How To Make a Wildlife Pond

How To Make a Wildlife Pond

Wildlife pond - header image

Honestly, do you ever think about how weird it is that ‘pond life’ has become a derogatory phrase and insult, when actual pond life contains some of the most fascinating and beautiful creatures you will find in nature? How did that happen? 

Whether it’s frogs, dragonflies, pond skaters or newts, it’s surprisingly easy to  attract these creatures to your garden and provide a safe environment for them to dwell in. You don’t even need a large pond in many cases: a raised pond ‘planter’, a barrel or even an overturned washing-up bowl can serve as an aquatic habitat. 

wildlife friendly garden pond

If you’re thinking of adding a wildlife pond to your garden or outdoor area, you may already be aware of the range of benefits, both for you and nature. 

Natural wild ponds play a vital role in biodiversity, but - like anything natural it seems - they have declined due to issues like climate change, pollution, development, common agricultural runoff and so on. Us gardeners can play a role here by providing thriving, biodiverse water sources. 

Benefits of a Wildlife Friendly Garden Pond 

  • A wildlife pond is almost guaranteed to improve the local biodiversity of your outdoor surroundings. This garden feature will attract a pleasing array of amphibians, flying insects, birds and small animals.
  • Pond visitors like toads and frogs are known to feed on slugs and other troublesome garden visitors, in turn protecting your vegetable crops from being decimated.
  • A wildlife-friendly pond can be educational for children and get them interested in the natural world.
  • A pond is a very attractive addition to a garden or outdoor area, providing a relaxing focal point. 

A frog perched on floating plants

While it can take a few months to a year for a wildlife pond to establish its own balanced ecosystem, it is very much a self-sustaining environment which will require relatively little input from you. With some forms of wildlife, you will see them populating the pond almost instantaneously. 

Your pond should be in an area with a good balance of sunlight on the one hand and shade and shelter on the other (although you should avoid heavy shade, which can discourage wildlife). Also avoid situating it near or under trees, as this can result in a build-up of leaves or debris falling into the pond. 

sunken garden pond

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A shallow pond will dry out faster and can quickly become overwhelmed by algae if it is exposed to strong daily sunlight. 

How deep you make a pond is completely up to you. In terms of attracting wildlife, even a shallow pond will do very well. The deeper the pond, the less likely it is to freeze in winter. 

What’s more important than total depth is ensuring that there are different depth zones within the pond. This will foster biodiversity, as different pond species prefer to hang out in different zones. You will often see frogs partially submerged, peeking above the surface, while other visitors like birds will paddle in shallow water. 

To encourage this, when you’re building or digging your pond you can incorporate planting ‘shelves’ at different depths. 

Marking Out Your Pond Area
You can mark out the area with string or a length of garden hose. While ‘wiggly’ uneven pond shapes are aesthetically satisfying, a pond will work perfectly well when it’s a square or rectangular shape. The overall shape isn’t as important as how the pond is layered or made up. 

When digging out the turf or soil, you can set it aside to be used elsewhere in the garden or in raised beds. Avoid leaving it piled up at the edges of the pond as it can then be inadvertently washed back in (leading to an excess of nutrients in the water). 

Shovel in area of excavated soil

When digging the pond, place a plank of wood over it with a spirit level on top, this will help you ensure that the sides are level. 

A pond underlay is designed to be placed in between the base of the hole that you’ve excavated and the pond liner. It’s an extra layer of protection against possible tears or punctures. 

Garden ponds can be set up with different kinds of liners. A preformed liner will certainly seem more easy and convenient, but it will limit you in terms of the layout of a wildlife pond. 

It’s better to choose a flexible liner such as butyl, as this will allow you more control over the shape of your pond, allowing for differing depths. It will also be easier to create a natural ‘access’ slope for pond visitors to use. 

garden pond with running water

Adding Water
You want to avoid filling up the pond with tap water, which typically contains high levels of minerals. Rainwater is naturally the ideal option for a wildlife-friendly pond, and here is where a rainwater collection barrel or butt will come in handy. 

If you must use tap water, leave it to stand for 24-48 hours before adding it to the pond. 

To make the pond safe for wildlife, it’s important to have an area for access or for exiting the pond. Some pond visitors prefer to hang around the fringes of the pond to drink or bathe; to make things easier for them you can create a sloping area on one or more edges. This can be constructed using gravel or loose stones. 

You can also create ‘pathways’ in and out, using strategically placed rocks or placing a log in the pond and weighing down one end. 

wildlife friendly garden pond

As mentioned above, sloping sides will be more difficult to achieve if you are using a preformed liner for your pond. However this is where you can get creative and construct access ramps. Even a timber pond with high sides can be modified to create a means of access; make sure to regularly check that any natural or artificial ramp hasn’t slipped or fallen over. 

