Designing a Permaculture Pond – Part 1: Art and Cultural Patterns

There was a grove, dark with holm-oaks, below the Aventine, at sight of which you would say: ‘There’s a god within.’ The centre was grassy, and covered with green moss, and a perennial stream of water trickled from the rock.”
– Ovid, Fasti

(Photo above Gudrun’s Pool, mentioned in the ancient Norse sagas.)

Note: This is a multi-post series. Please check out the other parts here:
Part 2: General Patterns for a Permaculture Pond

There’s probably nothing that does more to invoke the “spirit of place,” the “Genius Loci” than the presence of water in a landscape.

Like other “wildlife,” we humans respond on a deep intuitive level to water, sensing how it nourishes all things in the ecosystem, cleanses, and restores us with the song of deep tranquility, a song we can so easily lose ourselves and our cares in. It’s a consistent feature of the places we flock to for vacation, retreat, sanctuary.

In the ecological garden, water gives a flowering of wildlife, insect and plant diversity–the “fount of life.”

In the edible landscape, water allows us to grow some truly exciting and nutritious food plants, and aquatic ecosystems are the most productive habitats on earth, in almost every measure. Water “super charges” the productive garden.

Right now, we’re in the process of designing and implementing one of the 3 planned ponds in our site design. While we’ve had some ideas about how these would look and function, we’re really just now going from the “big patterns” to the more detailed ones. We’re keeping our options wide open, playing, exploring and dreaming about how water will function in our home habitat.

In this series of posts, we’ll be “thinking out loud,” walking through our design and research process, through testing and trialing, from begining to implementation, in (almost) real time. We’re happy to let people learn from our mistakes, just hopefully, we won’t be giving you too much to learn.


One of Permaculture’s “Holmgren Principles,” named after Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, is “design from patterns to details.” According to this principle, I’ll be looking at several broad categories of “patterns” that can be applied to ponds. 
But I like to start every creative process by connecting to the deep wisdom of culture, the subconscious and intuition, rather than letting the conscious logical brain call all the shots. The conscious brain is really good at things like taxes and train schedules, but when we let it lead the creative work, we end up making stuff that’s about as sexy as, well, taxes and train schedules. 
Speaking of taxes and train schedules, lookie here: 
This is exactly the kind of “water feature” my “accountant brain” would create: 
Flowers, check; 
rock border, check; 
fountain, check;  
waterfall, double check;
wrap that pond up with a schedule D and send it to the IRS! 
Because, if you’re doing “pond math,” you just add up a bunch of elements until they equal “awesome pond.” So if you add even more elements, you’d obviously get an even awesomer pond, right?
Now, doing the pond math: angel statue + lighting + waterfalls + fountains + light-up palm tree = the envy of every suburban gambling addict. Any Vegas casino owner would feel right at home. I bet they’ve got a slot machine in the gazeebo.  
Honestly though, it’s obvious a lot of love went into that distinctively DIY display, so in a way, I kind of love it. It’s bold, gaudy and extremely American. And it communicates a LOT about American values. 

But we’re certainly looking for something different, patterns that will lend a spiritual depth to our home. We need a backyard to act as a sanctuary, an oasis where we feel secure that all of our needs are met and we’re helping to heal our dysfunctional relationship to nature. 

And while we want our home to invoke a simple and genuine human habitat that could be timeless and universal, that whimsical Vegas DIY pond surely beats the water features that I see landscape “pros” selling homeowners across America, “AS SEEN ON HGTV!” 

These speak of a different kind of math. It’s like factoring the focuss-grouped numbers and cookie-cutter design elements guaranteed to add to your home’s resale value, treating our HOMES as mere investments. 
These “pro ponds” also speak of our relationship to nature, utterly disconnected from ecological reality. What does it SAY to have a waterfall apparently flowing out of your fence, or a mini alpine mountain rising incongruously out of your Iowa back yard? What does it say that we dress up such a proposterously artificial hoax to look like a “natural pond,” that anyone can see isn’t natural to the setting? What must we think of “nature?” 

