Where the Blackbirds Bathe

It started with a blackbird bathing in the most neglected part of my garden. During the house renovations a few years back, this area was where the workmen dumped rubble. I had promised myself a greenhouse or ‘something wonderful’ like an outdoor room and had dreamed of an orangery because, well, gardeners dream, writers dream… put that together, and you get orangery dreams. But the recent years have brought fiercer storms thanks to the reality of climate change, and we’ve already had the garage windows broken in a storm. What chance would a glasshouse of any kind have, especially built upon this hill?

So back to the bird – having a bath…

‘What about a wee pond?’ says I.

My Husband nods tentatively. He knows I don’t need much encouragement…

And how hard can a pond be after building the dry creek feature in my garden in California in the hard-baked, dry desert earth? Soft, soggy Irish soil would be no bother…

I did a bit of research. I consider the Ulster Wildlife Trust a very reliable source. If you’re thinking of a water feature, keep in mind what your local conditions will allow for. A dry creek works in California, but here it would probably get washed away! And likewise, a still-water wildlife pond would not have been a good idea in my California garden  (especially with the mosquito problem in standing water.) But in Ireland, it is a feature that will welcome the wildlife to my garden in all the best ways.

The first thing was to outline the size and shape I wanted. Rain tended to gather in the bits I dug out, so I kept a log in the hole in case the hedgehog fell in and needed to climb out.

I wanted a pond deep enough so it wouldn’t freeze solid to the bottom in the harshest winter weather. Apparently, that meant I had to have it a min of 45-60 cm deep for 40 % of the pool. I took things slowly. It was March. We were in lockdown. There was no big hurry. I aimed to dig 15 shovel-fulls a day. But what could I do with all that soil?

Last autumn, our neighbour chopped down a gigantic Leyland Cypress that had bordered our properties. It’s considered by some as an invasive tree, but it’s always sad to see a large tree being taken down. I did welcome the extra sunlight in the garden, though. Some of the larger branches had fallen on our side. We were so grateful when a Good Friend chopped them into a manageable size for us. I decided to use these logs to make a raised bed to border the pond and fill them, in part, with the displaced earth.

I was delighted when My 13-Year-Old Nephew pitched in one Saturday to help dig the pond – you know lockdown has gone on too long when things like that happen. We had such a great day together too. Excellent bonding time, and for the next few decades, I’ll sit by that pond with the fondest of memories of making it!

The ground was rocky in places and some of the rocks we took out were pretty big – that’s my wellie boot in the picture above for scale.

Despite hating the idea of adding more plastic to the planet, all the advice on making a pond said that I needed a pond liner. I dug a little trench around the rim to secure the liner.

I wanted large smooth pebbles/rocks to edge the pond and cover the surrounding area. A little bit of research led me to a company in Lurgan that would deliver river rock to my driveway. By my calculations, I’d need two tonnes of pebbles. They were due on the 5th May – I had a week and a half to wait.

By the time all the digging was completed, we’d had the driest April on record. When rain was forecast to arrive before the stones would. I worried that the holes would fill with water before the liner was down and that I’d have a nightmarish mudbath trying to set the liner in place. So I decided to put down the liner and fill the pond with water (from our water butt) before the stones arrived.

To prevent sharp rocks from puncturing the pond liner,  there should be a layer of sand, then underlay of some kind (carpet underlay will work.)

Sand I had, leftover from the house renovations and stored in that rubble area for the last couple of years – it would be good to use it up.

I had saved the underlay from the carpet we took out before the renovations. It was perfect. It may as well lie beneath our pond and protect the liner as lie in landfill or in rolls taking up space on shelves in my garage.

The pond liner I had to order online. None of the garden centres were even open yet. I found a nifty calculator online that helped me gauge how much I needed, and just I ordered it up. When it arrived I laid it out in the sun to warm up so it was more flexible to fit the contours of the pond.

As it turned out, putting the water in before the rocks was a great plan. The water from the rainwater tank weighed down the liner and let us see how it looked. When the rain arrived, it filled the rest of the pond and replenished the tank. We were able to see where the liner needed ‘shored up’ to better control the direction of overflow runoff, away from the house. (Don’t forget the safety escape for the hedgehog – that liner might be too slippy for him to scramble out!)

The rocks arrived, and My 13-Year-Old Nephew came over again to help with placing those. It was hard and heavy work. Two tonnes was just the right amount of rock. My back ached, but, boy, did it feel good to see the project come together.

When the garden centres opened, I planned to go shopping for aquatic plants, but after an online research session, I concluded that I wouldn’t buy anything. Apparently, nature will find its own way to my pond. I follow the theory – fragments and seeds from nearby waterways (the River Callan being the closest) will be carried in by birds and take root. This way, I avoid the risk of introducing invasive species that are commonly introduced via garden centre stock. It’s kind of hard to believe that the pond will be a thriving ecosystem simply by my doing nothing, but I am willing to leave it for a year to see what happens – check back in 2022!

To finish, I added a bridge…

planted up the raised bed (that’s a post in its own right!)…

and disguised the rainwater tank with hanging pockets filled with plants…

added a little decorative log pile to hide the ugly gap beneath the water butt…

and hey presto!

The whole thing was barely done when the blackbird was back bathing in the pond. I watched with delight and called My Husband to come and see before thinking to grab the camera. But alas, the rascal (the blackbird, not My Husband) scarpered before I could get the lens cap off. That’s okay – I’m happy just knowing that this pond is where the blackbirds bathe.

Byddi Lee