Make a Small Water Garden or Fish Pond

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Written by:  empressofdirt
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Would you like a little water feature in your garden?

Adding a small pond is one of the best things I ever did for my garden. With the addition of fresh, flowing water, it immediately became the central, neighborhood hangout for all of the wild things—birds, bees, butterflies, insects, and more—that are essential for pollination and the overall health of a garden

Plus, a water feature is simply beautiful. 

Small container ponds or water features are quite simple to set up and easy to maintain. I will walk you through the basics to give you an idea of what is involved so you can decide which style of pond would be best for your garden. 

Note that small in-ground ponds are generally under 1000 gallons. Larger ponds have different requirements than I have listed here.
Click on the image to see a collection of recommended supplies
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Click on the image to see a collection of recommended supplies

Supplies

You can see a collection of recommended supplies  here.

  • Pond container or liner - also see preformed liners.
  • Paving stones to place around the edge of the pond (optional)
  • Two (2) submersible, recirculating pumps (choice depends on your pond size—see #4 below)
  • Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter electrical outlet (weatherproof, outdoor)
  • Water
  • Water plants and aquatic plant containers
  • Stones to hold aquatic plants in the baskets
  • Bricks (optional, for positioning plants)
  • Fish (optional, if pond is suitable size and location—see #8 below)
Can't dig or don't want to? Put your pond in a raised bed
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Can't dig or don't want to? Put your pond in a raised bed

1. Before You Start

Any pond or water feature has to be safe and legal.
  • Be sure to check with your local bylaw office and homeowner's association to ensure ponds or water features are actually permitted where you live.
  • Get any necessary permits and be certain that the placement of your pond will not pose any risk. Children and pets can be a particular concern. 
  • If you will be using a pump (more on this below), your water feature will need to be accessible to an outdoor  GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) electrical outlet. Contact a certified electrician to install one.
  • Keep in mind that you will also need access to clean water to fill up the pond when it's ready to go.
Simple ponds can be made from containers or pond liners
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Simple ponds can be made from containers or pond liners

2. Pond Containers

There are quite a few options for pond containers. 
  • Above-ground ponds or water features simply need a water-tight container large enough (height and depth) to hold the plants you want to display. It is not advisable to keep fish in containers this small.
  • In-ground garden ponds can be made from preformed pond containers or pond liners. Either way, you'll need to dig a hole in the ground to fit the shape and depth of the pond. You may also need rocks or pavers to place around the edge of the pond.
  • Another option is a partial in-ground pond. I built one of my ponds by using a pond form placed in a raised, wood-framed garden bed (pictured above). This is a great solution if you can't dig or bend to reach the pump for maintenance.
Choose an open location away from falling tree leaves and debris
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Choose an open location away from falling tree leaves and debris

3. Choosing a Location

So long as it's safe, put your pond where you can enjoy it! I've been on so many garden tours where the gardener reveals that they put the pond way at the back of the yard thinking it would be too noisy near the patio, and as a result they never get to spend time near it. 

Here's some good reasons to put your water feature near the house 

1. Small pumps are not actually very noisy, plus, you can adjust the sound of the water by increasing or decreasing the spray or waterfall. 
2. Pond fish are magnets for hungry wildlife. The closer your pond is to the house, the less inviting it is for the critters. 
3. Wherever you put it, make sure your little pond is fully accessible. You'll want to be able to easily reach the pump (for cleaning) and remove any debris (like fallen leaves, which can be toxic for fish). 
4. If you're building an in-ground pond, be sure the location is free from tree roots (that could damage it) and underground conduits (which may obstruct it).
Let the water circulate for a few weeks before adding pond fish
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Let the water circulate for a few weeks before adding pond fish

4. Just Add Water

  • After setting up your pond, remove any dirt or debris and then you're ready to add water.
  • If you're using tap water, it will probably have chlorine in it (which is not healthy for aquatic plants or fish).
  • After filling, leave the pond alone for at least 2 full days so the chlorine can off-gas before adding plants, and allow a few weeks, if possible, before adding fish  (see #7 and #9 for details).
Select a pond pump suitable for your pond size and setup
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Select a pond pump suitable for your pond size and setup

5. Use a Submersible, Recirculating Pump

A submersible recirculating pump is essential for keeping the water healthy. These pumps not only circulate the water (keeping it oxygenated), but also filter out excess pond gunk (if the pump contains a sponge filter), plus the movement of the water helps deter mosquitoes from settling on the surface. The pump is also used to create spraying fountains and waterfalls (with the addition of a length of pump hose). 

