Since this DIY backyard pond article is fairly long and detailed, we’ve included a table of contents. You can quickly click the table links below to jump to specific parts of the article you’re interested in. Or you can read the whole article to get the best possible understanding of how and why to build a backyard pond, whether or not you have backyard ducks like we do!
Table of contents
- Duck fanatics in search of DIY backyard pond
- Three ways a pond changed our ecosystem
- Pond-building expectations (time, cost, weather, work)
- DIY pond slideshow: from start to finish
- Step-by-step: How to build a backyard pond and biofilter
- Ongoing pond maintenance
- Itemized pond materials list
Radical Duck Fanatics In Search of DIY Backyard Pond…
In case this is your first visit here, you should be forewarned that we’re duck fanatics… Radical duck evangelists who think more people (as long as they’re responsible people) should have backyard ducks.
Why? As we’ve written about elsewhere, for most people interested in raising egg-laying fowl, ducks often make a superior alternative to chickens.
One big distinction between chickens and ducks is that chickens take dust baths whereas ducks take water baths (waterfowl come by their name honestly).
As such, if you’re going to raise happy, healthy ducks, you’ll need a water source for them. This can be a small kiddie pool… or it can be something more substantial.
We started off with a kiddie pool, but we got tired of having to dump it out every day after our seven waterfowl quickly turned their water fowl, er foul, which then made the “duck area” of our yard into a muddy pit.
One day, The Tyrant added a new project to my “honey do list”: build a 1,000+ gallon in-ground backyard pond for our ducks. Oh, and it needed to have a natural filtration system that used biology, rather than chemicals, to keep the water clean. Piece o’ cake. I’ll have it done before lunch, dear.
In all fairness, my wife has a biology and clinical research background, so she’d already done the bulk of the research for me. She really just needed me for the heavy lifting. (There’s a reason her nickname is The Tyrant.)
Three ways our backyard pond changed things at Tyrant Farms
1. More diverse ecosystem
As you’ve probably observed, natural water features (ponds, creeks, springs, etc) are a magnet for a wide diversity of lifeforms. Since building our backyard pond, we’ve been blown away by the increase in dragonflies, frogs, salamanders, and other beneficial critters that we didn’t used to see very often.
We’ve also noticed a decrease in mosquitos since ducks, frogs, salamanders, dragonfly larvae and other pond critters LOVE feasting on mosquito larvae. (Read about the other way we organically control mosquitos here.)
We have an edible organic landscape with several hundred species of food-producing plants and edible fungi, so having even more beneficial critters around to help us manage things and keep pest insect populations in check is most welcome. We now see why so many permaculturalists rave about the benefits of having a backyard pond and other water features.
2. Happier humans
Humans have a deeply ingrained psychological connection to the sound of running water. On a primal level, burbling water sounds equate to an available water source, something our ancestors would have found quite reassuring before they could simply turn on a tap to get water.
Any time the weather permits, The Tyrant and I finish our day relaxing next to our pond/waterfall with a beverage as our ducks dabble and bathe in their pond.
A waterfall also aerates the water, providing oxygen and/or dissolved oxygen for beneficial lifeforms, including our pond’s fish, crawfish, salamanders, and perhaps most importantly: aerobic bacteria. If you’ve ever noticed a foul, sewage-like smell from a pond, a sewer, a swamp, etc. – that’s actually caused by various species of anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t need oxygen to survive).
Anaerobic bacteria are often pathogenic, causing disease and illness in larger critters that ingest them. In an oxygenated environment, anaerobic bacteria can not survive or proliferate. (Side note: this is also the same reason you turn compost – turning compost introduces oxygen and encourages aerobic bacteria while discouraging anaerobic bacteria).
Yay to waterfalls and pond bubblers!
3. Happier, healthier ducks
Our ducks’ rigorous daily schedule usually includes about 3+ hours swimming, playing, dabbling, and cleaning themselves in their backyard pond. Because of their pond, our ducks are much cleaner, healthier, and happier than they’d otherwise be.
Since we have ducks, we were much more adamant about figuring out a natural, self-cleaning DIY pond filter system that relied on biology rather than chemicals to clean itself (e.g. a biofilter).
