Making the Ideal Decorative Duck Pond
First published in the IRDA Yearbook 2003
See the article with Elizabeth's pictures at www.basilisk.co.uk/runnerducks/pond.html
The dominating feature of our garden is the 25’ diameter pond which we excavated just after we moved in. Our house adjoins some old gravel-pits, now a private lake with a wonderful range of wildlife and rare wildfowl. The original purpose of the pond was to lure wildlife from the gravel pits into the garden, a plan that met with rapid success; before long dragonflies, grass snakes and kingfishers were taking a dip freely within view of the back door.
And then came the ducks! Although I didn’t design the pond with them in mind, I found I had created a good duck pond, one which seems to have stood up to their attempts to destroy it fairly well. However a number of neighbours have given up on duck keeping because they wrecked the garden pond, so it’s worth considering some of the problems.
Don’t try to cut corners on materials, buy the best. Engineering a pond is a lot of hard work, and once completed you want it to last. We used very heavy duty polythene land-fill liner, which claims to be resistant to willow roots (so far so good!). Although butyl is good, I would be afraid it wouldn’t be robust enough to cope with roots or erosion from claws over time.
We also protected the edges with felted pond underlay before burying them under several inches of riddled soil/gravel for added protection from erosion/UV damage, and for a natural appearance.
Size and Volume
Many people make the mistake of making their ponds too small and shallow. Small ponds contain a relatively small volume of water, which is prone to more fluctuations of temperature and biochemistry than a larger one. This results in a rise in temperature/salts that favour the growth of algae, blanketweed and possibly poisonous anaerobic bacteria.
Adding sufficient quantity of oxygenating plants (such as Elodea crispa, (Canadian pondweed) will help stabilize the situation, but not as much as allowing for a larger volume which will react to temperature changes much slower. Ours is 4’ at it’s deepest point. I wouldn’t even consider making one less than 10’ or 12’ across and 24" deep. If they pond is large enough you won’t need pumps, filters or bottles of algicide!
Firstly patience helps. If you allow the plants to get firmly established before acquiring/letting the ducks loose, they will stand a much better chance of survival. Most will form large mats within a season, which as if like they’ve been there a lifetime! Although most waterplants are on the robust side those with floating leaves (waterlillies, frogbit etc) just can’t cope with a duck battering. Many pond marginals are real thugs of the horticultural world, which makes them very well matched to the efforts of ducks. Most burst into vigorous growth within a short period in mid-May. Keep the birds in their runs for a few days and they’ll be faced with an virtually indestructable jungle when they return.
Good examples include: Marsh Marigolds (Caltha sp.), Mares Tails (Equisetum sp.), Shuttlecock ferns (Mattheucia struthiopteris), Miscanthus grasses (M.sinensis and the giant M.floridulus), Pickerel weed (Pontederia sp.), all Petasites sp., decorative rhubarb (Rheum palmatum).
Water irises and primulas are not quite as robust, but still good (esp. P. florinidae and P. bulleyana, which will self-seed freely possibly even aided by dabbling). Some of the Crocosmia family are very good, esp. C. paniculata and ‘Lucifer’.Planting the water edge with rapidly spreading species such as Creeping Jenny, Pennyroyal, Red Peppermint (or watermint) and Mimulus. The fibrous stems and roots will help stop dabbling bills from eroding the soil around the banks. I plant directly into soil/gravel which covers the liner. These tough plants soon form a dense mat of roots, rhizomes which form a good defence to probing bills.
Benefits to Ducks
Although runners don’t strictly need access to swimming water (older birds barely take a dip at all), they do really enjoy it, particularly youngsters (but only after 5 weeks, when they have enough proper feathers to be water-proof) and breeding birds. It also allows the latter to build up minerals from the invertebrates and greenstuff they find. However, they only have supervised access to the pond during the daytime, and still need secure runs with regularly replaced fresh water.
Access and Safety
Both ducks and wildlife enjoy easy access to the pond. Plan areas on a couple of sides that have a very gentle slope for easy access, both for the ducks and any hapless creature that tumbles in! These may be covered with gravel to form attractive ‘beaches’, or larger flagstones if the traffic is particularly heavy. Clear access points will also stop ducks from flattening plants unnecessarily.
Some plants can also cause ducks problems. Parrot’s feather myriophyllum has very long stems in which younger ducks can become entangled.
Never allow young and adult birds to mix in a pond; adult drakes will hold youngsters under the water and drown them!
Don’t assume just because they have access to lots of water that young birds won’t suffer from sunstroke; I try to keep young birds away from water during the hottest times, as they can exhaust themselves in water very quickly.
Finally, if you’re prone to brazen, midday fox attacks (as we now are) don’t assume they will be safe on the water. Some birds instinctively head for the duck house rather than the water, and I doubt they’d be safe on the water anyway!
Wildlife and ducks don’t always mix that well. Ducks will scoop up almost every living thing smaller than themselves, including dragonfly nymphs, tadpoles, and small frogs. My runners also dive for goldfish, which can be very entertaining to watch, unless your fish are valuable!