Adventures in Building a Biofilter Duck Pond

Adventures in Building a BioFilter Duck Pond - The Urban Ecolife


[ UPDATE : Click here to see pictures of the Permaculture BioFilter Duck Pond – One Year Later ]

I’m sure when my friends decided to undertake this biofilter duckpond project, they had no idea what was to come


Many observed from the sidelines and would remark how they were totally, whole-heartedly and utterly, in over their heads.


There was no denying this fact from our end. We knew full well we were in over our heads.  Our heads were buried in that duck sludge. No one had to tell us that twice. But they were going to prove everyone WRONG. This is a hero story for sure.

For the sweet love of ducks though, my dear friends persevered with me as their willing sidekick. In hindsight, I’d consider myself an over-enthusiastic budding Permaculturist who didn’t understand the meaning of hard labor. But I was willing to learn so that has to count for something, right?


Did I know what I was signing up for? No, of course not. I had never built a biofilter duck pond in my short life. I’d read all about them of course. My knowledge extended to that which I scrolled through online and flipped through in books. In theory though, it all looked completely logical. Everything looks feasible in theory. Understanding the practicalities of actually building one were far from my reach otherwise. 

Attempt at the pond number one

The First Attempt!! (not so successful)

But did I care? Of course not. They needed the (wo)man power and I was more than capable to provide it. Or so I thought. It wouldn’t take long for my back to be reduced to the crippling state of a geriatric well passed her prime.


I was in it for the experience; the opportunity to learn, to get my hands dirty and to participate in some good ol’ ‘hard yakka’. I have, after all, made this my mission for 2014. Sure, I wish I had more experience and knowledge to bring to the ‘pond table’, but look at me. I’m an urban renegade. I’ve hardly come into contact with ducks except feeding them bread crumbs at the park when I was a wee-little one holding the hand of my grandma.


So this project, this back-breaking, rock-kicking, fingernail biting roller-coaster of a project, was a learning experience for all of us. I came to care. No longer was I merely a by-stander or even a rock lifter or dirt shoveler for that matter. Although there was plenty of all that still going on. Like any project you have a part to play in, you want to see it through and you want to see it succeed. They’re little baby had become my little baby too.


So have I left you puzzled and wondering….


What on earth is a BioFilter Duck Pond?


It’s a system that uses natural plants to biologically filter water. That’s only part of the bigger picture though. It’s takes advantage of the symbtiotic relationship between plant, animal and all the little micro-organisms to be found in the water. The duck pond, by way of the duck poop, provides nitrogen for the plants which are in turn, filtering the water throughout the whole process. Gravity pulls the water through this carefully designed biofiltration network containing geographically appropriate plants that thrive in such an aquatic, no-soil environment (you may have heard of this similar set up in Aquaponics and Hydroponcis). When the water eventually gets pumped back into the pond, the ducks are nothing but happy little duckies with fresh, clean water to play in.


As we all know, stagnate water becomes anaerobic in nature and is a breeding ground for all sorts of undesirables to start accumulating. So the biofilter pond uses a combination of gravity and the assistance of a pump to cascade the water back into the pond (yes, a lovely waterfall can make this look pretty). The water is being oxygenated throughout this whole process which in turn, also moves nutrients through the system so they can be recycled. It is, for the most part, self-sufficient minus the input of the pump. There’s no need for harsh chemical inputs that make life in a pond for natural flora, fauna and beneficial micro-organisms otherwise, unlivable.


“While these systems are commonly referred to as bio-filters, they function as bio-purifiers as well. They capture and transform particulates while bio-chemically purifying the water though the work of the microorganisms…” (Source)

The Nitrogen Cycle of a Bio-filter Pond - The Urban Ecolife

Image Credit: OAEC WATER

I highly recommend checking out the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s Water Institute for further resources on building a Biofiltration Pond. Whilst not to the scale of our undertaking and nor for purposes of supporting duck-life, their detailed guide to a Biofilter Koi Pond is a perfect starting point for acquainting yourself with the process. I will of course, do my best to outline our project below by way of the lessons learned in the following.




