Designing a Permaculture Pond – Part 2: General Patterns

(Natural Swimming Pool. Wikimedia)

This is part 2 of a series on the design of one of our ponds. You can see the other parts here:
Part 1: Art and Cultural Patterns


Water in the landscape is the great provider. It can clean the soil and waterways, add to your garden yields, moderate micro-climates, provide for wildlife and diversity, yield recreation and relaxation opportunities…. This list could go on for hours.

In Permaculture, we design “from patterns to details,” so in this post, I’ll be exploring functional patterns, different types of water-features and pond elements and the services they can provide.

In general, there appear to be several main “patterns” for man-made water features, including “natural” ponds, dew ponds, water gardens, wildlife ponds, pools, natural swimming pools, koi/fish ponds, broad-acre ponds, and frog ponds. Using Permaculture design, we might follow the principle of “Integrate rather than segregate,” and choose the best of each of these to meet our specific needs. I want to look at each of these, and get an idea of the general elements that make up these patterns.

(Water Garden from Permaculture Designers Frantz Landscapes)

Water gardens: These are the typical landscape ponds that add beauty to any garden or yard. They’re  ideal for small gardens and beginning gardeners who want to easily add water to their landscape. They’re often made of pre-formed plastic or soft plastic liner, though they can often be made of concrete, or even recycled basins, tires and planters. We lined one in our backyard with betonite cat litter! They often have other built-in water features such as flowing water, waterfalls or fountains. They are typically maintained by the use of chemical additives, and through mechanical means such as pumps, aerators, and water filters. They can be planted with a variety of ornamental plants, and because they are mechanically maintained they don’t require an “ecosystem” approach to keep them clean and healthy. There are lots of great resources online, or your local gardening center can help you out. For folks in Kalamazoo, I recommend River Street Flowerland, which has a wonderful display of water gardens and a knowledgable staff.

Natural ponds: These are ponds made of natural materials and usually lined with clay or by “gleying” allowing anaerobic bacteria to naturally water-proof the soil. They are often maintained by creating complete ecosystems instead of mechanical means. They are often planted with diverse plants and stocked with fish and other aquatic life. If a good natural balance isn’t maintained, they can become problematic for mosquitoes, bad smells and algae. When well-designed and balanced, they are nearly maintenance free and don’t bring noxious chemicals into the landscape.

Gleying is an old-world technique common in Europe and Asia. Does it really work? Here’s a thread at Permies where someone used the technique successfully. 

(Dew Pond, Wikimedia.)

Dew Ponds: An enduring mystery of the British countryside. Ponds that mysteriously fill with water, and are never found empty, as though by “dew,” or even by “Dieu,” as though god himself was watering them nightly. One of the most ancient of man-made ponds. These were designed to bring a reliable water source to farms and pastures. They were lined with natural materials, including puddled clay, lime, concrete, chalk and sometimes pitch. Some argue that “gleying” was a part of the process, as grass and hay were often used, and excrement was often added by grazing animals. These ponds were typically not planted, but often various aquatic plants “moved in.” They were designed to naturally fill with water in various ways, so that they were rarely empty, even in the worst droughts, though the mechanism is up for debate.

I’ve been obsessed with these ancient ponds for years. Here are a few interesting resources:
Rex Research
Edward Martin

(From: One of the most useful sources of information on Wildlife Ponds that I’ve found in my search. Highly recommended!)

Wildlife Ponds: A different approach to the home pond, these use complete ecosystem design to maintain a healthy balance. They avoid mechanicals like filters, as these are known to damage and kill wildlife such as tadpoles. They’re usually lined with plastic or concrete, but may be lined with clay.

(From PRI, and Geoff Lawton, the MASTER of Broad Acre Pond Design. This Article Features his new video on Pond Design, which I own and strongly recommend.

Broad-acre ponds: Along with dew ponds, these ponds were engineered to naturally fill with water to provide for agricultural use. Permaculture designers like Geoff Lawton and Sepp Holzer have brought these to a whole new level, of creating naturally pressured irrigation that permanently hydrates the landscape. They have integrated amazing plant systems like Chinampas, or “floating gardens,” and easy fish harvesting systems as well. Some have used them to catch and store geothermal energy for buildings.

(Solomon’s Pool, wikimedia)

Pools: Ancient in origin, designed for bathing, swimming and ornamentation, often with fountains and sculpture. Traditionally built of concrete, today lined with plastic. These are typically “pure” water, without plants or wildlife. These are maintained by mechanical and chemical means, but are still often problematic in terms of smell, maintenance and safety.

(Natural Swimming Pool in Germany, Wikimedia. 

Natural swimming pools (ponds): For me, the ideal Permaculture pond. These are a modern hybrid of ecological modeling and swimming pools, that use ecosystem function to maintain a healthy balance for swimming anad bathing. Without chemicals, they produce a water clean enough to drink! They utilize a diverse planting covering at least 1/3rd of the surface area of the pool, and have a segregated area for swimming and bathing.

Though becoming popular in Europe, they’re not currently legal in the US, but these make the ideal pool, wildlife and and pond feature all in one. They can even be used for fish or growing plant foods!

So, that gives a rundown of a the main “patterns” for home water feature design. Let’s list a few of the Features found in them. A good design strategy is to list the “elements” we want in our own landscape and start experimenting with how they can be arranged to maximize beneficial interactions.

While you’re unlikely to find a contractor who will build you one in the US, here’s an article from Mother Earth News, proving that with a little research and design, it can be done as a DIY project.

And if you’re planning such a project in Michigan, please let me know. I would be very happy to be involved and would gladly contribute whatever plant and building knowledge, not to mention physical labor, I have to your project.

General Design Elements we want in our Small Home Pond:
Natural lining, (options include clay, betonite clay, dew pond lining techniques and gleying. However, gleying seems inappropriate for a small home application.)
Multi-level diverse plantings to create a functional ecology. 
Natural “filter” systems with at least 1/3 of the surface area planted. 
Minimal mechanical systems, if possible, though we’re considering a pump for oxygenation. 
A “natural” system for oxygenation and water circulation. 
Planting “shelves” for multiple layers. 
A raised edge for safety.
An animal-resistant lining. 
Good habitat for wildlife. 
With that list, we’re starting to “zero in” on the kind of pond we want. Perhaps you’re getting a better idea of the kind of pond you would want as well, and it’s probably very different than ours. For example, if we had more land in a place where we didn’t have home inspections, we’d DEFINITELY install a simple Natural Swimming Pool, with chinampas, walkable keyhole access paths over the water gardens, a large harvesting basin like a dew pond, and a small concrete basin for bathing and swimming! But just not on our acre in the city. 
In the next article, we’ll explore a traditional Permaculture “sector analysis,” and a few common “Permaculture patterns” for optimizing positive interactions between elements, such as creating microclimates by using the heat-storing capability of water bodies, and using the fertility-producing character of water ecosystems to fertilize our gardens. So stay tuned!
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8 thoughts on “Designing a Permaculture Pond – Part 2: General Patterns

  1. Great article, I will be following this. I am just starting to design my homestead farm around permaculture practices and thus general idea of water retaining features is intriguing!

  2. Great article, I will be following this. I am just starting to design my homestead farm around permaculture practices and thus general idea of water retaining features is intriguing!

  3. Hi Chantelle! Glad you like the series. As it turns out, we'll be back tackling our pond project this week with one of our interns, after which, I'll be able to update and finish this series. If you have questions, though, ask away. I would love to make two-way discussions more a part of our blogging. You can also find us on Facebook and join our discussions there.

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