Planning & building your backyard pond & biofilter
Building a self-cleaning backyard pond isn’t a small project, but we’d absolutely do it again because of all the benefits it’s added to our life — and our ducks’ lives. Here’s what you should expect, assuming you decide to build a 1,000+ gallon backyard pond similar to ours:
About 75 hours of labor (maybe you can be more efficient than us).
Plan to invest roughly $1,500-$2,000 if you don’t have ducks and $2,000-$2,250 if you do have ducks (we recommend additional cleaning and pumping infrastructure if you have ducks, as we’ll go over shortly).
Ideally, the outdoor temps will need to be above 50°F (10°C) and sunny during the time that you’re applying sealer around your waterfall or doing your plumbing joints. You can always pause the project until the right weather conditions come along.
If digging, lifting large rocks, and hauling heavy wheelbarrows sounds like a lot of work, get some help or consider hiring extra labor.
II. Backyard pond pictures, from start to finish
If you’re like us, seeing pictures of something in addition to instructions is REALLY helpful.
These DIY backyard pond pictures are intended to correspond with the next DIY sections of this article, and some of these images are redundant with the images included in Part 3. If you read something that you’re having trouble visualizing, hop back up here to the slideshow and you’ll probably find an answer!
Click the images if you’d like them enlarged!
III. Step By Step: How to Build a Backyard Pond With a DIY Biofilter
Since we have ducks, we needed to plan for our pumps, plumbing, and pond filter system to handle a lot of extra poo and feathers (aka “solids”). If you don’t plan to have waterfowl in your backyard pond and you don’t think lots of leaves and other plant debris will fall into the pond throughout the year, you’ll probably do perfectly fine with a single pump and filter pond.
Whether you want to build a backyard duck pond, a meditation pond, a koi pond, a garden pond, or just a beautiful DIY pond to make your backyard extra flashy, let’s get started!
*Note: There’s a full materials list you can use at the bottom of this article, so we won’t exhaustively list out each item in the step-by-step pond building section.
1. Identify the location of your backyard pond.
Carefully consider the location of your backyard pond. Are there likely to be large tree roots where you’ll be digging? Is the area flat or sloped? How will that slope (or lack thereof) alter your pond/waterfall designs?
Also, are there underground pipes or wires? To be safe, call the service in your area that marks utility lines in yards, which is most likely free. If you live in South Carolina like we do, you have to do this step by law, and the service is free. (Call 811.)
If you want to use our backyard pond as a model, see the dimensions in the above slideshow and our general site plan below.
2. Dig your tiers & level the pond foundation.
Use the dimensions in the above images to measure out your pond. You can use a string, chalk, or flour to mark the outline of the pond before you start digging.
First tier – Once you’ve marked the outline of your pond, dig the whole thing out 7″ down (or more if you want deeper pond shallows).
If you are planning to put plants in your backyard pond, it’s a good idea to slope your shallows back just a bit towards the wall (vs. a level ledge) so that your plants & your pebbles don’t slowly slide into the center of the pond. *see sketch above*
Next, mark where you’d like your subsequent tiers to sit and begin digging.
Second tier – Mark the outline of the second tier, then dig it down 12″>
Third tier/pump hole – Mark the outline of the third tier, then dig it down another 12″.
When planning the depth of your backyard pond, keep in mind that in the months and years ahead, you will likely need to occasionally get into the pond to check on the pump and/or temporarily remove the pump in the event of a clog. That’s why our pond is thigh deep, not waist deep.
3. Sand, Fabric Underlayment, and Pond Liner
Put about 1″ of sand on the flat surfaces of your pond foundation (we got 1/2 scoop from our Landscapers Supply). This helps ensure that no sharp rocks or pointy objects punch a hole in your pond liner – you do NOT want to have to trace down a hole in your liner after you’ve filled your pond.
Now you’re ready for your protective underlayment, which prevents abrasion & punctures, further extending the life of your liner.
There are different things you can use here. We had some old landscape fabric sitting around, so we used that. The landscape fabric came in a long roll, making it difficult to universally cover the tiered pool foundation, as you can see in the slideshow. That’s why we’d recommend using this this 15′ x 20′ geotextile underlayment instead.
Now comes the liner. We did a lot of research here, and we recommend using this Firestone 45 mil. EPDM, 15′ x 20′. It’s a UV-resistant, highly flexible yet stable waterproofing membrane with a proven performance history in exposed applications – equally tolerating extreme cold and heat while maintaining its flexibility/not tearing.
