The ABCs of Homesteading: P is for Ponds and Preparedness

Reader Contribution by Tasha Greer
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When I first started writing this blog series a few years back, I planned this post to be all about making ponds. This summer though, we had a climate reckoning on our homestead.

Climate Reckoning

From July 22 to August 21, we had 22.5 inches of rain brutalize landscape, bending tree limbs from the weight of water and testing the limits of our soil’s water storage capacity. Shortly after that, we got a peripheral pounding from hurricanes Florence and Michael.

Mineral Maladies

After these events, everywhere I went I saw trees ad plants with signs of severe calcium, nitrogen, and other mineral deficiencies. In our vegetable garden, nitrogen disappeared and potassium and phosphorous rose to excessive amounts. The soil pH also dropped by about .5 throughout our landscape.

Our grape vines lost their leaves and went dormant for weeks in summer and then started putting on new leaf growth in mid-October. Some people’s fruit trees blossomed as if it were spring.

Unexpected Outcomes

In other landscapes, where soil had obviously washed away in the flooding, loss of nutrients through leaching seemed a likely explanation for all those unhealthy plants. Yet, on our landscape, we only had erosion in two small areas which we quickly fixed.

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to dig deeper and understand how our soil could be so radically deprived of nutrients and our pH altered without any obvious erosion. If this was just a matter of nutrient leaching, then where did those nutrients go? They didn’t make it into our lower pond or our collection swales as I would expect. They are not lurking deep within our soil because I tested our subsoil just in case.

My current line of thinking is that the nutrients might still be in our organic matter heavy soil, but are just not water soluble at the moment. Similar to how too much wood ash or bio-char can bind nitrogen in your soil, I suspect the heavy precipitation, coupled with the intense heat that followed, has caused nitrification and other variations of mineral binding.

Unfortunately, home soil tests can’t tell me if I have inorganic nutrients stored in my soil. And, with the devastation across our state, the soil labs are swamped with more urgent tests to perform so my professional results are on hold.

Instead, I am now in the process of testing this theory with manual methods. Namely, I am using non-legume cover crops, the incorporation of uncomposted materials, and mycorrhizael inoculant to try to hyper-activate the biological processes that normally make nutrients available in soil. If I am right, I should see more nitrogen showing up in my at-home soil test in the next couple months.

I’m not a soil scientist. I study soil and experiment with techniques to maintain fertility because I must to grow food well (without industrial additives). I have enough experience now that my hunches usually pan out.

After this year, I am so thankful that I am not the sort who just applies lime and fertilizer like my soil test tells me. I actually understand the basics of how soil works and how plants uptake nutrients. As a result, my garden is coming back online faster than many others around my county. Still, even with my experience, this year has taught me something I believe will be critical in the coming years.

We Need a Whole New Level of Preparedness

Having your bug-out bag ready, keeping supplies on-hand for extended shelter-in place scenarios, and being skilled so you can mentally navigate and sustain yourself in emergencies are important. Building a resilient landscape, one that holds and directs water in floods and stores it for use in droughts, is necessary. Yet, in this new age of climate change, this kind of “static” preparedness will not be enough.

Regardless of the different beliefs on what causes climate change – we are unquestionably entering uncharted territory. There will be no ready answers for many of the challenges we will face on our homesteads. To succeed, we must be innovators and experimenters.

Modern homesteading preparedness requires us to understand our environment and recognize when — and how — it is changing. Then, we must respond to those changes using both wisdom and insight.

As scientists begin to understand how climate change is impacting our planet, models are being adjusted to reflect new knowledge. We need to do the same on our homesteads. As new knowledge becomes available, we need to incorporate it into our brains and use it to make informed decisions.

We need to understand how severe weather events will impact our soil and plant health and formulate preparedness plans to mitigate those effects. We need to predict what climate change means for our livestock. We have to reinforce our infrastructure to be ready for more violent weather.

We need to learn how to deal with more frequent extremes of cold, heat, rain, humidity, drought, dryness, and cloud cover. We need to follow the migration of plants and other species into  and out of our regions so we can use that information to predict and resolve challenges to our landscape. We need to learn from the experience of the people already on the forefront of devastating climate change.

Nurturing soil and planting a diverse range of perennial plants can help insulate our homesteads to a degree. Adding ponds and other water impounds can go a long way toward adding water resilience. Yet, this year has shown me though that these steps are a good starting point, not the finish line.

