Horticulturalist Frances Tophill shares her expert tips for creating a wildlife pond that’s a haven for all kinds of living things.
Water is the basis for all life. Without it, you will see very little wildlife – creatures may visit your garden, but they probably won’t really interact with it. This is because water serves so many functions. It’s a place where animals wash, drink, lay their eggs, shelter, and spend part of their life cycle.
Water is vital to any garden ecosystem and is a great tool by which you can transform your garden into a buzzing, scurrying and thriving community. It doesn’t matter if you have naturally occurring water or not. You can control the amount of water you have, where you have it and how it looks, allowing you to truly create an ecosystem including this element – it can be entirely artificial, but nonetheless integral.
Water in our gardens comes in many shapes and forms. Many of us wildlife lovers have a bird bath and enjoy watching it being used on a regular basis. Birds love this feature and having it placed up high gives them a sense of safety, making them feel relaxed enough to use it without the risk of a hungry cat or dog sneaking up on them.
Although a bird bath is great for birds, it’s pretty useless to other animals, and often the water gets splashed about and needs topping up so regularly that it’s not there for long enough to act as a nursery for waterborne insects. So I would advise keeping the bird bath, but I would also suggest adding another water source at ground level for other visitors.
What I will do is paint for you a picture of the perfect pond – one that makes the absolute most of its potential as a haven for wildlife – and you can take elements from it when designing your own. Remember, there’s no shape or size that doesn’t work.
The perfect pond
Even if you’re a committed rewilder and want nature to take control completely, a pond or other source of water is probably the one absolutely essential human intervention you’ll need to make. It’s not an option, it’s a minimum requirement. Without maintenance, you may end up creating a haven for plant, fungus and lichen species without necessarily bringing in any wildlife.
If, at the other end of the spectrum, you want to maintain a garden that fits in with your ideas of aesthetics and design, and is a place you feel most peaceful when it’s not overrun with weeds, then a pond makes a highly appealing feature – even adding trickling and splashes to the soundscape of your garden. Your garden can be modern and sleek, with straight lines and minimalist planting schemes, and still benefit from the formality and focal point of a well-designed pond.
Some – or most – of us probably fall in between these two stances, whether consciously or not. You might simply not have enough time to keep your garden as manicured and pristine as you’d like, and there’s a lovely reassurance in the flexibility of being able to create something formal and geometric, to give the garden some structure and balance out areas where there may be none, or to echo the sinuous forms of nature and create a pond that’s a little more informal. The design is up to you. Make the pond diminutive and almost hidden in a corner you hardly use, or make it a huge statement in the middle of the garden, and use any shape you like. These things simply don’t matter. What matters is all the other features I’m about to describe in the perfect wildlife pond.
Pond dos and don’ts
Following these basics rules will ensure you have a well-designed, useful pond in your garden that will attract all manner of wildlife.
Think about the access points
There needs to be safe access in and out of the pond for all kinds of wildlife. Adding a pile of rocks that slopes up on one side provides an ideal spot for lizards to bathe in the sun when the rocks warm up or, if it’s a large pond, create a shallow end and a deep end. The simple reason for this access issue is the safety of the animals that come to drink. All sorts of creatures will use a pond in this way, from birds to insects.
Any non-aquatic animal who falls into a pond without an escape route will sadly drown in the water. Most animals can instinctively swim, even if they would prefer not to, so will usually paddle around for a while trying to find a way out. The ideal pond will have one or two safe exit points so that, at worst, the animal ends up a little damp.
In fact, this point is so important that I’d recommend some stealth action in your local area to add escape routes in any large bodies of water such as ponds, canals and rivers, just in case. I once leapt into a canal to rescue a hedgehog that was swimming up and down the concrete-sided waterway trying to find a way out. He was fine once he caught his breath, but a little ramp provided every now and again could save many a furry life.
