Pond Dig, part 4

Photo: Pond, fully dug, with four levels and a measuring line across

Hurray! I’ve been back to digging the pond the last couple days, and today I finished the bottom layer! I hit clay soil at about 2 1/2 feet down, and went a little deeper in one spot. For those who were wondering about the water that showed up in the bottom, I learned, after consulting other folks, that it’s probably not really a bit deal. It might possibly lift the liner in the spring a small amount, but on the other hand, the water in the pond might have enough weight to counter that. In any case, over the last several days of not much rain, there is no standing water, though the soil I’ve dug out has been damp.

So I ended up with four levels: first level all around the edge for planting (at about 10 inches down), second for a step, plus another spot to plant pond lilies, third another step down, and fourth the very bottom. The bottom is about 2 ft. 10 inches feet deep, though more like 2 1/2 feet from the top of the water once filled, since there is an overflow channel about 4 inches down from the top. I decided to let the clay soil be my guide for stopping at that depth. The very thin white line you can see across the pond is my measuring-depth-device–a string anchored in the ground at each side, and then another string looped onto it, marked with knots at each foot, and weighted so it hangs down.

It has been a lot of hard work to do the final levels, because each damp shovel-full had to be carried up the steps to the top step to put it in the wheelbarrow. And then, when I wheeled it all to the mound where it was going, I had to shovel it onto the mound. (Eventually I will add compost to the mound, and plant some sort of ground cover.)

Photo: Mound where I put the dirt, to cover old demolition waste, then put cardboard on top, then more pond soil.

The next step will be to cut old carpet into strips, to layer over the ground to keep roots from coming through, and to protect the pond liner. And surprisingly, there were small bittersweet roots all the way down to the bottom level. I have a pile of old carpet that I collected from willing volunteers (via Freecycle and Buy Nothing) last week, that is sitting on the patio, waiting for me.

But for now, I am coming inside to rest, with sore muscles but a happy heart. It has been so satisfying to be digging down into the beautiful earth, imagining a place for water.

Pond Dig, part three

I had a helper yesterday for digging the pond. My friend Sylvia came by in the afternoon and the very first thing we did was drag the pond-liner in its box from near the house to back closer to the pond. (You can see it in the picture, behind the wheelbarrow.) That would have been enough help all by itself–so heavy! But then we took turns digging, hauling, and resting nearby. We got a lot done, and also enjoyed a rare COVID-time visit, walking around the yard and in the woods, looking at birds and plants.

Sylvia standing on the planting shelf, while digging in the pond!

So here is what the pond looks like now, in layers. The first layer down, about 8-10 inches, is for the planting layer. The next layer down, maybe 18 inches, is for a step layer–part of that I might take away as we go along, but some will remain to be a step into the pond going forward. In the middle, we dug to about 2 feet down, as measured with this string set-up I created. My aim is to go three feet down in the middle.

Pond layers dug out.

But then we came upon a problem that wasn’t mentioned in the Building Natural Ponds book by Robert Pavlis. Water started to seep up from the sandy soil. We are actually at the time of year when vernal pools abound here in Maine. We have a ditch way back behind the edge of our property and the properties next door that fills during spring rains. And we had an inch of rain last week, though generally it has been a dry winter. Does this mean we can’t go any deeper for a lined pond? Or do we need to wait until it is a bit dryer as the days go by? Will it mess up the pond to have water under the liner at the bottom? Or does it not matter at all? I am going to ask my questions in the Facebook group Building Natural Ponds, and see whether I might find some answers.

Water seeping from the soil in the bottom of the pond.

Maybe the pond just wants to be a pond so badly, that it doesn’t want to wait, lol. Meanwhile, I am going to rest today from digging, and more rain is coming tomorrow. So we will see. If you have any wisdom about this, I’d love to hear from you.

Pond Dig, part two

More on my adventures in digging a small pond! Yesterday I finished digging the first layer of the pond, down to the level of the planting shelf, about 1 foot. I checked whether it was fairly level after I was done. And then I did some math to figure out what 1/2 to 1/3 of the total surface area would be, which is the best size for the planting shelves.

For those who might wonder, here is how I worked on that: Using a website that computes circle area, I found that for my 11′ by 11.5′ pond, the total surface area was about 100 square feet. If I made a planting shelf one foot deep, the resulting circle would be 9′ by 9.5′, with a surface area of 67 square feet, meaning the planting shelf included 33 square feet. I was surprised that just 1 foot at the edge already brought it to 1/3 of the area. Doing two feet would leave a circle of 7′ by 7.5′, or 41 square feet, with 59 square feet for planting. So I took half of that, and decided to do 1 foot wide on one half, with 2 feet wide on the other half, approximately. Even though the math is exact, the actual pond will be less so, but it gave me an idea of what I was aiming for. I marked it out with white flour, including a spot for a step, that would be dug to 1 more foot down, to make it easier to get in and out of the pond center.