Many of us have to fuddle our way through this world to gain these experiences. We don’t exit our mother’s womb with the knowledge of how to build a biofilter pond. Many have not even heard of this concept. I was one of those people a little over a year ago. We have to self-learn. As a result, we make mistakes and mistakes we did make. No one is perfect. Especially the amateurs who dream big but have a lovely surprise when reality slaps them in the face with a harsh lesson or two. So in light of my friends’ and my own personal experiences, I thought I’d share them with you in case you ever so daringly take on such a project that others will mutter underneath their breath, “What on earth are they doing that for? They are in over their heads.” At the very least, you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into and can soberly nod your head in agreement.



Do Your Research


Whilst an amateur you might be, you can at least be a well researched one in the process. There are a few basic questions that one needs to ask (and answer) upon taking on such a gigantic project. Some of these that you may way to consider exploring include:

How big do you want the pond?

What kind of pump will you need?
(Note: The water should be able to recycle  the capacity of the pond every 1-2 hours so you’ll have to do the math on the size of your pond compared to the capacity of your bio-filters). 

What plants can you grow in your area that are aquatic by nature?

Do you have the tools or access to the tools necessary to complete the job?
(An excavator makes light work of digging!)

Do you have the financial capacity in the first place?

Can you source the materials for the job locally or even second-hand (where appropriate) for cheap?

What aesthetics are you hoping to achieve?
(This is the part that most commonly blows the budget).

Do you need extra people power and how can you go about getting this with little expense?
(Hint: Get a budding youngster seeking experience or live-on-site friend, aka me, to help you out. Will work for food.)

Stage One: Building the wall for the first filter bed that's attached to the pond

This was our second attempt at leveling the pond. After much deliberation, we decided to build the first biofilter bed attached to the pond after some miscalculations of the sizing of the tubs outside the pond perimeter.


Don’t Get Too Attached To An Idea Or Your First Attempts


Some people will shudder as they read this. Having fully constructed the pond, or so we thought, and filling it with water, we came to the realization that the water level was completely off. It was spilling over here, and well below where we wanted it to be over there. It would not work. The very idea of tearing it up was heart-breaking but the biofilter would not operate under such conditions. So yes, after a couple weeks of non-filtering water, we had to empty the pond (this was the part where we had our heads in duck sludge…. and now let’s never speak of this little tidbit ever again), tear out the pond liner (it took 3 of us to get that big, black, dank thing out. Heavy lifting 1-0-1; many hands make for ‘less painful’ work) and start working the edges all over again. Re-leveling was a task in itself. With no skills in this area what so ever, we were largely guesstimating until a lovely neighbor showed up with an eye-leveling device. HALLELUJAH! Some things should just not be left to your creative brain to approximate.

Relaying pond liner attempt

Relaying the pond liner for the second time


If You Can’t Communicate Clear and Concisely, Now Is Not The Time To Practice


Sorry guys. But if you have trouble articulating your ideas and thoughts, now is not the time to practice. Amid the stress and panic of DIY mayhem, you’ll only invite backlash and deep throat growls.  It’s best you either take some time out to string together a cohesive sentence in your own time, and then, and only then, come back with that brilliant idea of yours, or just learn to suck it up. Yes, even if it means costly failure. Sometimes lessons need to be learned.  Is it worth bringing such doom and gloom onto a relationship? You be the judge. Unless you’ve been wanting to shake off that relationship for quite some time and have just been waiting for an excuse. Then by all means, go right ahead.

Stage 1001 of the Biofilter duckpond. Trying to level and fit the biofilter tubs and making sure they were large enough to hold the capacity of the pond


Be Prepared To Experience Pain As You’ve Never Experienced Before


Some people thing they’re all tough, strong and beastly because they go to the gym everyday and pull a few weights for a few minutes. Ok, I’m being harsh. Maybe for an hour. But when you have to do this work for hours on end, you come to gain a whole new appreciation for physical labor. I can only hope, having the resilient youthful body that I have, that I will one day recover. I’m not one to moan and groan about this kind of thing though. I prefer to just suck it up, get on with the work (all the while gritting my teeth) and then retreat to my cave at the end of the day and whimper in my sleep. My advice? Yoga people. Lots and lots of yoga.

