A Pond Atop a Pond

The many benefits of the upper pond design

rick_smith1 Whether designing a new water feature, planning
out a renovation or looking for ways
to aid filtration to an existing pond, one of
my personal favorite design techniques is the incorporation
of an “Upper Pond.”

17 years ago, when I built my second pond in the
backyard — of course a lot bigger than the first — an
upper pond was incorporated in the design strictly for
the added visual impact. The design made the water
feature longer, providing more depth of view; it added
subtle sloping grade changes; and it lent itself to three
waterfalls instead of one.

Although not part of the original design rationale,
after years of enjoyment I have come to truly appreciate
the long list of other added benefits that upper
ponds can provide (and the technical reasons behind
these benefits).

If only I was so smart back then.

Since this old dog is always open to sharing with
and learning from others, I can say that I learned even
more from reading Jamie Beyer’s article, “Pond Design
Information for a Two-Pond Filtration System,”
published in the 2009 July/August issue of POND
Trade Magazine. This is a great article and one more
example of how sharing design options provides value
within the industry. Jamie’s article on design and flow
rates is certainly worth diggin’ through the archives for
another read. Great job, Jamie.

Don't miss out on the added time of enjoyment. You don't need huge waterfalls to create points of interest.
Don’t miss out on the added time of enjoyment. You don’t need huge waterfalls to create points of interest.

Here are just a few of the many benefits of a
two-pond system or an upper-pond design:

  • Additional Points of Interest and Water Action
  • Creating a desired pond atmosphere is all about
    incorporating the action and sound of water within
    a strong landscape presentation and utilizing seasonal
    color, differing plant heights and a variety of textures.
    Water features with an upper pond double the opportunity
    for waterfalls and landscape plantings, thereby
    expanding the ability to create more points of interest
    while expanding the visual depth of the feature. When
    done to scale, you really don’t need a lot of space to
    make this happen, either.

  • Protecting Plants from Fish
  • As we all know, koi and water garden plants don’t
    always mix well. The koi destroy the plants, and if you
    maintain the recommended plant cover, you can’t
    see well enough to enjoy the koi. At minimum, it is a
    struggle to protect the plants from the fish.

    Well, for we “hybrid water gardeners” who love both
    koi and water gardens with
    plants, the upper pond
    solves a lot of issues. All
    those valued and beneficial
    plants that contribute
    to the beauty and balance
    of the system are now
    protected from the natural
    habits and cravings of koi. And since the plants are in the
    upper pond, it allows for more open water in the main
    pond to actually see your fish. It’s a beautiful thing.

  • Aids Filtration and Reduces Sediments in the
    Main Pond
  • In order to maximize the upper pond’s ability to
    provide additional filtration effectively, there are a
    couple of options.

    Upper ponds create more points of interest. Mentally divide this photo into thirds. How many points of interest can you count in each section?
    Upper ponds create more points of interest. Mentally divide this photo into thirds. How many points of interest can you count in each section?

    Option One — Using a Single-Pump Setup

    With this setup, we can feed the main water flow through the normal channels to the
    filter/waterfall and then the stream,
    diverting some of the water at a much
    slower rate through the upper pond,
    where the sediments are allowed to
    settle out. In his article, Jamie Beyer
    provides some great examples of flow
    rates. The slower rate allows for the
    sediments to settle out, and if you
    incorporate plants — especially Water
    Lettuce and Water Hyacinth with their
    natural long roots — they do a great
    job of assisting in the process.

    Option Two – Using a Two-Pump Setup

    We can utilize a two-pump system
    with each pump feeding its own filter.
    The first pump would feed the main
    stream and waterfall from the skimmer,
    while the second pump would draw off
    the bottom drain and feed the upper
    pond’s filtration prior to falling into the
    upper pond. The advantage here is that
    since the upper pond already has a filter,
    we can allow a little more aggressive flow
    rate for the waterfalls while still benefiting
    from protecting the plants from the fish
    and the additional filtration.

  • Aids in Keeping Water Cooler and
    Oxygen Levels Healthy
  • With an Upper Pond setup, water
    garden plants are now able to thrive since
    they are protected from the destructive
    nature of fish. Thus, they are able
    to become healthier, thicker plants.
    Oxygenators produce more and floating
    plants become a thick shield
    from the heat of the sun,
    thereby allowing the water
    to stay cooler and hold more
    oxygen. And, we are able to
    incorporate plants we never
    thought we could protect.

  • Big-time Nighttime
    Enjoyment with Lighting
  • Since upper ponds provide
    more points of interest, including
    additional waterfalls,
    there is more opportunity
    to be creative with lighting.
    The impact and enjoyment at night is
    dramatic. And don’t forget that lighting
    provides enjoyment all year round. Yes,
    it even brightens up the darkest winter
    days and nights, turning the blowing and
    drifting snow into a thing of beauty.

  • Attracts More Wildlife
  • Upper ponds do have a tendency
    to attract more songbirds and frogs.
    Songbirds are attracted because the water
    is usually slower and shallower, which is conducive to bathing. Frogs are attracted
    because the water is calmer and all those
    plants mean more insects for dinner. Add
    night lighting and it’s a feast!

    So, if the desire is to attract more songbirds,
    as some pond owners do, make
    sure to landscape with plants that provide
    shelter. Also use plants that provide a food
    source, like berries. Provide a safe landing
    area close to the water and a shallower
    beach area, no deeper than 2.5 inches, for

    Ponds become amazing after dark with lighting.
    Ponds become amazing after dark with lighting.

    (Note: Some people may not want to
    attract more birds than necessary, since
    they can contribute to an increase in troublesome
    parasites for the fish. If this is the
    case, scratch the shallow beach area.)

  • Easy Seasonal Cleanout
  • Since upper ponds are naturally higher
    in elevation, incorporating a bottom drain
    with a valve sure makes seasonal cleanouts
    easy. Simply open the valve, let the pond
    drain off down grade and flush the system
    clean. In the spring, do a quick flush, close
    the valve and fill. It’s just that easy.

  • Great Pond Renovation Project — Solving Filtration Issues
  • If you’re working on options for a
    pond renovation project, an upper pond
    might just be a great feature to incorporate
    to add depth of view and more points of
    interest, beef up the filtration and separate
    the plants from the fish.

    One of the most frequent renovation
    project requests comes from the
    need to correct an insufficient filtration
    situation. Sadly, some of these are caused
    by improper installation, and others exist
    because the pond’s demand has outgrown
    the original design, resulting in the pond’s
    inability to stay in balance.

    In many of these cases, it is
    impractical to take out the existing filter
    … or we really don’t want to alter the
    current look of the waterfall. However,
    there may be room off to the side to install
    an upper pond, which could provide just
    enough additional filtration to tip the
    scale back into balance. Another option
    that has been utilized when there is an
    existing stream is to install an upper pond

    When planning an upper pond setup,
    don’t be afraid to be creative. There are
    always a number of options and they’re
    all good ones as long as eco-balance is

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