The following article was originally printed in The Gateway Gardener Magazine in March, 2012. Our friend, Robert Weaver, is the editor of this St. Louis area magazine. We collaborated with Robert on the installation of the Pondless Bubbler and the instructional video. Here is a link to the video to preview the construction process. The second video shows a filter modification that Robert did about a year after the initial installation. We include the modification in these revised instructions and have additional photos at the end of this post. Both systems require maintenance, as mentioned in Part One on the Bubbler Pond and Basin. You may find some tips in these videos that would be helpful in constructing either water feature.
Build a Pondless Bubbler for Birds
Margy & Dan Terpstra
One of the most rewarding aspects of having a garden is the joyous presence of birds. A surefire way to keep them coming into view all year long is to provide fresh moving water. It doesn’t take ‘Niagara Falls’ to get their attention. Their survival depends on water and they are tuned into the trickling, gurgling sounds they might hear at a natural spring or stream. Once a bird finds a safe place that provides cover, food, and water, he will not only remember it, but will pass this information along genetically to his offspring!
We’ve had great success in attracting many species of birds with a small bubbler pond we put in eleven years ago – 108 to date. It’s in our woodland, surrounded by native plants. Recently, we helped Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, build this small pondless bubbler. It’s in his garden, easily viewed from his office window. There are small trees, shrubs and perennials nearby for the birds to take cover in and it looks naturally placed. The bubbler also fits in a relatively small area and is less costly than a pond.
Robert acquired all the necessary components and once we began construction, the new bubbler was up and running within 4 hours. It will operate all year, even on the coldest days because the heater we chose comes on automatically when the water temperature drops to 35 degrees F.
List of Materials: (for an approximately 5 ft. diameter pondless bubbler):
- Attractive ‘bubbler’ rock – approximately 8 - 10 inches thick (look for a rock with a natural depression in the top and channels for the water to run down)
- Pond liner - 10’ x 12’ (40 mil thick) (Thinner material is available, but not recommended)
- 5 Gallon Bucket with lid – clean and chemical free
- 1 Gallon sturdy plastic bucket with lid to house the pump inside the 5 gallon bucket (This ‘fix’ was added and does not appear in the video)
- Landscape fabric- 18” x 36” piece to wrap around the bucket and another smaller piece to wrap the 1 gallon bucket that holds the pump
- Duct tape (to hold landscape fabric in place while securing hardware cloth)
- 1/4” or 3/8” mesh hardware cloth- 18” x 40” piece to wrap around the bucket over the landscape fabric
- Sheet metal screws - 6 - #8 x 1/2”
- Nylon “zip” tie - 6” (or other suitable non-deteriorating tie)
- Small fountain pump rated around 170 GPH
- Deicer or Pond heater - thermostatically controlled, plastic safe, and rated between 300 and 1250 watts (warmer climates may get by without a heater; if your ground doesn’t freeze in the winter, then a heater isn’t required)
- Tubing - 3 to 5 ft. of ½” I.D. black tubing to run from pump up through the bubbler rock
- One brick to set the pump bucket on - this raises it and also helps to keep small debris out
- Lava rock - approximately 1 cu. ft. to fill around the bucket for the “bio-filter”
- River Gravel in two sizes: Most material suppliers grade gravel by size. Look for what may be called 3/4” gravel for the smaller size and 1-1/2” for the larger size. Get twice as much 3/4 as 1-1/2. (You’ll need approximately 8 - 12 cu. ft. of gravel or 800 - 1200 lbs.)
- A ‘magic’ perching branch
- Heavy duty Hammer Drill
- 5/8"-3/4” dia. X 12” Masonry Bit (to drill hole through bubbler rock)
- 3/8” or 1/2” Drill
- Hole Saw(s): 7/8”, 1-1/4”, & 1-1/2” diameter
- Tin snips (to cut hardware cloth)
- Scissors (to cut landscape fabric and pond liner)
- 2’ Spirit level and 4’ - 6’ straight 2x4 (or 4’ - 5’ level and no board) to check level of bubbler edge
Note: The pump and heater require electricity so you will need to have an outdoor electrical outlet that is protected by a GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupt) circuit. Most local codes require professional installation by a licensed electrician. The cords on the pump and heater are often only around 10 feet long so plan accordingly. Check with local building authority and/or neighborhood organization for other rules that may apply to the installation.
Prepare the “bubbler” rock and buckets:
- Use the hammer drill to drill a hole straight through the chosen bubbler rock. You can determine where the hole should be by placing the rock in the orientation you plan to have it and trickling some water from a watering can or pitcher onto the rock where the hole is to be drilled. See how the water runs off the rock and adjust the location to give a nice flow off of the rock.