The liner is also safe for exposure to wildlife and aquatic plants, which is important to us given that we’re owned by ducks. The liner fit snuggly into the contours of our pond and the black color allows any exposed surfaces to blend in with our rocks.
Some people we read about opted for a PVC liner – don’t do it! You’ll likely end up with cracked liner and water leaks within a couple years, whereas the 45 mil. Firestone will last for 20+ years (it has a 20 year manufacturer warranty).
4. Pebbles & Rocks
Now it’s time to start making your backyard pond beautiful!
Build up, tier by tier, from the bottom of your pond to the top. Let us repeat that: do not start from the top and work down or you could end up with stretched liner or rock problems.
Want to calculate how many large rocks and pebbles/gravel you’ll need? Here’s a calculator.
Place large landscaping rocks along the sides/walls of the third tier (bottom) of your pond. Fill in the flat surfaces with 2″ of river pebbles and an occasional large flat rock to add stability and keep the pebbles from shifting too much. Repeat, tier by tier.
*We put a large flat rock in the center of the bottom tier/hole on our pond to provide a base for our pump and keep the pump off the very bottom of the pond (this helps keep the pump from getting clogged).
Begin slowly filling the pond with water as you finish lowest tiers to help expedite settling. We ended up scooping it back out later to plumb the pond.
On the outside lip of our backyard pond, we used concrete edgers/bricks covered with our native red clay to: a) provide a smooth, solid lip that was level all the way around, and b) raise the level of the liner up ABOVE ground level (that way, full pond = ground level or slightly below).
The underlayment went over this lip, then the liner went on top. Large landscape rocks were then placed on top to hold the liner down and hide it.
The liner extended out about 6-8″ past the lip to allow for any settling or future pond expansions/alterations. (You can also easily seam together the liner with special pond liner adhesive.)
All around the outside of our pool we put down wood chip mulch.
Double check to make sure every tier of rocks is solid and stable – no shifting, slipping, or sliding rocks. Everything nice and snug.
5. Skippy BioFilter, Plumbing, Pumps
Once your rocks and pebbles are all in place, it’s time to let your jeans slip down partially off your behind to show off your inner plumber. (Actually, don’t do that.)
Step 1: Set Filter Pond
First, get your filter pond placed. To prevent the filter pond from sinking/settling, you’ll want to really tamp down the foundation soil underneath it, then add about 2″ of gravel/sand mix, then about 1″ of sand over top of the gravel to prevent the gravel from roughing up and potentially puncturing the underside of the filter pond. Alternately, you could use concrete pavers or pour a concrete pad below your freeze line.
We recommend using at least a 50+ gallon filter pond. This is the one we wished we’d used on our first filter pond (we used it later on a second filter/bog pond), but we used the old pool we already had instead. A 50 gallon filter pond should be more than adequate to clean a ~1,000 gallon pond IF you don’t have ducks – we added a second 50 gallon filter pond a year later since we have seven ducks.
The exact ratio of filter pond to main pond is hard to determine. There are probably too many potential factors to come up with a precise ratio that works for every scenario. For instance, if you have ducks, you’re going to want to have a much higher filter-to-pond ratio than someone who just has a couple of fish in their pond.
One fact remains: you can’t have too much filter pond, but you can certainly have too little – so err on the side of too much biofilter/filter pond, especially if you have waterfowl.
Step 2. Plumb the Pond
Position your pump on the rock in the center of your pump hole. We highly recommend the Laguna 2900 Max-Flow pump – especially if you have ducks. You want a pump that can handle solids and one that has enough power to turn your pond water over 2-4 times per hour (calculations here).
The Laguna is also extremely energy efficient. Once your pump is positioned, measure and sketch out the lengths of PVC pipe and joints you’re going to need to run pipe from your pump into the base of your filter pond. (Again, the full list of plumbing supplies we used is at the bottom of this article – but the exact joints and lengths of pipe needed may vary depending on where you locate your filter pond.)
Do NOT seal any plumbing joints until you’re confident everything is sized and fitted correctly. Once you’ve linked it all together and everything fits, seal your plumbing joints one by one, locking everything into place.
