Step 2 - Digging & Leveling

For pond construction, you’ll need a hole in the ground. Holes are dug by hand or machine. Make the outer edge of the pond embankment level on all sides. This makes hiding the pond liner easier when set. Uneven sides are difficult to cover with pebbles, however, sod is effective in this case.

Tree too close to liner | Natural Pond Lover

My experience with digging is extensive. I’ve dug many holes in my lifetime. I’m not talking about using a backhoe, or bobcat either. I’m talking about digging with a pick and shovel. During my college years, I worked as a gravedigger. Before that, I worked for my uncle as a plumbers assistant.

Digging and trenching for pipes was the usual protocol. With plenty of experience, I was already well initiated for digging holes. I chose to dig all my ponds myself with only the use of a pick and shovel. Reason being, I didn’t want to draw attention from neighbors. Also, my experience with heavy machinery is minimal, so a good pick and shovel were my friends.

Digging holes

I live in Florida but I’m originally from New York. Digging holes in Florida is much easier in comparison. Here, it’s mostly sand with hardly any rocks. Upon rare occasion, I came across a lone, small limestone. If I dug deep enough, I eventually ran into clay, which is heavier. Tree roots were the worst part of digging.

Tools for pond construction | Natural Pond Lover
Some basic essentials for digging and leveling including a bubble level.

Take extreme caution with the main roots of trees. Much to my dismay, I killed a very large tree by digging too close. To this day, I still can’t believe I killed such an enormous tree. Only one wrong cut, that’s all it takes. My recommendation is to take large trees down before you begin pond construction. Such trees only cause problems later on.

Heavy machinery 

If you choose to dig your own pond, you might choose to bring in some heavy machinery. It’s best that you have experience with these machines. A lot can go wrong and it’s very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Manual digging safety

On the flip-side, digging manually is also dangerous. Always remember to bend at the knees, not your back. Also, stay well hydrated, especially when working in the heat. I hurt my left elbow which took nearly a year to heal.

Whichever way you choose to excavate your pond, safety precautions come first. This is hard work so be sure to stop and rest when you feel tired. Don’t push yourself, you’ll only be at greater risk of injury.

Leveling the pond | Natural Pond Lover

Pond Depth and Slopes

For the depth of the pond, go down at least three feet. Fish need at least three feet of water depth to survive winter. Go deeper if you live up north.

Remember to keep child safety in mind when you’re digging a pond. Don’t go too deep if you have kids running around. Never leave children unattended around any body of water.

Slopes – don’t make them too steep

Keep slopes at less than a 45-degree angle. Substrates such as pebbles or sand slide down the liner if the angle is too steep. Avoid making shelves for pond plants if the water is too shallow. Raccoons and other destructive animals forage through the shelves at night looking for whatever food they can find. They easily damage the liner in doing so.

“Keeping it on the level”

Make sure the entire pond is level or as close to level as possible. Do this with a wooden pole or a 2×4″ plank. Place it in the middle of the pond while stretching two pieces of rope across the pole to the opposite embankments. Place a bubble level on the rope to see if raising or dropping any of the edges is necessary. The pond overflow is the only area to fall below the rest of the embankment. Make the overflow at least two feet wide. Allow it to fall 1.5 to 2 inches below the waterline of the pond embankment.

Digging and Leveling | Natural Pond Lover

Laying the liner

Digging is one of the hardest jobs when it comes to building your own pond. Laying the liner is just as difficult if you do it alone. See if you can get help when it comes time to install the liner. EPDM is very heavy. 

Even though polyethylene is lighter than EPDM, it is still heavy when the pond is large. I laid a polyethylene liner at a length of 41 feet by myself. Rubbing my knuckles raw was brutal. It’s hard to get a good grip on the liner wearing gloves, but if you can, go for it!

When it comes down to setting the liner and underlayment, be sure it lays snug to the ground so there is no added weight to the walls. When done correctly, a trench around the top to tuck the liner in is unnecessary. If the liner isn’t snug to the bottom and sides, it pulls in from the upper embankment. Not a good scenario. I always used to dig a trench to tuck the liner in at the top. Now I find it unnecessary. With a little experience, you will too.

Work smarter, not harder.

Digging a natural pond | Natural Pond Lover
A big hole for a big pond.

Almost there

After laying the liner, cover it with whatever medium you choose. You can then begin filling it with water. There will be some creases and folds in the liner around turns. The sharper the turn, the bigger the fold. Bury these folds so they are hidden and safe. It’s not just about aesthetic value. Leave no part of the liner exposed to animals or the elements. Liner folds also serve a purpose since many species of fish deposit their eggs along the creases. This is especially true for koi.

Pond shelves should be avoided | Natural Pond Lover
Pictured above: Remember those planter shelves I mentioned earlier? They're under the elephant ears. That's exactly where raccoons were foraging when they destroyed my original EPDM liner. I recommend against planter shelves for this reason. They're simply not worth it.

Conclusion – some words of encouragement

In all honesty, digging isn’t the most fun part of pond construction. It’s important that you take your time and don’t rush. Lake Okeechobee wasn’t built in a day. The greatest chance of injury is most likely to happen during the digging stage. Remember to bend at the knees and not your back. Only use heavy machinery if experienced because serious injury or death can occur.

Leveling is very important. This becomes clear when you lay the liner down and see the waterline. The more spot-on the level, the easier it will be to cover and hide the liner. Don’t forget to include the overflow

Baby bullfrog | Natural Pond Lover

The overflow is one of the most important parts of a constructed pond. While the work is hard, it is well worth the reward. Just keep repeating that to yourself. Soon you’ll have your very own private oasis in paradise!

Digging & Leveling