Pond layer one, with my rough markings for planting shelves and a step

Meanwhile, I’ve heard back from folks who have bits and pieces of carpet–I had asked for at least 2 feet wide, and the responses have ranged from 2′ by 2′, to a medium size carpet. I picked up some yesterday, and will do more today. It has been fun to have these interactions with folks, limited as they are–so rare for me in a time of COVID. Since I don’t have a truck, the smaller pieces actually work because they fit in the back of my car.

Meanwhile, the pond liner was delivered yesterday too! A very heavy box was dropped in our driveway by UPS. (I think I remember that it was going to be 138 pounds) Unable to lift it myself, or even together with Margy, she had the idea to roll it onto a larger piece of cardboard (which we always have in our garage for various garden projects) and then we could pull that cardboard together along the driveway to a better spot–and it worked. So it is waiting by the side of our house. It made me realize, though, that when I actually install the liner in the pond, I will definitely need help from a few friends.

Four years ago, the pond was part of our original plan for our permablitz–when twenty-some people came by and helped us with all manner of garden projects. (If you are curious about that, you can find more here.) It was such a humbling and gratifying experience to be gifted with the energy of so many to begin to create this permaculture garden where we live. With everything else going on that day, it was decided that the pond would be too much to attempt. But it is wonderful to remember how community enables us to live better with our land, how the gift of each other’s time and energy enriches all who participate. With COVID we’ve been on our own so much, and yet even so, we rely on the help of others–delivery people, for example, and neighbors who have picked up needed items in stores. It has brought us closer together with our neighbors actually. We are so programmed by our society to try to be self-sufficient. It is hard to be reminded of our need for each other–and yet that need is a blessing.

Meanwhile, it was also a blessing to be digging on my own, outside in a beautiful sunny day. Squirrels were playing, birds singing, daffodils shining bright yellow, and the cherry and peach trees are beginning to blossom. I started on the next layer of the pond. Our soil is very sandy and compacted–we had an inch of rain fall on Friday, and none of it stayed in the depression that I had already dug. So the recommendation is to slope the sides as we go down so it doesn’t collapse. Step by step, and with a little help, I think it can be done.

Digging begun on second level.

The Little Pond

In our permaculture design for our land from 2017, we included a little pond, about 11 by 12 feet round. Every so often, I would dig in it a bit, and find a place to put that soil. Finding a spot for what is dug up is actually a major issue in digging a pond. Some of the topsoil made its way into what is now a bed for blueberries. But mostly, I didn’t have the energy to take on another big project.

The future pond, as it looked with what I dug out before this year.

However, this spring I felt a burst of energy each time I went into the yard, and I felt the future pond calling to me! So I read once again Robert Pavlis’s book Building Natural Ponds, and made a list of everything I would need. I talked it over with Margy. The biggest expense is buying a pond liner, recommended 45 mil EPDM rubber. For our size pond, with the deepest part 3 feet deep, we’d need a 20 by 20 foot liner. (Formula: width plus 2x depth plus 2 feet for edge, times length plus 2x depth plus 2 feet.) Other needs include old carpet strips to lay over the ground under the liner, to protect against roots and rocks–and we’ve got bittersweet roots, so this might be essential. It will need lots of stones to line the planting shelves and the edges, and then a number of pond plants, to serve to clean the water, and of course to look beautiful. This kind of natural pond does not have any mechanical filters–just plants. So 1/2 to 1/3 of the pond is made up of planting “shelves” that are only about 8-12 inches deep.

Why include a pond? One reason is that it brings more water into the landscape. For some sites, ponds are a way to store water, but that won’t be as big a need for our site. We have rain barrels for that. We can use water from the rain barrels to fill the pond, and refill as needed. For us, a pond will mostly be for wildlife, like frogs and birds. We are told that if you build it, the frogs will come. And for us, another reason is to be able to look at the beauty of the water and water plants, when we are sitting in the yard. What a good reminder of the sacredness of water.

The biggest amount of work to make the pond is the digging. But we finally figured out a place to put the dirt. In the back corner of our yard, some former resident dumped a pile of concrete and metal demolition junk. We’d thought about trying to haul it away, but that would be a huge job, and cost money to take away. Most years, it has been covered with wild raspberries that don’t bear any fruit because it is too shady. This spring, I pulled out much of the raspberries and some invasives, and got a good look at the junk underneath. Concrete, metal, demolition debris.

Old demolition debris in the back of the yard.

So this is where we will put the sandy under-soil I dig from the pond. Then I’ll put cardboard over the resulting mound (to rein in the invasives), put down some compost and other soil on top of the cardboard, and then plant some shade loving plants on the mound. Another project.

A few days ago, I started an overflow spillway, an area on the edge of the pond that is 4 inches lower, so if the pond gets too full, the water has a place to go. I figured out, from the book, that it didn’t have to go very far, maybe 8 feet away or so, where the water could sink into our sandy soil. Then, the last few days, I have been slowly digging out the first layer, to the depth of the planting shelves. Here is how much I was able to finish by today.

It’s hard to tell that the depth of the pond is now about 1 foot, except for the part in the center that I didn’t finish to that level yet.

