We’ve been planning a wildlife pond at the community garden for a long time, and at last, in October and November of this Autumn we were able to set about building it. We’d considered a number of possible sites for the pond, but after much discussion chose a site at the entrance to the garden, at the bottom of the sloping driveway, near the ‘beach’ (sandpit) where parents and carers could keep an eye on young children, and where visitors would see the pond as soon as they entered. Choosing a construction method was easier – last year I’d taken part in a small workshop run by Clive Leeke, building a puddled-clay pond in a friend’s garden. It seemed an ideal method for the Community Garden to use, demonstrating and helping to revive an ancient and sustainable technique. It became even more appropriate once we received a grant from TOE2 (Trust for the Oxfordshire Environment 2) to build and plant pond. TOE2 are sponsored by Grundon, and they undertook to provide the high-quality bentonite clay we needed.
Clive Leeke was commissioned to run the pond-building workshop, and we set about recruiting volunteers for the weekend of the 30 and 31 October. It proved very popular and over 16 people offered to give up all or part of their weekend to help . In the event not all could make it, but we had enough (just) to complete the project over the two days – more on the heroic and back-breaking effort put in by our volunteers later!
However, before we could begin building, we had to get the clay on site. I knew the logistics of this would be challenging, because of the narrow entrance to the site, and the narrow road leading to it. I liaised with the Environmental Coordinator at Grundon, and we thought we’d taken all necessary precautions – alas, when the lorry arrived on Friday morning it couldn’t even get up the street from from the Cowley Road, let alone the street leading to garden and our narrow gateway. However, Grundon were magnificent, and within an hour they’d sorted out an alternative strategy for our 4 tonnes of clay – it was craned off the lorry on to a pallet with a hydraulic lifter underneath, and wheeled down to the garden site. By the end of the morning there were 8 half tonne bags of clay waiting for the workshop to start on Saturday.
Saturday morning dawned mercifully dry and sunny, and at 10am the volunteers had begin to arrive. Clive started off with explaining some health and safety issues (we were using metal spikes, mattocks, and spades to break and clear the ground, which was very dry), and running through the pros and cons of using clay-puddling to build a pond, and methods we were were going to use. The first consideration was to think about the profiling of the pond – what shape did we want, where did we want the deep section, and where did we want to shallower section for marginal planting ? We also needed to provide the sloping sides which would allow amphibians and small mammals to get in and out of the water safely. We decided on having the shallower section nearest the paved area of the garden, and the deep section at the back of the area, near the wildlife corridor and hedge we have been creating in the garden. We began digging! The ground was very dry, and it soon became obvious this was going to be very hard work. However, despite having 12 or so volunteers we couldn’t all work safely in such a tight space, so we divided into two teams – one team dug and transported the spoil to the compost area at the bottom of the garden, and another team began to learn the technique of making the clay tiles which would line and waterproof the pond. Making the tiles was a lot harder than anybody had thought! The clay was very high-quality, and therefore quite dense, and it was also dry because of the autumn drought. Breaking it up into suitable-sized lumps, and then stamping these down into flexible tiles (each about 20 to 25 cm sq, and 4 to 6cm thick) took a lot of effort and skill – and resulted in very sticky boots, hands and garden ! It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘feet of clay’
The morning wore on – we were lucky to have garden volunteer Roger making cups of tea and coffee for us when we need to take a break, and in the afternoon new volunteers arrived. We were very please to welcome Dr Angela Julian, of the Pond Conservation scheme. She arrived to bring copies of their excellent booklet ‘Creating garden ponds for wildlife’ to give to all the volunteers. She’d said beforehand she wouldn’t be able to stay to help as she’d spent the previous weekend digging 25 wildlife ponds in Kent. But it looked fun, so she thought she’d lend a hand for 30 minutes or so. Or an hour. Four hours later…..
So by the end of day 1 we’d finished digging the pond, barrowed all the spoil down to the compost area, and made a considerable stock of clay tiles to use the next day.
At the beginning of day 2 we had that sinking feeling – not all the volunteers had been able to come for a second day, and some of those who had been going to attend for the first time on the second day had dropped out. Would we be able to finish the project? We laid the first tile, and again split into to teams – some to stamp the tiles into the earth to line the pond and some to carry on making tiles. We needed to create enough tiles for three layers! What seemed daunting began to seem possible – again we were lucky in gaining an extra helper, our ‘Garden Guardian’ for the morning couldn’t resist joining in the fun. A great team spirit and determination to complete the project formed amongst the volunteers – they weren’t going home until it was done! And so it was!
At the end of the weekend we had a beautiful pond, lined with clay, covered with soil, waiting for the rain. The following Friday Clive and I returned to put up the safety fencing, and clear the now very slippery clay off the hard-standing, so all would be safe and ready for the garden’s bonfire night on 5 November.
We’re producing handouts on the techniques and skills of puddled-clay pond building – visit the Barracks Lane Community Garden website in January 2012 to download a copy. The Pond Conservation Society are going to help us organise a ‘species-dipping day’ in the Spring to see what we’ve got, again visit the Barracks Lane website for details once this is organised. We’re also going to plant up the pond in the Spring, although we’re hoping that we’ll get a lot of natural colonisation fro the he nearby rainwater ditch on Barracks Lane.
Thanks to everybody who helped = we’ll be asking you all back for a pond-warming party in Spring 2012 !