Iridescent dragonflies dance above starry, jewel-toned waterlilies, while pond skaters zip along their watery rink, meanwhile Papryus flowerheads burst from slender, green stems like Fourth of July fireworks. A pond adds so much beauty and life to a garden.
But ponds can also be a lot of work, especially in-ground ponds prone to leaking liners and pump stoppages. Instead, why not make a pond in a pot and enjoy it on your patio? Container ponds are simple to set up and relatively easy to maintain.
Choose a Sunny Spot
Water gardens crave sunlight. And if you want to grow flowering plants like waterlilies, your container pond needs at least six hours of sun. Morning or afternoon sun is good, but dappled shade will significantly reduce flowering.
A sunny edge of your patio can be a great spot for a container pond, allowing up-close enjoyment. Otherwise, place it in a garden bed near your patio or deck. Even better, align your container pond with a window so you can enjoy it indoors as well. Make sure a hose spigot is nearby so you can easily top up the water.
Pick Your Pot
Any water-holding vessel will work – an old washtub, a whiskey half barrel, a metal cattle trough, or a glazed pot with no drainage hole. You can also purchase a ready-made, fiberglass pond bowl that makes set-up even easier.
If you use a wooden half barrel, you’ll need a pre-made polyethylene liner (which you can find at home-improvement stores) or a PVC liner to protect plants and fish from harmful chemicals leaching out of the wood.
Your vessel should be a minimum of 12 inches deep and 12 to 24 inches in diameter to grow a waterlily or lotus. Even dwarf waterlilies need room for their leaves to spread out.
Choose Your Beautiful Plants
Depending on the size of your container pond, plan on adding one to six aquatic plants. A contemporary metal dish displaying a tropical waterlily may be your idea of simple perfection. Or, if you have more room, as with a half barrel or cattle trough, you can have fun arranging a mix of plants.
For larger container ponds, I recommend the following:
One surface plant like a dwarf waterlily (Nymphaea spp.) or floating water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes).
Two to three taller marginal plants like dwarf papyrus (Cyperus papyrus ‘Dwarf’), elephant ear (Colocasia spp.), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), and lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus).
One or two submerged oxygenating plants such as anacharis (Elodea densa).
Have fun picking them out at your local pond nursery or online, or get to know other pond gardeners, who always have extra plants to give away in spring, when pond plants need dividing.
In nature, marginal plants grow along pond edges, where the water just covers their root crowns. So depending on the depth of your container pond, you’ll likely need to make platforms for your marginal plants. Use stacks of old bricks, small concrete blocks, or even overturned sturdy pots to elevate marginals to the proper height. Then add water and plants!
Add a Few Fish if You Wish
Fish add color and movement to your container pond, and they are fun to watch. But small ponds can be tricky for fish, so consult with your local pond nursery or fish supplier before adding live creatures. If the volume of water is small, native gambusia fish, also called mosquitofish, are a good choice.
Although they lack the bright colors of goldfish and koi, they tolerate warm, shallow water and have a wonderful appetite for mosquito larvae. Goldfish prefer cooler, oxygenated water, so they will be happiest in a container pond that’s shaded in the afternoon and that has a recirculating pump fountain, especially in hotter climates.
While koi are beloved for larger ponds, they’re not really suitable for a container pond because they need room to grow and they’ll devour pond plants. Let your pond acclimate for a few days before adding fish, and treat the water with a dechlorinator first. Bear in mind that a pond with fish will require regular cleaning.
It only takes a few teaspoons of water for mosquitoes to produce more of their blood-sucking kin, so don’t contribute to the problem. Cut back over hanging plants to avoid creating shelter for them and trim any debris or dead bits from your water plants. Add gambusia fish or mosquito dunks (or both) to your container pond to keep larvae from hatching.
Gambusia eat mosquito larvae, which look like small, wriggling caterpillars in the water. Mosquito dunks, which resemble tan doughnuts, are an organic mosquito larvicide that’s harmless to pets, fish, birds, and other wildlife. Break off a chunk and toss it in your pond to keep larvae from hatching into adult mosquitoes for up to 30 days.
Container Pond Maintenance
Top up the water level as necessary to make up for evaporation and aim to replace around 15% of the water weekly for good water quality. Aside from keeping on top of fallen debris and leaves, container ponds are pretty low maintenance. If you're worried about algae, plant up floating beauties such as the lily or lotus. The shade will limit the growth of algae while the plants will make your pond a statement piece.
In warmer climates, you can overwinter hardy plants and fish in container ponds that are at least two feet deep. For shallower ponds, non-hardy plants and fish can be overwintered in tubs of water in your garage or basement. Check with your local pond nursery for winterizing advice for your region.
Photos: © Pam Penick