How to dig an informal wildlife pond with planting shelves

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Build a pond by digging an informal wildlife pond:

How to dig an informal wildlife pond step by step working from the outside area inwards:

1. Dig the edging shelf and shelf Suitable for shelf depth 0-13cm (0-5”) below water surface :

  • Mark out the pond and hard landscaping outer rim with a hose/string or a run of dry sand (Design the pond shape & size page).
  • Dig the whole pond to the depth of the first shelf area.
  • The depth of this shelf should be in proportion to your pond size:  6-13cm (3-5") down from the expected finished water level for a small pond using cobbles as edging. Or 14- 20cm(6-9") deep for rocks or stones in a larger pond.
  • Shelves/ledges must be flat for planted baskets to sit securely.
  • Make some part of this shelf into a sloping beach. (Helps hedgehogs and other animals go down to the water for a drink but not fall in.)
  • Allow the shelf to be wider where the sloping beach is going. There should be space for the flat shelf to gradually rise up the slope.
  • It will be flat on the inside of the pond & then slope/taper gradually back to garden level.

To build the next shelf levels:

  • The inside shape of the top shelf does not need to match the outside shape of the pond.
  • Taking a straight line across a rounded end of the pond can make a good sized shelf platform.
  • Try not to build a thin rim of shelves around a larger surface area of deeper water. Best visualised as: NOT to have a deep teacup of water with a narrow rim of plants representing the saucer all around it.
  • A wider shelf means you can use groups of aquatic plants together rather than have them lined up around the water rim like a parade of soldiers.
  • The shelf should be wide enough for a line of stones on the outside rim of the pond and some plants on the deeper water side of the shelf.
  • Mark out where this top shelf you have already dug will finish with a hose or string.
  • You will not touch this shelf level area again.
  • Prepare to dig the next level down moving into the centre of the pond.
  • Beware of spoiling the soil edge of one level as you work on the next level down.
  • Take care when you walk on each level so you do not collapse the shelf edge.

2. Digging the Shelf  Suitable for shelf depth 14-22cm (approx 6-9”) below water surface  plant shelf

  • Make a sharp downward spade cut to the next shelf depth.
  • Each shelf should be a distinct level - with an upright edge like a staircase. Internal sloping areas cannot hold plants - the baskets will slide down the slope to the shelf below.
  • Dig the whole of the remaining pond area to the flat depth of the next shelf at 14-22cm(6-9") below finished water level - shelf Suitable for shelf depth 14-22cm (approx 6-9”) below water surface .

3. Digging Shelf  Suitable for shelf depth 23-44cm (approx 10-17”) below water surface  plant shelf

  • Then mark out and dig the flat areas that you intend to be deeper still - the next shelf depth of 23-44cm(10-17") below finished water level - shelf Suitable for shelf depth 23-44cm (approx 10-17”) below water surface .
  • There are not many upright plants and no rafting plants suitable for this shelf. You do not need to create a large area at this level.
  • You may not have space for this shelf depth at all if your pond is small.

4. Digging Shelf  Suitable for shelf depth 45cm+ (approx 18”+) below water surface level  plant shelf

  • Finally mark out and dig the deepest section of the pond - 60-75cm deep(2ft-2ft 6") below expected water level - shelf Suitable for shelf depth 45cm+ (approx 18”+) below water surface level
digging an informal pond should result in a pond shelf structure like this finished pond profile

Digging an informal pond should result in a pond shelf structure like this finished pond profile

The image above shows a Pond Profile - the construction under the liner that gives the levels, shape and usability to your pond.

When you dig an informal wildlife pond you should have a shape in the ground that looks something like this.

  • Have one half of the pond surface area as different width shelf planting areas with most as a 6" deep shelf.
  • Dig one half to the deepest water depth - the deep area can be offset from the centre of the pond.

Next stage - go to our page: Lining the pond hole.