Then there’s the mental and emotional trauma inflicted. That is a whole different kind of pain. My friend reported sleepless slumbers where nightmares haunted her about rooftops caving in from an apocalyptic storm and duck mayhem ensuing. God save us all.

The pump up close

The pump up close as we put it all to the test


Give a Darn About What You’re Doing


Like I mentioned, to start with, I didn’t really see myself as much more than a dirt digger, sand scraper, rock re-arranger and ‘duck-distractor’. Over time, I came to realize, even I had something valuable to contribute to this project. There were things I could observe as an outsider with a fresh set of eyes; emotionally unattached to the project (well, at first anyway. That didn’t last long though). These are good things. I could voice my opinion when the time was appropriate and suddenly, I was actively contributing in more ways than one. I know the work I did do, whilst not always to the satisfaction of my partners in crime, was honest, was to the best of my ability at that time and was whole-hearted. What work I did, I did with care and an attitude of perseverance and respect for the project at whole. Naturally, I came to care about the final product. A lot. Seeing that little biofilter flowing with water nearly brought tears to my eyes. Ok, maybe not quite tears, but it warranted high fives at least. Don’t do a half-assed job. Do it properly so you don’t need to do it again far too soon down the track.



Be Prepared To Burst The Budget


Starting with a budget is always a good idea. Breaking the bank is often inevitable though. Sadly, these mistakes… ahem, I mean lessons, can be quite costly. If you’ve got the financial padding or can justify it, then sure. If you made that budget and planned to stick to it, then maybe not so. Especially if you are undertaking this project solely as a DIY.  You need to toss up whether it’s worth your time or your money to hire a professional. Naturally, you miss out on all the ‘fun’ along the way. But it could save you from selling a kidney on the black market later on.

The Biofilter tubs and piping up close

My friend’s husband did the pipping. Not bad for an amateur!!


Be Prepared For Nature’s Elements


Any construction zone should be ready to brace the harsh elements of mother nature. This is not always avoidable but one can prepare to the best of her ability. As we experienced, the rain came down and it came down hard. Who would have thought that in the middle of one of California’s worst droughts, the few weeks we decided to construct a biofilter duck pond, the rain would plummet down in droves of cats and dogs? Such a cruel existence. So a lot of our hard work was drowned out after the first few days. We were battling with the mud. If you’ve ever been to Northern California in the mountains, you’ll know how horrid that thick, red, clay mud can be. Alas, through problems come solutions. The soften mud at least made it easier for us to rebuild the edges of the pond and provide some reinforcement to the structure.

The biofilter from the bottom up

Testing if we leveled the biofilter tubs correctly and letting gravity do its job. Water moving through the system as we hoped! (rain plummeting down in the meantime)

Final Reflections


Despite the hiccups, the painful errors in calculations and the enduring pain, it just goes to show, that with some determination, you don’t have to be an engineer to undertake building a biofilter duck pond. I’m sure it would help though. In the absense, a team of willing workers, I would strongly suggest otherwise.

The pond filled with water from inside the Duck Coop

Still Under Construction but you get the picture. This is the pond filled with water from inside the Duck Coop

So the project, at the time of me leaving, was looking to be a success. The biofilter was doing its job, albeit minus the ‘filtering plants’ but yes, the pump was pumping. The water level was spot on and all was dandy in duckpond manor. I most certainly look forward to hearing correspondence when the plants and gravel are laid down and the ducks finally get their feet wet again. (Don’t worry, they’ve had make-shift ponds to keep them happy in the meantime). I’ll be sure to update with pictures when that time comes.

Biofilter Duck Pond

Fancy my lovely paving work with the rocks?

The day the duckies are happily splashing around again, this project in hindsight, with all it’s bumps and puddles, will seem like water off a ducks back.


Have you undertaken a big project like this and what’s been your experience? Or better yet, have you built (successfully or unsuccessfully) a biofilter duck pond of some sort?

[ UPDATE : Click here to see pictures of the Permaculture BioFilter Duck Pond – One Year Later ]

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Posted on by Emily Uebergang Posted in EcoLiving, Home & Garden

About Emily Uebergang

Urban hippie by day, wandering gypsy by night. Emily is all about sustainable living and writes like she's out to try and save the world or something. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Google+