Pumps are sold according to the volume of water and how far it has to be carried.  

 Features such as waterfalls increase the load on the pump.  Check with your pump seller to confirm you are purchasing a pump suitable for your setup. For example, my pond is around 400 gallons and the pump I use is 450 gph (gallons per hour) to accommodate a small, waterfall.  

As soon as your pond is filled with water, you should start using the pump. You may keep it running 24 hours a day, or experiment with leaving it off intermittently to save energy. The goal is to keep the water clear (naturally, without chemicals added) and the pond life (fish and plants) healthy. It will take some experimenting to find the best arrangement for your pond. 

If you will be keeping fish in your pond and/or keeping it filled in the winter months (in a cold climate), you will need a second pump on hand in case of emergency. If one pump fails, you want the backup available immediately so that there is no risk of your plants or fish freezing (and dying). So long as the water is circulating, the fish can survive.
Pond plants require various depths to grow properly
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Pond plants require various depths to grow properly

7. Pond / Aquatic Plants

There are a lot of choices in aquatic pond plants. The trick is to find plants you like that will thrive in your environment but not invade the pond.  

Some aquatic plants are actually toxic for fish (and can cause the water to become murky), so you'll want to do your homework first. 

Tropical aquatic plants can be very beautiful but will need special care (and possible indoor storage) during the winter months.  

Some aquatic plants can become invasive, crowding out anything else you are growing. Again, this depends on your region and conditions, so ask your plant seller or research your choices before purchasing if you are unsure. 

I'm a big fan of classic water plants like water lilies. The hardy varieties will spread gradually, and provide more and more flowers each year.
Choose nice, strong baskets that won't break as your plants grow
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Choose nice, strong baskets that won't break as your plants grow

7. Aquatic Plant Baskets

Pond plants are planted in aquatic plant baskets and held in place with stones. You may see 'aquatic soil' in shops, but I've personally never used it. The plants get their nutrients from the water and soil may just muck things up. 

Each type of aquatic plant has a different planting depth requirement. You can use items like bricks to create support ledges as needed.
Make sure you have enough room for the fish to grow and keep your pond healthy
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Make sure you have enough room for the fish to grow and keep your pond healthy

8. Pond Fish

The decision to have pond fish will depend on the size and type of pond you choose, your climate, and your willingness to ensure they receive proper care all year round.  

Guidelines vary, but basically, the more room you can provide (per fish), the better. This is not just for the health of your pond, but the welfare of the fish. Plus, living in a crowded, murky pond is not fun (I'm guessing). 

My in-ground pond is 450 gallons and I keep around 5 fish in it all year round, even in Canadian winters. The gold fish go dormant in the cold but survive just fine because the water never freezes due to the depth of the water (over 24") and the fact that it is never allowed to freeze solid (a pump is always running). 

Choosing Fish 
I get my pond fish at the pet store. They are actually sold as 'feeder fish' and cost about 25 cents each. I suggest you start with inexpensive gold fish (in a cold water pond) and gain experience over a year or two before adding more expensive fish like koi.  

When adding fish to a pond, follow your seller's instructions for gradually introducing them to their new environment, avoiding shock, spread of disease, or sudden death. 

Should I feed my fish? 

No. If your pond is healthy and naturalized, there is no need for fish food: the natural flora in the pond will provide what they need. This is another reason to wait a few weeks before adding fish: you need the flora to build up first. The addition of commercial fish food can create excess waste in the water. Plus, nature knows what it's doing if you leave it alone. It's natural for some gunk to build up around the sides of the pond and the fish are happy to eat it.
Ponds provide essential habitat for birds, bees, insects, and more
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Ponds provide essential habitat for birds, bees, insects, and more

9. Pond Maintenance

If your pond stays free of garden debris such as leaves and grass, maintenance can be minimal.
  • I clean out my filter every week or two, and maintain the plants as needed.
  • During hot days, the water will evaporate. I collect rain water (which is chlorine-free) in a rain barrel and use it to top up the pond as needed.
  • If you're going to be away from home more than a day or two, you should have someone check on your pond daily and make sure the pump is working fine, especially if you have fish. I hope this has helped you decide about your own garden water feature. After adding my first pond and seeing how it transformed life in the garden, I'd never want to go without one again.

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