Landscaping Design with Outdoor Ponds and Water Features
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There used to be a show on HGTV called Ground Breakers where they went into backyards and installed complex water features, ponds and fountains with elaborate landscaping designs. The average budget for each of these productions was around $100,000.

But what if you want an oasis in your own backyard, but have a tenth or less of that budget?

The good news is there are cheaper, low-maintenance garden fountains, functioning ponds with living fish and water falls and outdoor water features that you can design and build on your own in a fraction of that cost.  

However, if you are on a strict budget, preparation is the key to creating what you really want. But before you jump into digging holes and moving rocks and dirt, you need to sit down and examine what type of landscape design you have and which water feature will blend in naturally with it.

Types of Ponds or Water Features

There are two basic types of water features: formal and informal. Whether a pond or outdoor garden is considered formal or informal depends on its shape and edging materials used in defining and covering the perimeter area of the pond or garden.

Informal Ponds or Water Features – These types of landscape décor and water gardens of live fish or plants take their cue from nature and have irregular shaped ponds and usually a trickling waterfall over strategically placed rocks to create a koi pond. These types of ponds must be designed to blend in with the surrounding landscape so they appear natural.

Formal Ponds or Water Features – Generally conform to geometric shapes such as circles, ovals, rectangles or squares and are typically above ground and contained within low concrete blocks covered with a veneer of stone or stucco.

These types of ponds are intended to look unnatural, or man-made, and they are normally placed within a surrounding area of similar formality and architectural features such as landscaping with shrubs or bushes that are neatly trimmed or shaped into squares and symmetrical borders.

In reality there is a third type, a mixture of the two that combines natural and architectural elements into one design that reflects nature, yet gives off an element of refinement and planning.

The type of design you finally decide upon should incorporate elements that already exist in your landscape and outdoor home design. It is important to match your surroundings appropriately.

For instance, if you have a refined looking outdoor area with a flagstone patio, an outdoor kitchen, hedges and bushes trimmed meticulously, then planning a wild, natural looking water feature in the middle of that space, or within view, would make it seem out of place. A more appropriate option might be a more formal type raised concrete pond complete with tiling on the outside lower wall and a statue in the middle spurting water out of its mouth. You get the idea.

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Selecting a Site for Your Water Feature

Create an Outdoor Pond
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So once you have decided what type of water feature fits your landscape, then the next critical decision is deciding where to put it. This is actually a major decision because it is going to affect the future maintenance of the pond, as well as how things such as plants or fish thrive in the environment.

There are three questions you should ask:

  • What is the purpose of this water feature?
  • How accessible should the pond be?
  • How will the sun, shade or wind affect the outdoor garden?

You need to know the answers to those types of question before you can lay out a design on paper. Would you like the outdoor garden or fountain to be visible for the inside of the house through a window or from an outdoor deck area? Are you going to be growing live plants along with filling a pond with fish and turtles?

If so, most plants needs 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight so you have to take that into consideration when selecting your site. Just be careful of which plants you choose for any type of outdoor garden.

Furthermore, do you want this outdoor space to be a reclusive getaway from the main part of the backyard? If so, do you have proper vegetation in a particular area to provide privacy.

Are you planning an elaborate water fall? If so, you need to make sure the area you choose is somewhat shielded from the wind by a privacy fence or adequate shrubbery to prevent the wind from spraying water nearby which will cause two issues you do not want to have to deal with constantly: getting wet and having to refill the pond with water more than you would like.

So these are just some of the issues you need to address before selecting the site and those three questions are a good starting point to get you really thinking about the purpose and goals of what you are trying to design.

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Making a Site Plan

Once you have decided on a location for the type of pond you want to create, if you are creating a design that is affecting the entire landscape of your backyard (could be side yard or wherever) and will require adding or removing new plants and other structures, then you need to create a site plan. This will help you visualize how the pond or water garden will fit in to the overall plan. Furthermore, this can also serve as a guide if you are planning on having the work professional done.

Note: If you are only placing a water feature in a designated area that will not require major modifications other than digging out some dirt for a pond insert and overlay, you can skip this step.

At some point before you begin the design, you need to check with any local codes to see if there are any restrictions on how far a pond or garden can be set back from property lines.  Mark these are red lines around your property on your grid paper to ensure you do no go to close to the edge of your property line when you are building.

Also, you need to mark any utilities such as water, phone, cable lines and the location of a septic tank if applicable.

The basic steps to making a site plan are to start with grid paper using a scale, typically one quarter inch equals 1 foot. The steps are as follows.

  1. Begin by marking North on the paper then draw the property lines accordingly.
  2. Mark the property lines on the paper based on the original survey when you purchased the property. If you do not have this, you will need to make the measurement outdoors again with a 100 ft tape measure.
  3. Mark any existing structures in the landscape area. If only a small portion of your yard is affected, just focus on that area on the grid.
  4. Mark any existing trees or shrubs.
  5. Draw the exact size of the pond, garden or fountain to scale on the grid paper in the appropriate area.

This site plan can be as elaborate or as simple as you want, but it will give you an idea of the type of space you will have in between your new and existing structures and if modifications are needed before you begin.

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Options for Building Ponds or Water Features

There are many different types of outdoor gardens, water features and ponds, but for theLandscaping Design with Outdoor Ponds and Water FeaturesCredit: purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the in ground informal ponds that are the most commonly used.

There are two basic options when deciding on the type of pond you want to put into the ground.

Premolded Pond Shells


  • typically made of a rigid durable plastic or rubber
  • come in various sizes, shapes and depths
  • more durable than flexible liners
  • integrated features such as waterfalls


  • more expensive than flexible liners

Flexible Pond LinersLandscaping Design with Outdoor Ponds and Water FeaturesCredit:


  • made of PVC plastic or synthetic rubber
  • less expensive than premolded shells
  • offer more flexibility to create the design you want


  • less durable and susceptible to punctures
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Final Thoughts

Create an Outdoor Water Feature
Credit: mjpyro

The purpose of this article was to give you some ideas of how to plan an outdoor garden or water feature. There are entire books written about how to actually build each of the types of ponds that were discussed above.

The important thing you should take from this is that in order to be satisfied with what you eventually build or buy, you need to analyze what is the purpose and how it will fit in with your existing landscape. If you do not take the time to do this upfront, you might end up with something that you never really had planned initially, and then it spirals in cost because you want to finish it.

I have known people that have pulled their ponds or fountains out of the ground after a couple of years because they simply did not plan anything out. They had no idea what they actually wanted and did no pre-planning. They just saw something in a home improvement store and bought it. Then without any real thought, they ended up with drainage and maintenance issues. The last thing you want to be doing is pulling leaves out of your pond every week because you did not think the location through in the beginning.

So take my advice and really ask yourself what you want in the new landscape garden or fountain. Do some research on your property, come up with an estimate and go from there.

How to Install a Garden Pond or Waterfeature