Our climate and our planet are rapidly evolving and as homesteaders, we must too.

Homestead Ponds

As a first step toward preparing your landscapes for future weather events, let’s talk about ponds.

What is a Pond?

Ponds, swales, rain depressions, and bogs are all degrees of the same thing. They are basically devices for holding water in your landscape. The big difference between a pond and these other forms of water catchment is that ponds hold water above ground and the other tools sink it into the earth.

Basically, a pond is a sealed bowl. Swales and such are funnels. The process for making these different kind of water impoundments is roughly the same. With a pond though, you’ll need to use some method to “seal” your bowl.

Here are some basic tips to help you plan your pond.

Tip 1: Site your Pond for Sufficient Water Catchment

In order to fill a pond, that water will have to flow into it from somewhere. Here are some ideas to consider.

• Place ponds at the low point in your property to catch all the uphill flow.
• Place ponds midway down a slope to catch uphill rain run off. Then you can use your pond to gravity feed water to things lower down slope like gardens.
• Place ponds near a roof for catchment.*
• Use hardscape areas like driveways and sidewalks as catchment.*
• Use gray water to fill your pond.*
• Use a hose, spring, or creek to fill your pond.

*For these kinds of catchment, consider using a plant based or other filtration system before that water gets to your pond.

Tip 2: Calculate Your Rain Water Catchment

In all of these scenarios, rain will add water to your pond. An inch of rain falling on a square foot of area will produce 0.62 gallons of water.

If you had a 1000 square foot roof as a catchment area, that would give you 620 gallons of water every time you got an inch of rain. If you had 42 inches of rain in average year, that would be 26,040 gallons of water per year. You’d just need to direct that water with gutters, pipes, or ground slopes to get it to your pond.

Additionally, your pond will catch rain. If your pond also has 1000 square feet of surface area, then between your roof and pond, you’d collect 52,080 gallons of pond water annually. Also, if your pond receives run off from other uphill areas, that will also impact the water flow into your pond.

Tip 3: Calculate Fill Time from Flowing Water Sources

If you are using running water source to fill your pond, calculate your rate of flow to figure out how quickly you can fill your pond. Time how long it takes to fill a 5-gallon bucket from your water source. If it takes you 2.5 minutes to fill a 5 gallon bucket, then your rate of fill is 30 seconds per gallon. If you have a 5000 gallon pond, that means it will take you roughly 42 hours to fill your pond.

I personally wouldn’t use a well to fill a pond larger than a few gallons on a regular basis. But if you do, make sure you’re water recharge rates necessary to support your needs. Also, keep in mind public water costs money and takes a lot of environmental resources to produce.

Tip 4: Make Sure Your Catchment is Sufficient

Regardless of which fill method you use, you need to make sure your water catchment or fill source is sufficient for your planned pond size. You can use online calculators or just do the mathi.

Rectangular Pond: Water Volume = length (feet) X width X average depth X 7.43 gallons/cu. foot = GALLONS

Oval Pond: Water Volume = 0.8 X ( length (feet) X width X average depth X 7.43 gallons/cu. foot) = GALLONS

Lakes = surface area (in acres) X average depth X 326,000 gallons/acre-foot = GALLONS

Tip 4: Check Your Legal Regulations

Legal regulations will also likely dictate what you are allowed to do on your property, e.g. your state might own the water that runs from your spring or stream, the city might regulate water catchment or digging activities. Find out what’s allowed before you make final plans. 

Tip 5: Include a Shallow End

If you plan to use this for livestock or wildlife, include a shallow end. Without a shallow end to go in and out, some water fowl may drown. Pollinators also need shallow places to drink from your pond.

Tip 6: Include a Deep End

If you want to catch lots of water for irrigation, then the deeper you go, the more water you can hold in a smaller area (assuming catchment rates work). If you are overwintering fish, many of them will need deeper water to avoid being frozen if your pond ices over. Deeper water can also provide predator protection for free-range domesticated water fowl.

Tip 7: Manage Mud

If erosion happens on your property, then mud is likely to end up in your pond. Either plan to dredge your pond often. Or, limit erosion up stream from your pond using plants and debris.

