DIY: Building A Backyard Pond & Waterfall

Published on 19 June 2024 at 19:13

Authors:  Kelly Lowthian and Ernie Jean

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Several years ago, my stepdad, Ernie, built a pond and waterfall in the back yard of his home in Missoula, Montana.  As you can see from the pictures to the right, he did an amazing job of creating a relaxing backyard retreat that the entire family can enjoy.  After learning more about what went into his project, I was inspired to write a blog post about it and asked him to co-author it.   Taking on a DIY project like this can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be a little daunting.  There are countless tutorials on the internet and trying to weed through them to determine what will work best for your project can be time consuming.  I asked Ernie for his input so that we could combine his personal experience with information from expert sources (Total Pond and the Pond Guy) to provide an easy-to-follow tutorial.  So, without further

ado . . .let’s get started!

Table of Contents:

  1. Planning and Design
    1. Legal Considerations
    2. Safety
    3. Location
    4. Access to Resources
    5. Elevation
    6. Sunlight
  2. Supply Lists
    1. Products Needed
    2. Tools Needed
    3. Decorative Items Needed
  3. 12 Steps To Complete The Project
  4. Maintenance
    1. Regular Monitoring
    2. Cleaning
    3. Seasonal Care
    4. Long Term Maintenance

Planning and Design

Legal Considerations - Ask local authorities about requirements for safety, permits and inspections that concern backyard ponds and pools.  It’s also a good idea to check with your home-owner’s association, if you have one, to avoid any infractions to neighborhood rules. 

Safety – Always dig with caution.  Call 811 or your local utility companies before digging to locate buried pipes or power lines on your property.  It’s also a good idea to check with city and county offices to make sure you’re in compliance with safety ordinances.

Location: When selecting a location for your waterfall and pond, consider how it will enhance your landscape.  The size, scale and other elements of your water feature should complement the features of your landscape.  Ponds are best situated in the open, away from trees. Tree roots can be difficult to remove and can grow back into your pond. Fall leaves will rot in the water, fall to the bottom, and create muck.  Ernie’s pond and falls is situated near trees and requires a little more maintenance.

Access to Resources:  Unless you are creating an all-natural, pump-free pond, you will need an outdoor GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) electrical outlet accessible to the pond area. This should be installed by a licensed electrician to ensure it is safe and meets local codes. 

Elevation:  A pond should be built on a level area.  If it is located at the lowest elevation of the yard, you will have rainwater run-off that will muddy the water, wash away fish and destroy plants.  Placing the pond just above the lowest surface will help avoid these problems.

Sunlight:  If you wish to include plants that require moderate to full sunlight, such as lotus or water lilies, choose a location with a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight.

Supply Lists

The items listed here coincide with Total Pond's 12-Step Pond Installation Guide contained in the next section.  Products and can be purchased through the shoppable links provided at the end of this section.

Products Needed:

  • 13 x 20 ft PVC Pond Liners (x2)
    • Total Pond’s guide suggests using 2 liners, however, Ernie advised that purchasing one large liner may work better as there is an inherent risk of leaks when using seaming tape.  Starting out with one liner and then patching or using seaming tape for future repairs is another option.

    • The size of the liner needed will depend on the size and scale of your project. When calculating your measurements, include the depth of the pond and make sure that there is an extra 10 inches around the perimeter. 
  • Pressurized Pond Filter with UV Clarifier
  • 3600 GPH Waterfall Pump
  • 560 GPH Pond Pump
  • Pump Vault
  • 1 ½ in. ID Corrugated Tubing
  • ¾ in ID Corrugated Tubing
  • Waterfall Foam Sealant
  • Seaming Tape

Tools Needed:

  • Rope or string
  • Shovel
  • 48 inch Level

Decorative Items Needed:

Personal choice and location will dictate what type of decorative items are used.  Ernie was able to obtain the rock for his pond and waterfall in the mountains near his home. While there was a large investment of time and manual labor involved in getting the rocks from the mountains to his home, there was no cost for the rock itself.  Other sources of rock include local landscape suppliers and home centers, quarries or sand and gravel suppliers.