Step 3. Add Pond Biofilter Pads
Place protective framing over the inflow in the bottom of your filter pond to make sure the pipes don’t get clogged with filter media when you unplug your pump (due to gravity, the pump sucks back out when turned off since the filter pond is higher – unless you plumb in a cut off valve at the top).
In the original version of this article, we recommended hogs hair filters which work great. However, they break down over time, lose their filtering ability, and eventually require replacement.
In April 2019 (years after we originally built the first iteration of our pond), we installed a different filter media that we read really good things about: a combo of Matala Filter Media Pads – (Green) and Matala Filter Media Pads – (Grey). The different colors correspond with different filter density – grey = more dense, green = less dense.
We cut both the green and grey filter pads exactly to the size of our filter pond and stacked them on top of each other.
Then we put the remaining scrap pieces on top of the fitted ones.
The green filter went in first to filter out the larger material. The grey filter went on top to filter out finer material.
Now, six months later, we’re happy to report that the Matala filter pads have made a huge difference in water quality in our pond. AND they’re still in like-new condition. (Covered with good pond bacteria and muck but not breaking down like hogs hair does.)
Despite 6 ducks swimming and pooping in our pond all day long, we haven’t had to do a thing to our pond since putting the new filter pads in (other than adding beneficial pond bacteria when we first put the new pads in).
When you’re done putting your filter pads in to your bog filter, fill up the bog with water, *then squirt in this beneficial pond bacteria (follow quantity instructions on label based on size of your pond). This is the primary bacteria that’s going to clean the water in your backyard pond, and its home is going to largely be in your filter pads.
(*Important note: Only put the pond bacteria into your new pond if you’re going to be able to turn it on and have water flowing within a half day or so. Pond bacteria needs water and nutrients to survive.)
This setup is called a skippy biofilter – you can geek out on the details here if you’d like.
6. Build Your Waterfall
It might seem counterintuitive, but we built our waterfall last. We wanted to have all of our plumbing and the filter pond in place BEFORE we put in the rocks that hide and support it.
There’s no single formula for building a waterfall, and yours will be unique because your rocks are unique. Some people concrete their foundations in, which is perfectly fine – but that doesn’t allow you to easily change things/iterate later, which is why we went a different route.
We simply built up a foundation with gravel, sand, and stone, then put pond liner under our final top-level rocks going down the waterfall in order to prevent water from escaping out of the system via the waterfall.
Since we’d never built a waterfall before, we looked at hundreds of photos of waterfalls online for inspiration. We’d recommend you do the same.
You’ll also need to cut an opening in the siding of your filter pond, and use a scrap of pond liner and “fish-safe” silicone sealant to attach the liner to the inside of your filter pond. The liner will need to extend out of the filter pond and onto your first waterfall rock to prevent water from leaking out behind your waterfall.
7. Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3
Fill up your backyard pond with water. Ideally you can use a dechlorinator to filter the chlorine out of the water you fill your pond with since chlorine can kill beneficial bacteria.
It’s a good idea to take a close look at your rock pond walls as the water fills around them to make sure they’re not settling or moving too much, thus requiring you to reposition them.
Once your pond is full, plug your pump cord into a yard outlet (we’ve been using this Yard Master 6-Outlet power stake since day one and it still works). It’s a magical thing to watch your backyard pond come to life for the first time!
If your water is muddy and turbid for the first 7-14 days after you fill it, don’t despair! That’s normal. It will take a bit of time for your filters to kick into full gear and your pond to clear up.
Also, as your pond is filling AND for the next 24-48 hours after it’s full, keep a close eye out for any signs of leaks. Is the ground wet where it shouldn’t be? Is the pond level dropping? If so, there’s a good chance you have a leak, and 9/10 times that leak is happening somewhere in your waterfall and can be easily fixed by rearranging rocks or pond liner.
Depending on the time of year when you build your backyard pond, you’ll probably want to add a second type of pond-cleaning bacteria to your water once the pond is full – either a warm water of cold water bacteria (see materials list below for links).
Congratulations, you’re now the proud new owner of a gorgeous backyard pond that you built yourself!
IV. Ongoing Maintenance and Alterations To Your Backyard Pond
Ongoing maintenance on your backyard pond will be minimal if you don’t have ducks. Ha! The fewer ducks you have, the less maintenance your pond will require.