And most of these professionally landscaped ponds are every bit as ridiculously over-wrought as the DIY Vegas pond, without its sense of irony and whimsy. I’ll take a simple, functional water garden made out of a tarp or a kiddie pool over these any day. 

(Post at World Wide Koi Club
Here, at least there’s no fakery, or attempts at cheesy disguise. This is a cute little water feature that adds ecological and productive functionality without cheapening “nature” or lying to us. This is the kind of pond that Eric Toensmeijer and Jonathan Bates had for a few years at their famous “Holyoke Edible Forest Garden,” and it served them well!
But surely, there are patterns that point to a simple, genuine approach appropriate to a humble human habitat, one that will look “in place” in my back yard food forest garden, without trying to fool anybody.
(Rie Cramer ~ The Goose Girl at the Well ~ Grimm’s Fairy Tales ~ 1927
From the earliest times, humans have lined natural pools and wellsprings with stones and rubble as a sign of sacredness and importance, the need to simply decorate the important landscape features. And also to protect them from animal digging and erosion. These simply lined “sacred pools” are a deep archetype in our art and depictions of sacred places. They are a “natural” feature of human habitats.

(Gudmunder the Good’s Pool, Iceland)

Throughout the old world, these ancient wells and pools are the stuff of sacred myth. Preceeding Christianity, pagan Europe held these pools as the dwellings of the fae, and of the “spirits of place.” 

(The Three Heads of the Well, Arthur Rackham)

As Christiandom came to reign, these sacred wells became associated with saints, especially ones who had a habit of getting decapitated! Often these saints, baptized in holy wells would lose their heads to heathen scoundrels, then go parading through the country with their noggin’s tucked under their arms like footballs, a testament to the new god’s power. 
Another common pattern was the cairn, built to shelter a spring and protect it from run-off and rain contamination. 

(Holy Wells of Ireland)
These often flowed to a pool, where pilgrims could bathe in sacred waters.

Such sacred wells are often depicted in art. It’s easy to sense that there’s something holy in such patterns. 

(Clover, from Will Worthington’s Druid Plant Oracle.)
And still today, many are drawn to the healing powers of such ancient places like “Chalice Well,” in England. Over the ages, gardens and orchards often rose up around them, further enhancing their nourishing symbolism. At places like Chalice Well, these gardens eventually became quite elaborate, but still seems so genuine, and far from what you’d see in any casino. And at most, the original well sites often remain in their untouched paleolithic condition. 
(The original “challice well,” which is said to have been in continuous use for thousands of years.)
What strikes me in all these images is the naturalness of this pattern in human habitats, the need to simply leave our mark on something important to us, with the simple, local materials available. 
In most of these famous European sites the local material was limestone and slate, materials that would look out of place in my Michigan back yard, as much as I love the look. I find that in Michigan gardens, these always lack that genuine “sense of place.” We know it on a subconscious level, even when we don’t know that we know. 
So, how would this pattern have manifest in a stone-age Midwest?

(Do It House, Interesting post on Russian Holy Wells) 
In Russia’s glacial till, the oldest holy wells and pools repeat the same patterns, but with wood, concrete and roundstone adorning the sites. Many of these have had ornate orthodox chapels built around them, but inside, the wells often still bear their ancient ornaments.

And as we continue to plan our backyard pond, these are the “patterns” and materials we hope will invite a discernable “spirit of place” to make its home in our home landscape. When we post the finish photos, hopefully you’ll see some of these patterns repeated in our little pond. 
Stay tuned for the next post in the series, as we “scientifically” calculate exactly how many water falls, fountains, statues and palm trees will net us the maximum increase in our “curb appeal.” 
(Or not. Just seeing if you were paying attention!)
And we’ll get into the “functional” patterns of garden ponds as we decide what kind of “Genius Loci” we want to invite to our home. 

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