  • Pond and Landscape LED lights (optional)
  • Decorative Rock (round rocks work best for the base and sides of the pond as opposed to rocks with sharp edges that can poke holes in the liner).
  • Cinder Blocks 10-12
  • Slate or other large, flat rock (the number of pieces will be determined by the number of levels in your waterfall.
  • Gravel


12 Step Pond Installation Guide

These steps are adapted from the 12-Step Pond Installation Guide from Total Pond's website.  Each step contains a photo illustration of Total Pond's project on the left and Ernie's project on the right.

Step 1.  Ensure the area is level.  Map out the shape and size of the overall pond using a rope, string, or hose. 

Total Pond’s Pre-Pond Photo

Ernie’s Pre-Pond Photo

Step 2.  Begin digging the pond.  Use some of the dirt to help with leveling.  Create an elevated 6-8 inch ledge around the perimeter to keep out unwanted water.  During this step of the project Ernie also suggests considering whether or not fish will be added to the pond.  Ponds built in colder climates will need to be considerably deeper so fish have a place to retreat during the winter months.  More information on stocking fish and appropriate pond depths can be found on the Pond Guy's website.

Total Pond’s Excavation

Ernie’s Excavation

Step 3.  Determine the location and desired height of the waterfall’s first tier.  Build this tier with stacked cinder blocks.  Fill in any voids with dirt.  Ernie decided to build his waterfall and pond at the same time that an addition to his home was being built and the excavated dirt was used to create the height for the waterfall.

Total Pond used cinder blocks

Ernie used excavated dirt

Step 4.  To create the next two tiers, position a piece of slate approximately 10 inches under the flow path of the first tier.  Build this tier firmly with additional cinder blocks and dirt.  Ensure the slate is level.  Set aside the slate before placing the liner.

Total Pond’s waterfall tiers

Ernie created height with the excavated dirt as well as a berm for additional landscaping

Step 5.  Cover the pond and waterfall with PVC Pond Liners, using seaming tape to merge the two of them together.  Ernie suggests using one pond liner for the entire project.  Place the smooth side of the liner down.  The liner should extend at least 10 inches past the elevated edge.

Total Pond adding liner

Ernie’s project required weed cover under the rocks that formed the berm and then one liner was used for the waterfall and pond.

Step 6.  Add the slate back into the waterfall.  Continue adding large stones around the edge to anchor the liner.  Trim and bury the excess liner or cover with stone and rock.

Total Pond adding liner and slate

Ernie’s kids adding liner and flat rock

Step 7.  Tuck the liner tightly in all areas, while smoothing it and adding various types and sizes of rock.  Place rocks in the bottom of the pond and around the edge until the liner is no longer visible.

Total Pond Crew Adding Rocks

Ernie’s Crew Adding Rocks

Step 8.  Total Pond suggests placing the waterfall pump in it’s mesh barrier bag at the base of the pond.  Ernie's pump in in a housing unit which keeps the rocks and large debris away from it.

Total Pond’s pump in mesh bag

Ernie’s pump in the housing unit

Step 9.  Run 1 inch of ID tubing within a fold of the liner, around the edge of the pond, and set it at the top of the waterfall.  This will be used to connect the filter and pump.  Minimize the number of bends to maximize water flow.  Ernie's system also includes a drip line from his sprinkler system to help offset evaporation.

Total Pond installing tubing.

Ernie's tubing

Step 10.  Install the pressurized pond filter with UV Clarifier.  One section of tubing will connect it to the pond pump.  Another section will run into the pond.  Minimize the number of bends to maximize water flow. 

Total Pond installing the filter

Ernie’s water return pipe that goes to the biofilter and then repeats at the falls.

Step 11.  Add the lights, nestling them at the base of the waterfall.  The cord can be tucked into a fold of the liner and hidden.  Ernie's electrical box is housed in the ground for easy access and protection from the elements.