This can be anything from an overhanging rock to a glossy lily pad. All creatures that dwell in the depths of the pond need some shade, as the water can get pretty warm during the summer months, especially if it’s shallow. Providing a shady place where insects and water snails can keep cool creates a much healthier and happier population
Plant some oxygenators
Most plants in water are optional, but one group is necessary and that is the oxygenators. They perform the vital role of (rather obviously) keeping the water oxygenated, which allows reptile, amphibian and insect species to thrive, but also keeps things like algae and phytoplankton from taking over. Oxygenators also help prevent the water from becoming stagnant. Adding a water feature with a filter and pump can also really help to keep the water clear and moving a little. See below and check out local websites for suitable oxygenating plants for New Zealand.
Add some safer corridors
Although this isn’t strictly a part of the pond, there is a good argument for providing a safe route from any hedge to the pond, to allow species to access the water and then safely return to their burrow or nest
Introduce other plants
They may not be strictly necessary, but this is my ideal pond – and an ideal pond for wildlife. Having reeds, rushes and leaves to scurry around in, hide in and sometimes even nest in adds something extra to a wildlife pond, as well as helping it to look beautiful. Who doesn’t love a water lily or lotus? There’s a functionality to these plants too – they provide a haven for wildlife to hide in. The advantage of a pond is also its danger – it attracts all kinds of creatures in their droves. Some of those creatures will be higher up in the food chain than others and adding other plants will give the more vulnerable species like dragonflies and small birds somewhere to hide from hedgehogs, cats, dogs and predatory birds.
Sadly, if you want to attract the most wildlife, you will need to resist adding ornamental fish to your pond. Fish will eat most species they encounter in the water and many that float on its surface – tadpoles, water fleas, water boatman and many more will be fair game. The idea of a wildlife pond is to welcome a whole tapestry of fauna, from snails to insects and even leeches, who in turn attract more frogs and insect-eating birds, who then attract cats, birds of prey and everything in between for a drink, and possibly a wash and a meal. If you remove a whole spectrum from the food chain by introducing fish with voracious appetites – especially if you encourage them to grow to a disproportionately large size in a small area – then this food chain will be irreparably damaged and you will only find a fraction of the visitors you expected, plus perhaps the odd bird to snack on the fish themselves.
Plant invasive species
The natural world has seen ecological threats emerging from the ill- advised introduction of invasive species. In water – and particularly if you’re lucky enough to have a natural watercourse running through your garden – this advice becomes much more relevant. If you plant something invasive in your garden, then at best it’s a pain and at worst it will require an expensive and harmful removal job by professionals. If, however, you plant something invasive where its seed will either be carried away by visiting wildlife or carried downstream by the current, suddenly you have a much more serious problem and whole swathes of waterways can be irrevocably taken over by species that inherently out compete all the native flora.
Here are just a few of the many plants to consider. To find more varieties that will thrive in and around ponds in New Zealand, check out specialist aquatic plant websites, but research carefully, as many damp-loving plants can become invasive.
IN DEEP WATER: Water lilies and lotus plants for eye-catching blooms. Native myriophyllums will grow in any depth of water.
IN SHALLOWER WATER: Papyrus (which likes moist soil or shallow water), rushes or native Gratiola sexdentata, an oxygenator that has small white flowers.
PONDSIDE: Taro and elephant ears for dramatic foliage, irises and cannas for colour, native oioi (which grows in water or in damp ground), carex and flaxes.
Place of safety
The plants you choose for your pond can not only look beautiful but also be high functioning in that they will provide a safe haven for wildlife to hide in.
Make it shady
Adding a shady spot for any animal and insect visitors to the pond will provide much-needed shelter on sunny days and stop the water heating up too much in the summer.
Adding some oxygenating plants to your pond will prevent the water becoming stagnant, stop algae taking over and help pond wildlife thrive.
Whether in a pond, a canal or a lake, a simple wooden ramp, a pile of stones or a shallow end will give any struggling swimmer a chance to get out of the water.