Be aware that birds can also be chased into the pond by cats (or cats by dogs!). To prevent any drowning accidents, provide a means of escape with strategically placed bricks or logs. 

It’s good practice to let the area around the edges of your pond be a little ‘unkempt’. Logs, stones and so on provide a habitat and cover from predators. 

Raised Ponds and Sunken Ponds
Raised garden ponds can be a little more challenging when it comes to attracting wildlife, as the edges are bound to be too steep for some visitors. You can work around this though by setting up a ramp on at least one side. 

timber raised pond with surrounding foliage

Sunken ponds will be much more accessible for wildlife, as well as having a more natural appearance. On the other hand they can involve a fair bit more work when you are setting them up, and you should be cautious if you have young children to avoid any drowning hazards. 

Our Wildlife Raised Bed is a kind of hybrid of the two designs; it features a precast sunken pond with stepped inserts that provide ledges for aquatic plants. Around the precast area there is space for soil, that can then be planted with complementary flowers and foliage.

Attract Wildlife to Your Garden Pond
Garden visitors of all kinds will be attracted to a pond or a water feature, and the diversity is reflected in the different ways that they benefit from the garden structure. 

Sunning or resting spots: reptiles and amphibians can sometimes be seen basking in the sun’s direct rays. This helps them regulate their body temperature (being naturally cold-blooded) as well as topping up their Vitamin D levels. 

Garden ponds with vegetation attract wildlife

Shelter and hiding places: A pond will be especially attractive to wildlife if it offers potential hiding places from predators. These can be at the edges of the pond or under the surface (in the form of submerged plants or underwater rocks). 

Dense marginal growth along the edges of your pond will attract a rich variety of creatures like magnets, while allowing them to hide and forage. 

Bathing: Birds will bathe in shallow pond water. 

Breeding areas: Ponds are a great breeding space for amphibians such as newts, frogs and toads. They will especially be attracted to shaded ponds with plenty of plant habitat. 
Insects like dragonflies, damselflies and water beetles will also lay their eggs on pond plants, while their larvae can play an important role in maintaining the pond’s inner ecological balance, preying on other aquatic organisms. 

a hedgehog

Hedgehogs like to swim, although if they are in water for too long they will get tired; for this reason it’s important to provide some kind of natural or artificial ramp for access. If you are using pond netting make sure that it is raised a foot or so, so that hedgehogs do not get trapped or entangled. 

They also like to hunt for slugs or insects among foliage and grasses alongside the pond. Hedgehogs are declining in numbers in recent decades, so by providing a suitable habitat you’ll be doing your bit for the ecosystem. 

A frog perched on water lilies

Frogs and Toads
Frogs may be some of the first creatures you can expect to see once you set up a wildlife pond. It’s like a bat-signal for frogs! 

As we mentioned earlier, if you’re having problems with slugs in your garden (and the increase in slug numbers is something that a lot of gardeners have noted in the previous year or two) then a resident frog or toad could be the answer to your prayers, as they will voraciously feed on anything slimy (be warned that they will also munch on worms). 


Aside from that though, frogs are just fascinating creatures, maybe even more so in tadpole form. I think tadpoles were one of the first things I became mildly obsessed with as a kid (before moving on to space shuttles or dinosaurs or horror films I was too young to be watching). 

Tadpoles originate from large clusters of eggs (the toad equivalent look more like ribbons). When they hatch they will reside in the pond, feeding on plants or weeds until they slowly metamorphose into an adult frog (again, this is truly fascinating if you can see one mid-transformation up close). 

a growing frog

Tadpoles will actually munch on lettuce or greens if you have some extra harvest left over. They can also speed up their own metamorphosis if they sense that there are a lot of predators lurking in the pond. 

The Common Frog and Common Toad as well as the Natterjack Toad and the Northern Pool Frog are native to the UK. 

smooth newt

If you want to attract newts, they prefer shallower water and they will need a gently sloping area to access your pond. Be aware though that they will feed on any frog tadpoles in the vicinity. They will also feed on slugs when on land. 

A wildlife pond is an ideal environment for them to breed, as well as a place for the female to lay her eggs. Newts will overwinter in dense woodland-like areas, under rocks or in crevices. 

pond skater on water surface

Insects and Invertebrates
Pond skaters are fascinating long-limbed insects that can ‘walk on water’ so to speak: due to the way they support their slender weight, they can traverse across water surfaces and be supported by surface tension. 

An individual pond skater will also have hundreds of thousands of microscopic water-repelling hairs that keep it from getting wet and thus heavier. The pond skater preys on other pond insects by detecting vibrations on the water surface. 