- Prepare the buckets by drilling a series of 1½” dia. holes around the outside in a pattern of 3 rows of 5 holes each in the 5 gallon and 2 rows of 4 holes in the 1 gallon. Drill two holes in the bucket lids; one 7/8” hole for the tubing and one 1¼” hole for the electrical cord(s).
- Wrap the 5 gallon bucket in landscape fabric and secure side seam and bottom folds with duct tape.
- Cover the wrapped bucket with the hardware cloth, cut out around the bucket handles to fit, overlap the ends and secure with sheet metal screws at several places around the bucket.
Prepare the hole:
- At the chosen bubbler site, dig a hole approximately twice the diameter of the bucket and a few inches deeper than the bucket’s height.
- Remove more soil to make a ledge around the hole approx. 5 ft. in diameter and a few inches deep, sloping toward the hole.
- Build up a 3”- 4” high berm at the perimeter of the excavated area to help keep debris from washing into the bubbler basin.
- Position the bucket in the hole to check that the top is about 3” - 4” below the top of the berm. Also check that the perimeter is level across the entire basin area using a spirit level and straight 2x4.
- Remove bucket.
- Lay the pond liner across the excavated area and carefully work it down into the hole. There will be quite a bit of overlap in the material as you work it into the hole. Stand in the hole and work the material around the edges until it lays reasonably flat with the folds evenly distributed. The liner should cover the berm and extend a few inches beyond it.
Note: Wait until everything is in place before doing a final trim of the liner.
Complete the assembly:
- Place the bucket in the lined hole. Put in the pump with tubing attached and fill the bucket and hole with water just to the top of the bucket. Plug in and test the pump, adjusting the flow control so that the water spouts up 3” above the end of the tube when held at the height of the “bubbler” rock.
- Take the pump with tubing attached and place it inside the 1 gallon bucket. Wrap a piece of landscape fabric around small bucket and pull it up around the cord and tubing. Secure the fabric around the cord and tubing with a nylon “zip” tie. (This protects the pump from any silt that may get through the other filter fabric and should allow a longer interval between cleanings) Place the brick inside the large bucket and put the pump bucket on top of it.
- Place the heater in the bucket where it will float above the pump. Feed the plugs and tubing through the holes in the lid. Secure the lid. Stuff a small piece of landscape fabric into the cord and tubing holes to keep gravel and debris out.
- Surround the bucket evenly with the lava rock. Be sure it comes up above the holes in the side of the bucket. The lava rock creates the biological filter.
- Place larger gravel on top of lava rock. Lower the bubbler rock over the tubing and position it where desired on top of the bucket. It’s also OK to place the “bubbler” rock to one side of the bucket and run the tubing through the gravel and then up through the rock.
- Make sure the tubing isn’t kinked under the rock. This may make access to the pump a bit easier if needed. Add smaller gravel under the bubbler rock until it’s at the level you want it. Fill the rest of the basin with a mixture of the two sizes of gravel up to the top of the berm.
- Add water to fill the basin. Decide where you want a “spillway” and make an “overflow” spot in the berm where the water will run out when it rains.
- Contour the gravel to make a few puddle areas for the birds to bathe in.
- Distribute mulch around the perimeter of the bubbler basin, covering the edge of the liner and up to the edge of the gravel.
- Position your “magic” branch where the birds can perch to check out the water and watch the birds come in!
Water should be added as needed even in the winter. We highly recommend adding only natural microbial products such as Microbe-Lift Autumn/Winter Prep in cold seasons and Microbe-Lift/PL in the warmer seasons. They create a cleaner environment for the pondless bubbler, helping to break down the buildup of bird droppings and dead leaves. If algae becomes a problem, use their Oxy-Pond Cleaner. If the flow seems weak, first try to back-flush the tubing with a garden hose. If that doesn’t help, the pump will need to be pulled, checked and cleaned.
For information on how a biological filter works and Microbe-Lift products, see their website at www.microbe-lift.com
Never add chlorine bleach. However, a few ounces of 3% hydrogen peroxide added once or twice a month helps oxygenate the water.
Two more videos to show some of the birds that visited the Weavers' Bubbler in the first 48 hours and a week later.
Here are a couple photos showing another type of small bucket bought at Lowe's to be used for the pump and filter modification.
Another idea that we have seen would be to use a strong, crate-like structure called Eco-Blox within the basin to be able to hold more water and allow for more beneficial bacteria within the basin itself. The pump bucket would sit next to it and they both would then be covered with gravel and be hidden. Here's a link:
We have seen other styles of Pondless Water Features, some done professionally. This Pondless type can be done in a smaller space since the finished size is about 5 feet in diameter. If you add the Eco-Blox, it will need to be a bit larger. We hope we've given you enough information to consider a water feature for the birds in your specific yard situation. We wish you success and the birds will thank you!