The wettest drought1 on record turned into a fertile opportunity for the crack pallet building team that we are rapidly becoming! Mid-June 2012 was an opportune time; we had easy digging and brimming full water butts. And so we hatched a plan one sunny Sunday morning to build our pond. Prior to the sunny Sunday in question I had cut out a variety of paper ponds in various sizes to move around my scale plan of the garden – in a process I'm going to call 'design as we do'.
The overall grand plan pattern for the garden is roughly set with three broad zones and within that there is scope for manoeuvrability when it comes to the details, which are usually thrashed out on the day in question for implementation. So on the plan it looked like somewhere between a 1.5 and 3m (5 and 10ft) diameter pond would be suitable and kept to the back of the garden (the edge of zone 3), beside a bushy bush (plenty of wildlife cover and bee activity goes on there) and close to our emerging thorny fruiting back hedge (to keep any potential intruders out); far enough away that hopefully small children will keep away (wishful thinking ... but you gotta hope!).
We got ourselves a length of hose and roughly draped it on the ground (the pattern), and then we started digging. As the digging got deeper we evolved our plan for edges and depth gradients within the pond: there will be a deep bit (roughly 1m/3ft) and then a middle bit (40cm/16in) and then lots of shallows (5-10cm/2-4in) and we sort of mixed up how the different depth areas met the pond edge and made a sort of oval shaped hole in the ground.
We were mindful of the 'catch and store' energy principle so it made sense to dig when the ground was soft and crumbly due to all the heavy rain. A big pile of earth mounted up beside the pond – we tried to plan as much as possible where to put our earth to avoid having to move it more than once – knowing that we were planning to use it in our pond edging in some manner. The earth was dumped onto a big tarpaulin. This would make it much easier to move it again in the future.
I was hoping to puddle the pond but I knew that I had to contend with 'We can build a pond in a day Catherine' and puddling was definitely a slow solution that would have taken a lot longer than a day. Anyway we discovered on digging our deep hole that there isn't any clay in this part of London. In fact it's more like sand so puddling wasn't an option and there was no way we were going to import heavy clay, so a pond liner was needed.
A trip to our local pond shop (which is very local and sells exceptionally expensive carp – who knew a giant goldfish could cost a thousand pounds?) and we had ourselves a butyl liner. Butyl is longer lasting, less likely to get holes or degrade than other materials on the market. Putting some lovely soft sand to protect our (not cheap) liner we were away and ready to fill. Siphoning from our water butts the water flowed and the pond began to fill.
And so to the edges... We wanted to integrate waste concrete from a path we'd recently broken up in the garden into some sort of rockery effect – making it look less concrete-ish but still making it useful. We also wanted to make sure that we had some gentle slopes and easy access areas for wildlife to get in. Lastly we wanted to use the big mound of soil for some sort of planted up bit.
We wanted an aesthetic where the pond was a bit hidden in the garden and create some height so you couldn't necessarily see it from the house. And we wanted there to be an abundance of bee and insect friendly plants near to the pond, providing our future bees with food and water, and encouraging more biodiversity into our garden.
Pallets are a locally available, abundant and renewable resource. We therefore thought we would make a raised curved bed out of pallets that we could plant up to give us the height and intrigue we were looking for with the insect friendly plants on top. It was quite clear that though there was a big mound of earth it wasn't going to be enough to fill the length, width and height of our emerging pallet bed. I didn't want us to have to import soil from off site as I didn't know of any free local sources at that time. I had also wanted to build a hugel bed in the garden but not been sure where to put it. Then suddenly it dawned on me that our pallet raised bed could be a hugelkultur inside. Hugelkultur is a technique for building raised beds made from large pieces of wood covered with soil and upturned turf. OK, so we won't get the benefits of the microclimates and varied planting conditions generated on the sides of a more traditional hugel bed with our straight sided pallet sides – but instead we will get more control which makes for happy gardeners! And we get to fill up the raised pallet beds with large pieces of wood and other organic matter that will rot down over time. This will create the very soil we need in the bed and create a fantastic growing medium with lots of air pockets, water storage and warmth as it decomposes. The chance to try out hugelkultur within a pallet raised bed – how exciting! We can over time observe and see what happens to it.
Now it just so happens that I do know a local tree surgeon who stashes wood to make it available to the wood users of Kingston – the very same tree surgeon who we use to supply the wood for our fire – and, it being summer, the wood store was full of big chunky bits of wood ideal for our hugel bed. We collected up some waste wood and filled up the pallets – for good measure we threw in some cardboard, shredded paper and some other bits of organic matter waiting to go into the compost bin – and covered it all with the mound of soil. Then we were ready to plant it up with lavenders and mints that we had been growing in pots for just such an occasion!
An aside about the pond ... I have subsequently been on a hunt to observe what's growing in local ponds to see whether we might be able to harvest some cuttings of local pond species that could go into our new pond to get it thriving with the local species. I've taken lots of photos so that I can identify what's growing. Even without this we've already got all sorts of insects visiting the pond.
One year on and the pond is a real source of life to our garden with dragonflies, bees, birds (and unfortunately cats) all loving the space.
Liz Darley is a permaculture teacher, chartered civil engineer, sustainability professional, ecoretrofit project manager, gardener and community activist with a keen interest in making things from pallets!
For her blog and details of courses, etc., see: http://growsouth.wordpress.com
1 In March and April 2012, the MET Office declared the country was in drought and a hosepipe ban was imposed. Within days the country saw widespread flooding but for some time the rain was only topping up the rivers and so the drought status remained.
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