Digging It

Digging It

by John Howell

I’m sure you have all read numerous books, articles, and maybe even seen a few “How to..” videos. You know the type;

Step #1 – “Outline your proposed pond with a rope or hose and dig it out.”
Step #2 – “Smooth it out with sand and apply plastic liner”.
Step #3 – “Fill with water”

Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m sorry but in my experience these books are lacking some steps between #1 & #2. Those pictures of the hose on the ground followed by the picture with the nice clean hole with plastic liner are more than just time lapse photographt.

What happened to the grunt work? What about all the roots and clay that was in that hole? Where’d they put all the dirt? How about those big rocks, roots, and burried debris? What about the rain storms that happened in the intervening days and collapsed the walls of the pond? How about the complaints from the wife about the dirt in the drive way & the tire tracks in the yard? Basically, HOW IN THE HECK DID THAT PERFECT LOOKING HOLE GET THERE?

They make it look very simple. Just draw the line, dig the hole, and lay the liner. Yea, right! Draw and lay I understand, but dig? Dig is an abbreviation for “break your back leaning on a shovel for several days”. Of course if you are going to make a big hole, one that city folk call a ‘lake’ and farmers call a ‘tank’, then you simply rent a backhoe for an hour or two. But if you want something on the scale of a 500 to 5000 gallon water garden, then you have some real work to tackle.

I have tried several methods to create the perfect hole in the ground. Being a businessman, I wanted optimum “hole” with minimum effort. First, I tried the method of “hire a teenager”. It is amazing the energy level of a teenager on a basketball court. It is also amazing that a teenager working by the hour has no energy at all. And not so amazingly, a teenager has little ability to judge short distances. To him two feet deep is equivalent to the length of a shovel blade.

Another costly and time consuming method is “rent a tiller to break the dirt up first”. A tiller merely turns over the top inch of soil. I’m no dummy and quickly realized after 6 hours of sweat that breaking it one inch at a time and then lifting it with a shovel is redundant and time consuming.

I even tried a combination of teenager and tiller. This provided me with one nicely tilled path clear across the entire yard. Next time I try that one I’ll find out if the teenager knows the purpose of the stick by the letters D, N, and R.

I basically tried it all. I take that back, I never got to try the method suggested in one book called “get friends and neighbors to help for only the cost of a six pack”. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any friends or neighbors that thought sweating in my yard all day poking at my gumbo soil with a shovel, just to earn an “ice cold one” was a good deal. Maybe the author of that book lived in Jeff Foxworthy’s neighborhood.

When I finally ran out of teenagers, friends, and money and was left all alone with, my wheel barrow, my shovel, and my determination, I found the answer. Kind of a Zen thing, kind of a Man against Hole thing. The answer was simple; “A whole is made one shovel full at a time.” Now, maybe this was already obvious to you experienced pond builders, but it wasn’t to me.

I stopped trying to dig the entire 8 square feet at once. I stopped trying to dig the entire 2 foot depth at once. I didn’t even start at the center & try work to work in all directions. No, I simply went to one corner and removed just a little dirt, not even a full shovel at first. Staying along the edge, I moved barely a blades width to one side & removed a little more dirt. I didn’t go deeper, I just went side ways. The hole soon became a ditch about the depth and width of the shovel running clear along the side of the once & future pond. Right along the garden hose from Step 1.

I found this to actually be something close to easy. With the shallow ditch clear across the edge of the pond, I repeated the process. Starting at the corner again & removing only a little, I worked back and forth. I only cut off about one inch of soil with each pass & not quite a shovel’s depth, the work was simple. Trying to dig back more than an inch or deeper than the shovel, would require leverage and effort. This would also cause the dirt to break away & tumble into the hole and thus take a second shovel stroke to pick it up again.

Just an inch deep filling most of the shovel back and forth, back and forth until that trench turned into a shovel deep pond. Then back to the first corner again & start the next shovel depth of the pond. It didn’t take a lot of pressure on the shovel and it didn’t take a lot of back muscle to lift it. And so it went.

Looking back at the success gained through reduced effort reminded me of something my Mom always told me when I was in a hurry to take out the trash, “A heavy load is a lazy man’s load”. Now I really and truly understand what she meant.

Of course my instructions may still sound simple for you especially if you have more rocks than soil. Let me give an unusual piece of advice, DON’T try to dig them out. Dig the dirt, leave the rock. Pretty soon the whole rock is exposed and easy to remove. For a root, cut it at the edge of the pond & dig right past it, leaving it lie. Enough will eventually be exposed as the trench grows to allow you to cut it again at the other end & remove it like the rock. A stuck rock or root is merely the symptom of the problem – dirt. Attack the problem and the symptom will take care of itself.

For those of you with gravel soil that has no dirt to dig, I have heard many suggestions. Dynamite is actually legal in some areas and requires only a simple permit. Personally, loud noises scare me. If gravel or some other untameable ground is your problem, let me tell you how many beautiful above ground ponds I have seen.

For the rest of you dealing with the dirt vs shovel challenge, let me offer a phrase of motivation;

“Just dig it”
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