earthen dam. When the rains came, the hole began filling with water. That was three years after legendary homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing started enlarging a spring to build a pond at their new homestead in coastal Maine. True to form, the Nearings did most of the work themselves — by hand. For more than 25 years the Nearings continued to expand their pond, steadily deepening and enlarging it.
Ponds, like their owners, come in an endless variety of shapes and sizes. But each one is “a spot of beauty, a sparkling universe teeming with life,” Louis Bromfield wrote in his 1948 book, Malabar Farm. “For the children they are a source of inexhaustible delight. And like the fishponds of the abbeys and castles of medieval Europe and the Dark Ages, when all the world fell apart in anarchy and disorder, they provide not only food for the table but peace for the soul and an understanding of man’s relationship to the universe.”
Siting and Planning a Pond
Here are the main factors to evaluate before building your own pond.
Topography. As in real estate, there are three secrets to success with ponds — location, location, location. Water runs downhill, and a pond simply collects and stores water. It is the most basic form of a reservoir. Locate your pond where the largest storage volume can be obtained with the least amount of earth moving.
There are two basic ways to create a pond — digging a hole or building a dam. Usually, the form is implicit in the site — to dam or to dig — and the land reveals the answer, says Tim Matson, author of Earth Ponds.
The ideal site for a dammed pond is a wet hollow located between two steep adjacent banks, Matson says. “On flat terrain, where the water table is close to the surface, or where a nearby stream or well can be directed to fill it, a dugout pond works best,” he says. Deeply excavated ponds with a smaller surface area are recommended in arid areas where evaporation losses are high and rain is scarce. But often the answer is a combination of methods, a dug-and-dammed pond. Matson says this strategy is “most favored in rolling terrain, where excavation of the pond basin will yield enough earth for the embankment.