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On a Chalk Hillside June 2018

Thinking about a pond  

We like ponds.  There was one in the garden when I was a child which was already established when we moved in.  It had a rockery behind it which had two miniature roses in it – ‘Baby Masquerade’- that had been planted when the house was built in the 50’s and had reached their full size of 35cm x 30cm.

 These were one of the few plants that moved with my Mum to her current house, and into a purpose-built raised bed near the house so they were in full view from inside.  Whilst, in my opinion, the “normal” size rose seemed a bit garish with so many colours and tones, the miniature was a delight – the buds and flowers all being different hues of pink and yellow (and even apricot in tight bud) as they aged.    

In my first garden behind a terrace in the East End of London there was also a pond already there, made by sinking a bath into the ground, which was always green with blanket weed as the whole garden was overshadowed by an enormous plane tree.  The frogs didn’t care, and in the spring the pond seemed completely full of amphibians.  At the time I did not appreciate that London Plane trees are a treasure, green lungs in the polluted city, simply that my tree sucked all the sun and moisture out of two thirds of the garden.  London Plane trees – Platanus x hispanica or Platanus x acerifolia – are great for urban environments as their bark is mottled (like camouflage) and bits flake off so sloughing off pollutants, allowing them to cope in the London environment.   They can be up to 30 m tall, so totally inappropriate for small urban gardens.

This one below is Platanus x hispanica – can you see the bright green foliage of May, so welcome in hot weather, but an enormous spread covering  2/3rds of my terraced garden, and quite a lot of adjacent ones too:-

The first pond I actually created myself was in the tiny garden in Harrow – a preformed black plastic shaped one, roughly triangular, that was about 45 cm by 30 cm and 30 cm deep.  This was the smallest preformed shape we could find.  We sunk it into the clay soil in one of the more sunny areas of the garden, and planted it up with Equisetum hyemale on the marginal ledge and a pygmy pink waterlily we bought from one of the specialist waterplant stands at Hampton Court Flower show one year – Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Rubra’.   

This waterlily needs a depth of water of about 30 cm as it needs to have 13-25cm water above the top of the pot.  Its spread when in leaf is about 38cm.   This meant that there was no room for the Iris Pseudacorus Variegata I’d bought which is supposed to be able to live in damp soil as well as in ponds as a marginal, so I planted it at the edge of the plastic rim to give the illusion that the pond extended further, and promised myself I would keep it well watered.   Here is a picture of the Iris in early June showing the variegation on the leaves, and the flowers:-

(You may also be able to see the buff tail of the bumblebee climbing inside the central flower.)
Below are the Equisetum and Iris together in August, after the Iris leaves have lost their variegation:-

I also planted ferns and mind-your-own business plant (Soleirolia soleirolii) as foliage interest to disguise the plastic boundaries.   I was lucky, in the London microclimate mind your own business is evergreen, but if it gets lots of frost it becomes deciduous.

A bugbear of my husband’s with many ponds, is the visibility of the liner, as the water level is generally several centimetres below the top of the pond, and even if you have plants or pebbles up to the edge of the plastic shape (which we did), you can see the plastic preformed shape, (or butyl liner).   
I got round this in the front garden in Harrow by not even trying to disguise the fact that it was an artificial pond, having what looks like a 30cm deep, round, large green washing up bowl on short legs sitting on a paving slab with some of the Iris Pseudacorus Variegata in it and a Japanese Bamboo water spout behind it that I got my husband to make (not attached to any water source, just for show).  In both cases the frogs and toads loved them, and when we moved, with the green washing up bowl pond filled with some of the Iris and the Equisetum a frog and a toad who lived in that pond came with us, watching us carefully as we carried the pond to the van, just their noses out of the water, but never venturing out of the pond throughout the journey here.   The pond was placed on the bed nearest to the house, with box cuttings growing round one side to give the amphibians foliage protection for access to help them climb in and out of the bowl.  Both the frog and toad and their many offspring make use of the nearby greenhouse to over winter under the gravel trays, and all the pots of plants clustered up against the house and greenhouse to lurk amongst during the summer. 
As we constructed our vegetable bed in our current garden, we wanted to include a small pond for amphibians to ensure we had organic slug control.  We used a rectangular header tank about 60 cm by 45 cm by 45 cm that came out of the loft when we had central heating installed and sunk it into the ground with the Equisetum and some of the Iris in it, and an amphibian ladder constructed out of a pile of bricks at one end to help them clamber in and out.   The toads use our compost bins to overwinter in and at least one used to live in the polytunnel when we grew things directly in the ground in there.  
However, we also wanted a bigger pond.  I am always very taken with the naturalistic ponds that look like natural dew ponds – such as the Horse Pond at Great Dixter, which I seem to remember has Gunnera tinctoria and some dogwoods round some of it, and grass up to the edges.   My husband is more practical.  How do you create something like that on a steep slope?  How do you get grass to grow to the edge if you have pond liner for more than 30cm out of the pond with a bit of soil or stone on top of it to weight it down, and how do you mow/cut it?   Now when I say naturalistic pond – this one at the Donkey Sanctuary at Sidmouth is TOO naturalistic for me:-

