If you’re lucky enough to have a big garden you may have plenty of room for a substantial pond but you only need a small amount of ground space to build a mini pond which will still be hugely beneficial to wildlife and give you the reward of observing the comings and goings of the different creatures attracted to it.
You can build a mini pond at any time of year, but winter or very early spring is a good time as you won’t have to wait long before you should start to see some signs of life. You might have to look hard to spot the first visible inhabitants as they are likely to be some of the tiny creatures that feed on the microscopic algae that will quickly colonise the mini pond. Hopefully you will find that it becomes an increasingly rich and complex ecosystem. But enjoying watching your mini pond develop is not the only good reason for making one.
Ponds are a vitally important source of habitat
In terms of the number and variety of different species that they support, ponds are the richest of all forms of freshwater habitat and even a small pond can support a huge range of species from the microscopic up to large mammals for whom they can be a vital source of drinking water. Because they are generally shallow, they also warm quickly during the spring months, providing the perfect nursery environment for a range of spawning amphibians. But despite being both important and easy to accommodate in small spaces such as gardens and patios, ponds are actually in serious decline.
Why are there fewer ponds?
The number of ponds in the United Kingdom has reduced by around half over the last century and much of this loss is due to changes in land use through intensive agriculture, as well as abstraction which has served to lower the water table, leaving ponds to dry out. The classic farm pond or the pond on a village green were once common rural sights but are now much rarer. But the traditional garden pond is also in decline as gardens have generally become smaller, artificially resurfaced or repurposed for a variety of domestic uses.
Where gardens have become child-centred spaces for play this can also be coupled with concerns for child safety around water. Of course these concerns are entirely legitimate, but a mini pond is not only a lot easier to manage with small children around, it is also easy to accommodate in the corner of a seating area or tucked in a flowerbed. So, now that you want to help address the loss of this vital habitat, how do you go about making your mini pond?
How to build your mini pond
- The pond itself can be made from any number of water tight containers. You can make an attractive feature from salvaged items like old butler’s sinks, halved wooden barrels or tin baths but the popularity of such items means they can be expensive to acquire now. However, an equally effective mini pond can be made from a washing up bowl, a plastic storage box, or even a plastic bucket.
- The first thing to consider is the position of your pond – it will need some sunlight but not too much so try to position it where it will only receive direct sunlight for part of the day. This means that there will be enough light for plants to grow but not so much that the shallow water gets too warm for its inhabitants.
- Either dig a hole to accommodate your chosen container or position it above ground. If you are burying it, try to leave a small lip of about 1cm (1/2“) or so to avoid ground dwelling insects from falling in. If you are positioning it above ground elevate it slightly with a couple of bricks or similar, so that it is not in direct contact with the ground during very cold weather.
- Next, add gravel, rocks or both to the bottom of your container. This will provide hiding places for creatures as well as substrate for egg laying. You should also use either rocks, bricks or a large stick to provide a route in and out of the water. If the container is above ground you should also provide a route up to the water, again using items such as sticks, rocks or bricks.
- Finally, you should add plants. Native species are best and usually fairly cheap to buy, they should always be bought rather than collected from the wild though. Oxygenating plants such as hornwort or water-milfoil can simply be dropped in, small rushes or plants such as marsh marigold can be planted to provide height and climbing material, and species such as frogbit or creeping jenny can be used to create surface cover and shelter. Make sure that all plants are in specialist aquatic pots and compost (which they should be sold in). If you have the space a small pile of decaying sticks and branches next to the mini pond will provide habitat and refuge too.
What can you expect to see?
The first inhabitants of your new pond are likely to be tiny copepods and amphipods, if you look closely you should be able to see these creatures swimming jerkily around. These are all tiny species of crustacean such as daphnia, cyclops and freshwater ‘shrimps’ (not actually a shrimp). They feed on algae and various forms of detritus, helping to clean the water. They are also likely to be joined by the larvae of the mosquito which can usually be observed ‘dangling’ from the water surface as they breath air, but they will soon wriggle below the surface if disturbed.
All of these tiny invertebrates also provide a valuable source of food for slightly bigger creatures. These include pond skaters and water boatman which also feed on tiny dead and dying insects. At 12-15mm (1/2 -2/3”) they should be easier to spot, especially the pond skater which can be seen ‘skating’ around supported by the water’s surface tension or meniscus. You may also see pond snails, commonly the great pond snail, whose eggs may even have been inadvertently introduced with the weed.
Once the mini pond is a little more established it might be visited by frogs or newts. The common frog may spawn in the mini pond and, if so, this is likely to take place sometime around mid-March. Newts, the most common of which is the smooth newt, lay eggs on weed which is then wrapped around the eggs for protection. If you are lucky enough to have amphibians reproduce in your mini pond it is especially important to ensure easy access in and out of the pond so that the juvenile frogs and newts can move freely.
As summer progresses you may be lucky enough to have hedgehogs visit your garden in search of food, they will also appreciate a drink from your mini pond. The summer months will also see damselflies and even larger dragonflies drawn to the water in search of food, if you have planted taller plants such as rushes, they will use these to cling to and may even lay eggs on them.
There are a multitude of other creatures that could visit your mini pond, depending on where you live, the ease of access to the area in which your mini pond is situated and the range of trees and plants that make up the wider ecosystem.
If you have small children, try to get them involved in constructing and monitoring your mini pond and make the most of the opportunity for them to learn about the value of the micro habitat you have created, but do remember that children should always be supervised around water at all times.