I shovel out the dirt into a wheelbarrow, using a level to try to keep the pond surface level–which will be important–then I bring that dirt over to the demolition pile, and dump it there. It doesn’t actually look like that much, but I hauled away several wheelbarrows full just in the last couple days. I don’t know what the former residents did with this part of the yard, but it seems like there are some ashes and charcoal buried in the future pond, along with a very rusty sandy soil. Oh, and here is what the junk corner looks like now.

Junk pile beginning to disappear under dirt piles.

So, yesterday, I ordered a pond liner. I was able to find a liner, with an underlayer, for $438. I also posted on “buy nothing” and “freecycle” pages requesting old carpet strips. I’ll keep you updated. This is going to happen!

Hugelkultur 4–Moments

I haven’t forgotten about the hugelkultur bed we are creating (mostly me at this stage, since Margy’s back won’t let her dig or carry.) At times I wonder if it will ever be ready for planting, but then my spirit reminds me to stay in the process, enjoy the moments, rather than being attached to outcomes.  So the other day, I came out and dug some shovels full of sod and wet soil from the center of the future pond, put them in a wheelbarrow, then brought it over to a chair in our fire circle. There I sat and I painstakingly pulled out all the tiny bittersweet starts. It helps that they are like hard little red sticks with orange roots, and very easy to differentiate from the soft moss and grass and other growth. I couldn’t get very much “accomplished,” but I loved sitting in the sun with my hands in the soil. What could be better than that?

Today I couldn’t continue doing that process because the future pond was actually full of water from the big rain.  I don’t know if we will ever finish the pond, but days like this remind us what it might be like. I saw a bird drinking from it later.

future pond with rain

Instead, I shifted to opening up one of our compost bins that has been sitting for a year, and adding more compost to the mound.  I also had a little bit of sod from another spot that I turned inside out and added to crevices on the side.  When the compost was piled high, I layered seaweed over the top–which also helped to stabilize it.

Here are the stages. First with compost.

hugelkultur compost

Then, seaweed, which we had gathered from Winslow Park.

hugelkultur seaweed

If it seems hard to see the difference from earlier photos, that is because it expands only by millimeters. But it is so beautiful out here today–in the 50s, sunny, birds singing, and one can feel the surging of green life that is almost ready to burst forth. I have observed that there is one week in spring when everything wakes up–maybe we are about to enter that week. I walked along the strip near our street that I had planted in perennials two years ago, and look!–the lupine planted from seed last year is already poking through the dead leaves. This year we will get flowers. I am trying to remember–notice the beauty, be present to the moment, be filled with gratitude for this very day.

lupine coming up

 

Hugelkultur, part one & a half

Time to do the next steps for our new hugelkulture bed, but I wasn’t sure what kinds of materials to put on first. After doing more research online, many suggested that soil plus nitrogen rich materials like cut grass were next. But then I realized I needed to back up a bit. In order to stabilize the mound, it was recommended to put soil in between the cracks and crevices formed by the logs on the bottom. So I took off the smaller branches I had already placed on top, to expose more of the logs underneath.

Also, people had mentioned having a problem with the soil falling off the outer part of the mound, and one suggested remedy was to put lots of sticks angled out from the mound to help to stabilize the organic material and soil that will eventually cover it all. So after I took off the smaller branches, I started replacing some of them at a different angle.

hugelkutur sticks

Finding soil to put on the bed is no problem for us–in fact, it is a great help for our dream of a future pond, which we had included in our original permaculture design. One of the challenges for a pond is having some place to put all that dirt. So it has been on a way back burner. Today, I dug up about a half-wheelbarrow full of dirt–the dirt was very wet from recent rains, so that was actually the limit of what I could lift in the wheelbarrow.

Future pond soil

I brought it to the mound and started putting it into all the crevices, (after making sure to pull out any tiny red bittersweet roots.) The mound needs several more loads of dirt, but my own physical limits intervened. For some reason, lifting heavy things is very challenging for my chronic autoimmune illness, and triggers my fatigue response. So I sat outside in the sun for a while, but reluctantly came in after watering the mound with our garden hose. Tomorrow will be another sunny day.

It is hard to have an idea, a vision of this hugelkultur mound, and not be able to just go out there and get it done. Usually if I push myself one day, I have to rest on the next day.  And Margy has her own limits. So after moving all those logs yesterday, it was a stretch to do anything at all today. But I have been slowly learning to honor the boundaries of what my body can do, and take things step by step, in whatever timeline is necessary. It still feels so good to be outside in the garden.

The (Future) Pond

the future pond after rain

With all the excitement about the rain barrels toppling, I didn’t get a chance to share this other effect of the big rain storm:  our future pond actually looked like a pond (with a little island) on Tuesday.  I only had time last summer to dig up the grass and top soil for most of its surface, meanwhile using that soil in our new annual veggie bed.  This is the slow project–bit by bit digging and removing soil (and putting it someplace else) until the pond is as deep as it needs to be–a few feet in the center, with a foot deep shelf at the edges for plants.  Eventually, we’ll use a pond liner.  The water was gone by the next day.