How To Design a Garden Pond

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If you want to design a gorgeous and functional garden pond then consider the 3 S’s of site, size and style.

Start your garden pond design process by identifying the site where you want your pond to be. Then figure out the size. Whether or not you want fish or aquatic plants may influence the size needed. Then focus on style. From rustic to modern, a pond can be whatever you want.

Whether you want a small water feature to sit on the edge of your deck or plan to farm fish in a huge in-ground pond, this article will give you tips and ideas to consider when designing your new garden pond.

I grew up with an acre sized pond in my backyard which my dad built just so he could walk out his backdoor and go fishing. I understand the allure of water in the garden and want to help you get the pond of your dreams.

Table of Contents

Starting the Design Process

When you begin designing your garden pond there are three S’s to consider. These are site, size and style. I’ll walk you through each one so that you can create your ideal garden pond.


The first S is site, or location. Where are you going to put your new garden pond? Take a walk around your garden and consider all the possible locations. Here are a few questions to ask when deciding on the site for your garden pond.

  • Do I want it close to the house or far away in a secluded area?
  • Do I want the pond to be in the sun or in the shade?
  • If I want fish in my pond, what kind? And do they need shade to survive?
  • Does the pond need to be near water hook-ups? Or will it be self-contained?
  • Is there a slope or other land feature that can be utilized such as to create a waterfall?
  • Or do I want to avoid land features and look for a very flat area?

Perhaps after a walk in the garden you have identified more than one potential site for your pond. This is great. Having options will allow you to be extra creative with your design. You can design two ponds and then decide which fits your ideals better.

Now that you know roughly where you want the pond to be it is time to consider the size.


How big do you want your pond to be? It is totally up to you. If you are like my dad, you will get a bulldozer and turn the entire back yard, roughly an acre, into a gigantic pond. Almost a small lake. But most reasonable people have something much smaller in mind.

A typical garden pond ranges in size from a large pot to the size of a wading pool. If your goal is to simply bring the sound of running water into your garden you might opt for a simple portable fountain.

There are many small, portable fountains with miniature attached ponds available. They can sit on a deck or on the surface of the ground and require no digging. These are great if you have a very small garden space.

Ponds as small as 2’ by 2’ can hold small fish. Gambusia and minnows can live in these small ponds and keep the bug larva at bay.

Going up from there, I have seen horse trough sized ponds. Literally horse troughs made from galvanized metal that have been converted into above ground ponds. They come in a wide variety of sizes from 2’ x 4’ to an 8’ wide circle or even bigger.

But if you plan to dig and put your pond in the ground you can make it any size or shape you want. Most backyard garden ponds top out at about 10’ by 5’. This is usually due to the size constraints of the yard. If you do want fish then do some research on the different kinds and make sure you are building a big enough pond for them.

And just remember, if you go big like my dad, it is a lot of work to create and maintain.


Now we get to the fun part. The style. By now you have probably spent far too long on Pinterest, soaking up style ideas like a sponge. From rustic to modern, the only limit is your imagination. But here are the two main style factors to take into consideration.

Above Ground

Any water feature that is not sunk into the ground is considered ‘above ground’. These ponds can be easier to install, especially if you go with the kit styles or something like a horse trough.

As I mentioned previously, the easiest way to get the serene sound of running water into your garden is to buy a fully functional pond kit. You can buy these at your local home improvement store or on-line.

Another name for these types of ponds would be water features or garden fountains. The really nice thing about these is that everything is included. The actual pond base and then some sort of water pump, filtration and usually a fountain.

All you have to do is put it together, fill with water and throw in some aquatic plants and you are done. A quick weekend project. And with so many styles to choose from you should be able to find something that suits your taste.

But maybe you want something more functional. Most pond kits are too small for full sized fish. You might get a few gamboozia in there to eat the mosquito larva but koi need more space. What are your options then?

As I touched on in the size section you could buy a horse trough to make an above ground pond. But this is only a container so you would still have to find all necessary accessories which I will talk about later in this article. Many people think the troughs are stylish enough themselves and just add a filtration system and some plants.

Then there are the truly amazing above ground ponds which usually have stone, wood or even glass sides. Most of the time these ponds have some form of plastic liner but what we see is a perfectly manicured outside.

This is often done in more formal gardens with stone slabs to give people a place to sit while admiring the fish and plants in the pond. It can also be used to give height to the pond and allow for a waterfall from a higher section into a lower section.

I have seen ponds that have glass on one or more sides so that you can see inside, much like a fish tank. It all depends on what you want your pond to look like and how much work you want to put into it.

In Ground

But what if you want your pond to look like a natural pond? Then start digging. To create a natural pond look then you will need the surface of the water to be level with the top of the ground. This is not the easiest option but it can look spectacular when done right.

In ground ponds can be any shape but there are pre-formed plastic pond bases you can buy which will make the project easier. But if you want a freeform or organic shape, you can dig until your heart’s content then line it with pond liner plastic.

To cover the plastic and create a defined edge most in ground ponds have stones, pebbles or other hardscape material around the outside. You could cement the stone down for stability and durability or simply set them down for a more rustic look.

Rectangular or square ponds are popular in more formal gardens. Choose a shape that kits well into the overall garden design.

Other Considerations

Fish or no Fish?

Having fish can be fun. It can also be a lot of work. Unless you set up an aquaponic system where the fish get fed from the plants in the system, you will probably have to feed them. But you don’t have to walk them or clean out their litter so they are really very forgiving pets.

There are quite a few types of fish to choose from. I suggest doing in depth research before purchasing fish but here a few popular ones.

Koi- If you want Koi then get a big pond. These fish can grow up to 32 inches long and live 40 years.

Gambusia- Also known as mosquito fish, these little fish only get to about 2 inches but they east mosquito larva which is why my dad stocked them in his pond.

Fathead Minnow- These fish are similar to gambusia and will eat bug larva. They only grow to about 3 inches and live about 2 years.

Shubunkin- Shimmery and pretty like Koi but not as big. But they can live 15 to 20 years so be ready for that commitment.  

There are, of course, many other fish species to consider putting in your pond but the above list are some of the most popular.

Water Pump

If your pond doesn’t have a pump then all you really have is a puddle. The water pump will circulate and aerate the water making it suitable for fish and plants to live in. If you do not circulate and aerate your water then it will turn stagnant and become a mosquito breeding ground.


In conjunction with the water pump you will probably want some sort of filtration system. This will keep the pump functioning well and help clear out any fish waste. While some fish waste and decomposing plant material is beneficial for plants, too much can kill them.

Often there is a filtration system in the pump, but for large ponds you may need a separate unit.


Drainage is only necessary if you have a constant input of water such as a stream feeding into your pond. But most backyard ponds are closed loop systems and don’t need drainage. Most, however, will occasionally need an addition of water due to evaporation.


Let’s say you have designed and constructed the most beautiful pond. Then the sun goes down and you can’t see it. To avoid this give a thought to lighting while designing your pond.

Will you have a waterfall feature? Then put a spotlight on it. Read my article on garden lighting to get ideas of how to add lights to your pond. Good lighting on a pond can be pleasing to the eye but also makes it safer. If your guests can’t see your pond at night they might end up in the middle of it.

Each garden pond needs to fit into the space and aesthetic of the garden. By following the three S’s of site, size and style you can design your ideal pond that fits perfectly.

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