Total Pond adding lights

Ernie’s electrical box

Step 12.  Spray waterfall foam sealant in the cracks and crevices of the waterfall to create a water-resistant seal.  Ernie’s tip is to wear gloves while spraying the foam sealant.  Fill the pond with water while continuing to smooth the liner and placing additional rocks as needed.

Total Pond's finished project

Ernie's finished project


Maintaining a man-made pond and waterfall ensures its long-term beauty and functionality. Proper care involves regular monitoring, cleaning, and adjustments to keep the ecosystem balanced. Here are some essential steps from the Pond Guy for maintaining your pond and waterfall:

Regular Monitoring

  • pH Levels: Regularly check the pH level of your pond water. The ideal pH range for most pond plants and fish is between 6.5 and 8.0. You can use a pH testing kit to monitor this.
  • Ammonia and Nitrite Levels: High levels of ammonia and nitrites can be harmful to fish. Test these levels periodically, especially in the early stages after establishing the pond.
  • Debris Removal: Skim the surface of the pond regularly to remove leaves, twigs, and other floating debris. This can be done with a pond net.
  • Filtration System: Ensure your pond’s filtration system is working efficiently. Clean or replace the filter media as recommended by the manufacturer to maintain clear water.

Cleaning and Maintenance

  • Natural Methods: Introduce algae-eating fish such as koi or goldfish. Planting submerged and marginal plants can also compete with algae for nutrients, reducing their growth.
  • Chemical Treatments: If necessary, use pond-safe algaecides. Be cautious with chemicals to avoid harming fish and plants.
  • Pump Inspection: Regularly check the pond pump to ensure it is functioning properly. Clean the pump’s intake to prevent clogging and ensure efficient water circulation.
  • Waterfall Care: Remove debris from the waterfall area to maintain a smooth water flow. Clean the waterfall stones periodically to prevent algae buildup.

Seasonal Care

  • Spring:
    • Deep Cleaning: Perform a thorough drain and clean at the beginning of spring. This includes removing sludge from the bottom of the pond, cleaning the filters, and checking all equipment.
    • Plant Care: Divide and re-pot overgrown aquatic plants. Add new plants to enhance the pond’s ecosystem.
  • Summer:
    • Water Evaporation: Top off the pond with water as needed to compensate for evaporation. Ernie added drip lines from his sprinkler system to address the evaporation issue.
    • Shade and Aeration: Provide shade to prevent excessive algae growth and ensure adequate aeration to keep the water oxygenated.
  • Fall:
    • Leaf Management: Use a pond net or cover to prevent falling leaves from accumulating in the pond. Ernie covers his pond with a tarp in the fall to reduce the amount of organic material that can decay and affect water quality. 
    • Plant Pruning: Trim back dead foliage from aquatic plants and remove any that are dying.
  • Winter:
    • Prevent Freezing: In colder climates, use a pond heater or de-icer to prevent the pond surface from freezing completely. This allows toxic gases to escape and oxygen to enter.
    • Reduce Feeding: Fish metabolism slows down in colder temperatures, so reduce feeding to prevent excess waste.

Long-Term Maintenance

  • Ecosystem Balance:
    • Fish Population: Avoid overstocking the pond with fish. A general rule is one inch of fish per square foot of surface area.
    • Plant Balance: Ensure a good mix of submerged, floating, and marginal plants to create a balanced ecosystem that naturally controls algae and maintains water quality.
    • Equipment Upkeep: Regularly inspect all equipment, including pumps, filters, and aerators. Replace worn-out parts promptly to ensure continuous operation.


In conclusion, creating your own backyard pond and waterfall can transform your outdoor space into a serene retreat. With careful planning, the right materials, and a bit of elbow grease, you can enjoy the soothing sounds and tranquil beauty of water in your own backyard. We hope this guide has inspired and equipped you with the knowledge to embark on your own project. A special thank you goes out to Ernie, who graciously allowed us to peek into his project and shared invaluable insights. Happy pond-building!

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