Thursday, September 6, 2012

Friends and Frogs: Build It and They Will Come

Some of the most enjoyable garden projects are those that involve collaboration with friends.  Certainly, the construction of our little frog pool this spring and summer was that kind of project.  Had it not been for the help of many friends and gardening colleagues, who not only offered their advice but also their encouragement, their muscle, and even some of their plants, this project wouldn't have succeeded.

I have never been quite sure whether to call this new garden feature of ours a pond or a pool.  Dictionary definitions of ponds and pools get very blurry as both are usually referred to as "small bodies of still water, typically formed naturally." Thinking that there might be some engineering, or architectural definition that would make the distinction a little clearer, I did a little more research but things got even more confusing.  So, I decided arbitrarily to call it a pool.  Our little body of water was clearly not formed naturally but for some reason--maybe because it's not very deep--it feels more like a pool to me than a pond.  And we call it a frog pool because within two days after finishing its construction, the frogs showed up and claimed it as their own!

Here's a brief photo history of how it all came together:

The very first thing we had to do was decide on where we wanted the pool, then on what shape and size it would be.  We used a garden hose to delineate roughly where it would go. Yes, that's a committee of sheep in the background conferring on the choice of location. We overruled the sheep who voted to keep the grass (that's all they care about, really) and decided that a circular pool of about fourteen feet in diameter might fit the site just about right.

We knew, however, that there would be more to the planning of this project than laying out a garden hose, so our friend Gordon Hayward kindly volunteered to do a detailed drawing of exactly what needed to be done so everyone could be on the same page, so to speak. Gordon has installed many ponds and pools for clients and has constructed a gorgeous pool in his own garden.

One of the things we knew we wanted was a large center stone that would sit in the middle of the pool.  A large piece of granite that had been sitting at the edge of our entry drive for many years served the purpose (it even had a little moss and a few small ferns growing on it).  So, we called Aaron Blanchette, from Apple Core Masonry in nearby Hancock, NH, who came over and drilled a 5-inch diameter hole through the center that would allow a little pump to bubble water up through the stone once the pool was constructed.

Once we measured and marked the exact diameter of the pool, Rick and Steve Miller showed up with their rather serious looking backhoe and made pretty short work of digging out several feet of earth as well as removing some of those rocks that helped give New Hampshire its name as "the granite state."

It was then time to bring in a laser-level and do a little marking in order to level off the surface area around the edges of the pool. About nine yards of loam were brought in to level off the area (sheep can be seen in the background lodging official complaints).

Marc Hudson then arrived all the way from Westmoreland, NH to help prepare the site for the pool liner.  Marc has designed several ponds and pools and his experience at this stage was invaluable.

It's important to get things level and to remove as many of the small stones as possible that could puncture the liner once it's installed.  We also wanted to create a small flat shelf, about 2-feet wide around the top edge of the pool where we could lay flat rocks so that they would appear to be sitting in the water.  This not only makes it easier to hide the liner but also gives the edge of the pool a more natural appearance.

It was now time to locate and move some of the larger stones that would serve as major "anchor points" around the edges of the pool.  The two very large stones on the far right and left in the photo, which now serve as benches, were moved in place by the Miller brothers with their backhoe.  All of the stones we used came from on the property.  So, every day I went on scouting missions trying to find stones that were the right size and shape but that also had the right patina and would look like they had been in place for awhile. The little "hand truck" I used for moving most of the rocks quickly became my best friend.  As did the local chiropractor!

In a project such as this, questions seem to come up about every ten minutes.  My constant advisors throughout the entire process were Maude and John Odgers.  Maude, an artist and garden designer with a keen eye for detail and aesthetics, and John, a teacher and builder who was born with a slide rule in his hands (or was it a calculator?) had installed a beautiful pond in their own garden and knew all the little intricacies and gotchas of the process. 

In the photo at right, we had just spread a layer of stone dust over the dug surface to make it a little smoother for accepting the liner, and John is now laying a remnant of carpet that will provide a little extra cushion for the large, heavy granite stone that will eventually be placed in the center of the pool.

The next step was to place the underlay material which goes under the liner and helps protect it from being punctured from below by any small stones that might eventually dislodge and rise to the surface through freeze-thaw cycles.

Finally, the untrimmed piece of 45 mil EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer) liner is put in place.

Now it was time to set the large center stone. Three piers of flat stones were constructed that would support the weight of this large piece of granite.  The stone had to sit level and be centered and, because we also wanted it to be partly submerged in the water at a certain depth, it was important to get the height of these piers correct.

John and Alex Kaufhold arrived with their large boom truck, making this part of the project infinitely easier!

With the center stone in place, it was time to see if the liner would hold water. Wendellberry, one of our feline project supervisors (at left in the photo), checks for leaks.

The bubbler is tested.

Hey!  How does that thing work?

It was now time to find more rocks and continue building up the perimeter.  At the same time, we drained the water that we used to test the liner and now added 3/8" pea stone that would completely cover the bottom and hide any trace of the black plastic.

Once the pea stone was installed, the pool was filled again and we gave the liner one last trim around the edges.  In the photo above, with most of the stones now in place, it's possible to see how the small "shelf" that we originally built around the very outside perimeter of the pool allows the stones to look more "settled" in the water, rather than simply sitting on ground at the pool's edge. 

As you can see in some of these final photos, we are still landscaping and adding plants around the new pool.  Friends, like Don and Lillian Stokes, came bearing botanical gifts and gave the planting part of the project a real jump start.

photo: Gordon Hayward
Now that it's all over, I have to say that this has been one of the most rewarding gardening projects I have ever done.  At the end of every gardening day, we sit by the new pool in the cool shade and enjoy the sound of the water bubbling up through that center stone as we look at the sky's reflection.  It has quickly become one of our favorite areas in the entire garden.

And the new area is now teeming with wildlife.  At least a dozen frogs now call the pool home.  I don't know how they found it so quickly; there must be some sort of amphibian social network we don't know about.  There are tadpoles and all sorts of water insects to provide entertainment.  Cats, dogs and birds all enjoy drinking from the pool (although not at the same time), and what was once a rough corner of the farm has now become a new garden area where we can experiment with a whole new range of plants that will accentuate the beauty of our new water feature.   


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this project! We are in the planning stages of a little backyard 'pool' and your experience is helpful. It is lovely.

  2. Joe..this is amazing! Most definitely magazine worthy...I hope you will submit it! Well done...what an effort and best of all a beautiful result.
    Jeanne :)

  3. Hi, Mel! So glad that you found the post helpful. Good luck with your own backyard pool and let me know how it goes. Cheers, Joe

  4. Thank you so much, Jeanne! It was a fun project. And, as I said, one that wouldn't have happened without the help of a lot of good people.

  5. Isn't great to have good friends? Well done. It is very informative to see how you did it, Joe.

  6. Thanks, Michael! It IS great to have good friends. And, even more highly recommended if you're installing a pond!


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