Given that we have ducks, we decided that our single biofilter pond needed a friend, so we added a second 50 gallon filter bog with a waterfall that cascades into the back of the first filter pond. The general rule is you want your bog/filter portion of your system to be at least 20% of your pond; ex: 100 sq ft pond surface would need 10-20 sq ft bog/filter system.
We also ended up adding a second waterfall off of our original filter pond to add additional waterflow/aeration to the near side of our pond. You can see that project pictured below:
Additionally, to get even more oxygen into our pond to keep Sid Fishest and his fish family (our four pond fish) happy, we got two of these small aerators. More oxygen into your pond = healthier pond water. We do clean our filter media at least 1-2 times per year as-needed, but without ducks you should rarely (some people say never) have to clean your filter media. That’s one of the neat things about the Skippy biofilter system.
Using the test strips in our materials list below, we test our pond water periodically throughout the year. The water has yet to measure anything less than ideal.
Pond Maintenance Schedule
Here’s what a normal ongoing pond maintenance schedule might look like:
SPRING pond maintenance
- Check pond water quality with this Pond Water Quality Test Kit (here are the ones we use). If high nitrate levels detected, add seasonally-appropriate beneficial bacteria, then test water again a week later.
- IF waterfall has slowed due to debris clogging it, unplug the pump. The water reversal will usually dislodge whatever is in the pump impeller; if not, you’ll need to hop in, disconnect the pump, bring it to the side of the pond, pop off the top and remove the clog manually.
SUMMER pond maintenance
- Same as spring.
FALL pond maintenance
- Same as spring, plus remove fall leaves by hand or with a net so they don’t clog your pump.
- Same as spring, but we recommend getting a pond de-icer if you live in a cold area. We live in Greenville, SC (Ag Zone 7B), which is not exactly known for frigid temps. However, our pond will still freeze over on really cold winter nights. After breaking apart and removing the ice with our numb hands enough times, we finally decided to get this floating de-icer. It’s kept our pond completely ice-free down into single digit temps, which makes us and our ducks very happy.
Complete Materials List For Backyard Pond
Stones, Pebbles, Gravel, Sand
Easily found at local landscape supply companies.
- 2-4,000 lbs rock (1-2 pallets)
- 1/2 scoop sand
- 1/2 scoop river pebbles
- 1/2 scoop gravel
The Skippy Biofilter
- 50 gallon tub
- 1 – length of 1 1/2 inch PVC pipe.
- 1 – PVC tee.
- 3 – PVC elbows.
- 1 – 1 1/2 inch to 1 1/4 inch threaded nipple reducer.
- 1 – plastic egg crate style overhead 2×4 light grate (or something similar). You can find these in the ceiling tile section of Home Depot or Lowes or other hardware store. It’s a ceiling light grate panel. *You don’t have to get this IF you use a really stiff filter media like Matala filter pads.
- 4 – 1/4 inch x 1 1/2 inch bolt, nut and washer combinations.
- Filter media/pads: Matala Filter Media Pads – (Green) and Matala Filter Media Pads – (Grey).
- Bacteria inoculant for filter media
Pumps & Aerators:
- Laguna 2900 Max-Flow (for main pump)
- Pump, Laguna 960 Max-Flow (*optional if you want to add a second filter pond because of your ducks)
- Laguna Aerator (x 2)
- Hydrofarm Large Aerator Stones (x2)
Pond Making Materials:
- Underlayment (15′ x 20′)
- Liner – Firestone 45 mil. EPDM (15′ x 20′)
- “Fish-safe” silicone sealant
- Insulating foam sealant for ponds (optional but great for sealing waterfalls or liner leaks)
- Yard Master 13547 6-Outlet Power Stake with Light Sensor and 6-Foot Cord
- Pond De-Icer>
- Pond water quality test strips
- Warm weather pond bacteria
- Cool/cold weather pond bacteria
- pipe/plumbing glue (to connect & seal the joints)
- sump pump (really comes in handy if you need to drain part of your pond for cleaning or to reposition rocks, or to water garden beds)
Got questions about building your own backyard pond? Ask away in the comments section below!
Or read our two follow-up articles:
- Answers to frequently asked pond questions people have emailed us
- How to clean a Laguna Max-Flo pond pump (with instructional video)
Want to see a quick video summary of this article? Check out our Google Web Story about how to make your own DIY backyard pond!