According to Ottawa’s Fletcher Wildlife Garden: “One of the best ways to attract wildlife to your backyard garden is by providing a regular supply of water.” I’ve had birdbaths for years — one raised up on a stand, and the other on the ground. These do attract birds who want to drink or bathe, but they are also a nuisance to keep clean and filled.
The sound of running water will attract even more birds because they can hear it from a distance and from up in the tree canopy. For years, I dreamed of adding a pond with a gentle stream as a replacement for the birdbaths. A stream would also help mask noise from the neighbouring pool equipment and air conditioner, and from our busy street.
In 2018, we installed a pond and stream. So many birds visit this water feature that it’s now the main attraction in our backyard.
RIP Chrissy, 2000 – 2017
Our cat, Chrissy, was small and meek, but she was still a skilled hunter. Over the years, she brought home lots of mice, a few chipmunks, and even the occasional bird. I definitely didn’t want to attract wildlife to our yard only to have it killed.
Chrissy lived to the ripe old age of seventeen. When she passed away, we decided not to get another cat. Although we really miss our beloved pet, her absence has allowed us to start attracting birds, and other creatures, to our yard without endangering them.
Choosing a location
I didn’t give a lot of thought to the location of our pond and stream. That was foolish, but we got lucky because it turned out to be perfect. We removed our unproductive, raised vegetable beds beneath a large pine tree to make room for the pond. It is sunny there, but too dry to grow vegetables without a lot of extra work and irrigation. It is also near the house and our main seating area, so we can easily watch wildlife visitors, and enjoy the sound of running water from indoors. Our backyard slopes away from the house, so the stream naturally runs down to the pond.
Birds in Your Backyard (at Ottawa Public Library) recommends a site that is open, semi-secluded, and has shrubs nearby for cover. “Birds can see approaching predators, and they’ll have a place to perch until they are sure the area is safe.” (page 41) We have an old lilac hedge right beside our pond and stream. Nearly all the birds fly to the lilacs first, hop down the branches toward the ground, and then advance to the water. After bathing, they sit in the lilacs to preen and soak up the sun’s warmth.
Pond construction usually involves heavy machinery, huge rocks, and a lot of money. Since there is no easy way to get an excavator into our backyard, and we didn’t want to spend much money on this project, we decided to build the pond and stream ourselves.
We visited the Pond Clinic in Kanata for a recirculating pond/stream kit and some expert advice. This project was definitely out of our comfort zone. We decided on a small 8 feet x 11 feet kit, and an AquaSurge 3000 pump. We also bought an extra piece of liner (that measured 15 1/5 feet x 5 feet) for the stream. It cost a total of $2,010 (in 2018). The kit instructions were easy to follow and the project went smoothly. I’m not a fan of the fake rock that is included to cover the pond pump, but I’m hoping that plants will grow enough to obscure it.
We bought naturally-coloured river rocks from Greeley Sand and Gravel to hold the liner in place. We chose the 2-7 inch size; they had to be small enough for me to lift and haul in the wheelbarrow. We already had leftover, smaller river rocks that we had used for paths years ago. We ordered more rocks than we needed, but at least I had plenty of pretty ones to choose from. The inconvenience of the rock mountain in our driveway motivated me to work as quickly as possible.
We used the Fletcher Wildlife Garden’s pond diagram to guide the shape of our pond; it has shelves for plant pots at several different depths, and one sloped side to allow wildlife a safe and easy way in and out of the pond. The pond is only 2 feet at its deepest point. If we made it any deeper, the city of Ottawa’s Pool Enclosures regulations would apply, and we didn’t want to deal with that.
Once we decided on the pond’s final shape, we laid out a fleece layer and the liner. I would have preferred a more irregular, naturalistic shape for the pond, but we would have needed a larger pond kit/liner for that. I then arranged the larger river rocks in the pond, and filled in around them with medium and small rocks. I did lots of Google image searches for pictures of natural streams and ponds with small rocks. This Bird Watching and Waterfalls page includes some of my favourite examples, featuring gently sloping edges and a naturalistic rock arrangement. Usually, ponds have a uniform edging of large rocks laid around the perimeter to hold the liner in place. I went with a more random look instead.
It spent too long artfully arranging rocks, so we moved a bunch to a pile in the backyard and gave the rest away. We really needed our driveway back. Finally in the spring of 2019, motivated by upcoming garden tours, I finished placing the rocks. I’m very pleased with the result.
And so are the birds. As soon as we started running the stream to test our handiwork (late summer 2018), the birds began checking it out. I made bowl-shaped areas of different depths for different-sized birds. I placed flat rocks on the bottom so they’d have a solid place to stand. However, birds bathe everywhere in the stream, even at the top of the waterfall.
Since I made the sides of the stream so shallow, I had problems with water wicking up the sides and leaking. I built up the sides of the stream under the edge of the liner, and it seems fine now.
Many people worry that a pond will become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes don’t like to lay eggs in moving or deep water. Since our water is constantly flowing, we haven’t had a problem. Also, since we don’t have fish, raccoons don’t bother with the pond looking for food. They did investigate once, shortly after we started running the stream, and made a bit of a mess.
Planting in and around the pond
By the time we were ready to add plants to the pond, it was getting late in the summer (2018). Again, we visited the Pond Clinic. They still had some pond plants, but not many native ones left. I bought native Monkey Flower, a spike with blueish flowers, that the bees enjoy. I also got hybrid, pink Water Lilies and Dwarf Cattails. I later added Cardinal Flowers that I already had, and grew some Buttonbush shrubs from seed. For the top of the stream, I bought Marsh Marigolds, a yellow flower that blooms in early spring, from Connaught Nursery.
To accentuate the natural look, I grew Blue Grama grass and Prairie Onion from seed to plant beside the stream. Both plants are about a foot tall. I also moved my Purple Poppy Mallow to add some colour. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have placed these plants in front of the stream. Even though they’re only a foot tall, they still interfere with our view of birds, and confuse the camera’s auto-focus. I have many blurry photos of unusual birds as a result. Behind the stream and on the right side of the pond, I planted a taller native shrubs and perennials that provide food for birds. This way, we can watch them visiting the plants while we’re keeping an eye on the stream.
A guest list of birds
Birds visit the stream continually, even ones that we’ve never seen in the yard before. It’s so much fun watching them dipping and shaking while they bathe. Bird parents visit with their wary juveniles to teach them how it’s done. In the next blog post, I’ll show you some of the exciting guests that stopped by the stream during migration time.