Whereas this one at Mottisfont Abbey in their walled rose garden is too structured for me:-

Some of the more naturalistic wildlife ponds are also large, larger than an average garden might be able to accommodate, and on a slope where ground would have to be made level before being dug into to make a pond, possibly too wide to be considered.   This pond below is at Furzey Gardens in the New Forest. 

Grass, ferns, reeds, or other mainly green planting softens the edges.  In a more obviously gardened area you could have more garden plants edging the pond as below with the Rodgersias. (Some bronze form of Rodgersia Aesculifolia but I don’t know which one).

My husband on the other hand prefers a more formal affair - I expect you all recognise this very formal lily pond from Hidcote Gardens also lined with stone, part of their more Mediterranean area next to their glass house – a more modern feel, but not, on the face of it, very wildlife friendly. 

Over the course of a couple of years we visited many private gardens with ponds open under the National Garden Scheme and I reluctantly came to the conclusion that our terrain simply did not lend itself to the naturalistic type of pond.  In order to build terraces, we either needed to make a huge flat area and dig a hole within it like they had at Kiftsgate :-

Or we had to build out from the flat and retain the front of the pond.  We visited an inspiring garden on a slope in a village called Whitsbury where they had done just that – it was a shallower slope than ours, and half of the pond was sunk into the ground with planting round it and as the ground dropped away they had shored it up with terracing.  When we started to consider the logistics and the size of pond we were planning to have I think we quickly discounted the idea of creating a huge flat terrace in which to place a pond as at Kiftsgate as there is no way to get a mechanical digger into the garden.  Digging out had to be done by hand, and we could not envisage being able to hew out enough chalk to create a big enough flat surface.   
Not only did the pond and the terracing walls have to look good on the pond terrace and from the patio above, but perhaps more important visually it had to look good from below.  There was to be a big seating area further down the slope where you looked back up the garden and caught the sun.  Rather than try and “lose” the terracing, I decided to make it a bit of a feature, reminiscent of buildings in art deco seaside resorts which I hoped would tie it in to the Mediterranean courtyard that was going to be constructed lower down.  So there would be stepped low retaining walls to contain the pond terrace on either side, mirroring the slope/steps of the paths either side.  These walls would all be rendered and painted, and finished with brick edging, which would be the same style of retaining wall and edging on the courtyard too.   The pond would be as long as we could make it across the width of the garden, and be as wide as we could cope with digging and retaining it.
We also came to the conclusion that even in a formal structured pond with straight sides and overhanging paved edgings we could make it wildlife-friendly by having a shallow shelf with a sloping “beach” of pebbles on it for wildlife to get in and out of the pond to drink, and having a marginal shelf on three sides so we could use marginal plants to soften the straight lines and formality of the actual structure of the pond.    We would also create a bog garden that would border the pond on the remaining side and wrap round the front a bit so that foliage would grow up to the pond and provide some foliage cover for wildlife to get to the “beach”.    Here’s that plan drawn on the flat surface we made as we began the terracing:-

Next time, starting the pond, and marginal planting.

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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