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
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.
Here are just a few of the many benefits of a
two-pond system or an upper-pond design:
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.
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.
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.
In order to maximize the upper pond’s ability to
provide additional filtration effectively, there are a
couple of options.
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.
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.
Enjoyment with Lighting
Since upper ponds provide
more points of interest, including
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.
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
(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.)
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.
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