Building Natural Ponds: Create a Clean, Algae-free Pond without Pumps, Filters, or Chemicals, by Robert Pavlis (2017 - paperback, 161 pp, New Society Publishers, $24.99) 

I’ve been waiting for this book since we first dug my pond in 2005. I knew I wanted a pond that would function naturally, without requiring electricity, and without using chemicals. Fourteen years later, I’ve worked out for myself many of the common sense solutions Robert Pavlis provides. But he explains the underlying science that supports the laid-back, leave-it-to nature approach and has much more in the way of helpful hints arising from long years of experience in pond construction and management.

In many respects, I have to live with the mistakes I made in the construction. Had I had this book back then, I would have avoided them. My primary fault was a poorly planned edge with no spillway and no natural intake. Another error was choosing a location with insufficient visibility from the house and a lack of seating. I have subsequently removed a flowerbed and taken other measures to make the pond a place of contemplation for humans as well as a home for amphibians and dragonflies and other creatures. It would have been better to plot it out at the start.

I wish I had thought of the idea of establishing a rain garden, fed from the house’s eavestroughing, that could be incorporated into the pond’s design and provide a natural input of water. I did, last year, put in a bog garden next to the pond to make a space for the plants that should grow by the water but can’t, if you have a rubber liner, because it’s as dry as a bone on the other side of the liner. Through the years, I figured out that much of the advice we get from pond professionals is make-work for us and make-money for them. But it’s so great to see Pavlis come out authoritatively on the just-don’t-bother side of the debate. For instance, no, you don’t need to control the pH, measure ammonium, add bacteria, install devices to keep the water moving, or clean out the pond every year. 

So how does one keep a pond clear of algae and mosquitoes and undesirable odours? Pavlis explains the chemistry of keeping down the nutrient load and raising the oxygen level in the water. It’s simple: Grow pond plants. Not in soil – lowering pots of soil into the water  introduces nutrients and you don’t want those. Instead, weigh your plant roots down with stones. Let frogs and other creatures take care of the mosquito larvae, add fish if you want, but not too many and don’t feed them. My advice, from a climate zone north of Pavlis, is that keeping fish alive in a small lined pond is a winter headache, so don’t bother if your goal is to make the pond interesting. Watch the frogs instead. If you want to raise fish, Pavlis touches on how to make that work.

This book is workmanlike in the best sense of the word, covering just about everything a large or small pond-owner needs to know – from digging to design to plant selection. While Pavlis lists the invasive plants you should not choose because they have escaped garden ponds and become a problem in our waterways, he does not emphasize native plants, as I would, although many of the plants he suggests are native. I would for instance add our Northern Blue Flag Iris to his list of irises, I find them as lovely as any exotic.

To complement this practical volume with a keenly observed and beautifully crafted guide to the life you will become privileged to witness as you lounge by the pond, I recommend a book I picked up second-hand last year: Watchers at the Pond, by Franklin Russell. First published in 1961, with the most recent edition dating back to 2000, this should be a Canadian classic – along with many other works by this mostly forgotten but once-prolific nature writer.