Tip 8: Aerate and Filter Appropriately

A continuous flow of bubbling water (using a bubbler or a brook) may be needed to provide sufficient oxygen to fish. If you want clear water for aesthetic purposes, you’ll need to factor in some kind of filtration system as well.

If you are catching water purely for irrigation, you may only need to filter when pumping water out. Aeration may also be unnecessary depending on how often you use the water.

Tip 9: Anticipate Overflow

This year, we learned first hand how much damage pond overflow can do in a bad storm. Our pond abuts our driveway. We use a draw down pipe that flows into a creek to keep the pond well below the level of our driveway.

This summer, that draw down pipe got plugged up and failed. Then we got 5 inches of rain in just a few hours, and lost half the gravel on our driveway when the pond overflowed onto it. We had a larger emergency draw down pipe too. But, the flooding took out our dock and we had to swim to get to it. 

When you plan your design you need to direct where excess water will go. If your pond is perfectly level, then water will run off in all directions. If your pond has a low point around it’s perimeter, called a spillway, water will flow in that direction. You can use a draw down pipe to lower water at will, or automatically, before it reaches the spillway. Whichever method you use, good maintenance and monitoring are also key!

Tip 10: Talk to Pond Owners in Your Area

Depending on your terrain, other considerations may dictate the shape and size of your pond. The kind of soil you have, underground impediments, and more may impact your choices.

A good way to get started with planning your shape is to talk to other people in your area who have ponds to find out what factors influenced their choices.

Tip 11: Hire a Professional Excavator

Small ponds can be dug by hand using basic equipment like a shovel, digging bar, and wheelbarrow. Large ponds, though, usually require excavation equipment. It takes a while to get good at properly digging ponds. So, consider hiring a professional operator to do your digging.

Tip 12: Seal Appropriately

You will need to seal your pond somehow. Depending on the porosity of your soil and the rate and regularity of your water flow, you may be able to seal it naturally by vibrating the soil with heavy equipment or tamping.

Alternately, you may have to install a pond liner or use other methods for sealing your pond. For aesthetic ponds, plan your design to hide your liner using bog areas and rock features.

On our homestead, our spring fed pond is naturally sealed. It’s at the low point in our property and was already boggy at the outset. For my rain fed ponds, higher on our property, in rockier soil, pond liners were necessary.

Tip 13: Predict Pond Filling Times

Depending on your water catchment method, filling your pond can take months. For example, with one of our rain fed ponds, we finished it just before a drought. Based on our planned catchment and our rain averages, we had expected it to fill in 4 months. However, given our drought conditions, it took 7 months to fill.

If you need your pond filled ASAP, then you may need to consider alternate filling methods if your normal catchment isn’t sufficient.

Tip 14: Plant Quickly

If you are making a living pool with plant bogs and floating plants, add your plants quickly to begin filtering water and encouraging biological life. Start with as many full-size plant as you can for best results. And, consider using temporary filtration methods until your plants fill in.

Tip 15: Expect Pond Maintenance

A pond is not a fix it and forget it kind of thing. It needs maintenance to keep it’s shape, address erosion, maintain the balance of life, and more. Keep a close eye on your pond for the first year to establish your methods for maintenance.

Do inspections before and after heavy rains and make corrections as necessary. Droughts also impact your pond. Keep an eye on fill levels and consider topping off ponds during droughts to keep your pond liners covered for UV protection and to keep your natural seal intact.

Tip 16: Start Small

Before you tackle a large pond, make a few small ones to get the basics down. My first frog pond was made using my hose, a galvanized bucket, some scavenged rocks, top soil from my yard, and a water lily plant from the hardware store.

My latest frog pond design is a bit more sophisticated. It is fed from a dry creek bed, that gushes when it rains, where water passes through a rock field and then a mulch field for filtration. Then, it hits a lined, in-ground pond with a bog area full of cattails, lily pads, water mint, and water hyacinth. A slate spill way overflows to series of three rain depressions that then outlet to the edible landscape areas in my garden.

Once you get started with ponds, you’ll start to find lots of places to tuck them in your landscape to increase biodiversity and beauty. Start small and work your way up, increasing your pond size and your skills as you go!

Good luck with your pond building and your climate change preparedness!

Resource: http://www.phosclear.com/html/calculate-your-water-volume.html

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape.  For an up to date list of Tasha’s current works visit her here.


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