Water Boatmen These aquatic insects will be attracted to almost any garden pond. They will feed on algae and pond detritus. Greater water boatmen swim on their back while Lesser water boatmen swim on their front. 

Water boatmen can use their anatomy to produce cricket-like noise that is audible if you listen closely, despite water absorbing most of it. Indeed, Micronecta scholtzi are said to be the loudest animal on the planet relative to body size.

The Common Darter dragonfly

Dragonflies are beautiful insects, but they actually spend the majority of their lives hidden away in their larvae stage. This can sometimes last 5-7 years, when the larvae will reside in a body of water such as a pond, where they feed on underwater invertebrates. 

Adult dragonflies - such as the Common Darter or the Broad Bodied Chaser - can also often be seen around a wildlife pond, whether preying on insects or using the habitat for breeding.

Emerald damselfly

Damselflies The close cousin of the dragonfly, damselflies can also often be seen hovering around garden or backyard ponds. Look out for the aptly-named Emerald Damselfly - whose larvae will crawl up the stems of tall emergent plants when they're ready to become adults - or the Large Red Damselfly, who despite their name are happy to hang out in the smallest of garden ponds as well as lay their eggs there! 

In general damselflies are very keen aphid predators, and will even swoop in to pick them off plants.

fish and lilies in a garden pond

Can You Have Fish in a Wildlife Pond?
Fish are understandably a big attraction for garden ponds. However, they aren’t really compatible with a wildlife pond as they will gobble up other inhabitants, reducing pond biodiversity. If you’re keen on having both fish and other pond visitors, you may need to look at the option of having two separate pond areas. 

Filters, Pumps
The good news is that a wildlife pond won’t need as much mechanical input as a pond designed for fish. Filters and pumps are necessary to keep the latter ticking along. By comparison, with a wildlife pond you can largely let nature take its course once you have got it established. 

Waterfall-like feature with timber pond

It can take a while for the pond ecosystem to settle into balance, but once it does so it’s best to avoid upsetting this balance with things like skimmers, water filters or UV clarifiers. 

While a pump isn’t necessary for a wildlife pond, you may want to add one to create a running water feature such as a mini waterfall. This isn’t just for the sake of charm or appearance: running water can attract more visitors just from the sound, and it will also keep the water moving, reducing the risk of stagnation. 

white water lily

On the other hand, water fountains can be off-putting to some creatures (such as newts). Water lilies, as well, prefer still waters to movement. What’s important here is that the pump feature has some kind of wildlife protection system to avoid harming your pond residents. 

Pond Plants
Your choice of pond plants can be an important aspect when it comes to attracting wildlife. In some ways you might think that the more plants you have the better, but this is not strictly true as an excess of plants can lead to an excess of algae. 

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The question of what plants to add for a wildlife-friendly pond is an article all in itself (and it’s on the way!). In general though, it’s best to include a varied mixture. It’s important to have an array of native plants that wildlife are familiar with, but it’s not necessary to stick only to native plants. 

Having said that, do some research based on the area you live in, and avoid adding any plants that have a reputation for being invasive. 

At this point I was going to separate pond plants into 4 distinct categories, but I ended up tearing my hair out: some plants seem to fall into two categories at once, or it’s not entirely clear whether they’re one or the other. 

Anyway, how they may be classified isn't  that important and I’m not a botanist, so here are some general types: 

Oxygenators, also known as submerged plants, are visible just under the surface of the water. As well as doing what their name suggests, they also provide habitat and hiding places for pond inhabitants, as well as soaking up excess nutrients. 

Oxygenators often come in pots or planting baskets that can be lowered into the water. Some varieties can spread quite wide and are more suited to larger garden ponds. Examples: Water Milfoil, Hornwort, Common Water-Starwort 

Marsh marigold (marginal pond plant)

Marginal plants (such as Yellow Iris, Ragged Robin, Lesser Spearwort, Water Forget-Me-Not) grow in shallow water at the edges of the pond. 

Dragonflies and damselflies will perch on them while looking out for prey, as well as laying their eggs on the inside of stems. 

Some of these can also be referred to as emergent plants, which means that roots that are submerged in the water but the leaves, stems or foliage extend above the surface. 

Pond diagram with plant types

Marginal plants can provide cooling shade in summer months. A majority of pond visitors tend to inhabit these marginal areas of the pond rather than the water within the pond itself. 

Floating plants such as Frogbit float on the water surface and don’t need to be planted in a substrate; instead their root systems take up nutrients from the water. They can provide beneficial shade for the pond in hot weather conditions. 

Water Lilies are seen as a quintessential pond plant that will attract many forms of wildlife, but be careful as they can spread rapidly and even lead to a reduction in biodiversity due to crowding out other plants.