Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Easy Water Gardening

While cleaning out the goldfish pond yesterday (the one currently up there in my header image picture) and setting up a new one, I thought it would be a good idea to do a post about it.  So I started taking pictures.

Water gardening is easy!  And fun.  It brings in lots of wildlife, gives you muck to add to the compost pile when you do the big spring clean-out, and adds a touch of serenity to your landscape.  Want a goldfish pond for your yard?  It's as easy as going to Tractor Supply or your local feed store, buying a galvanized horse trough, and filling with water.  Voila!  Insta-Pond!

Besides being easy to set up, horse-trough ponds are portable.  This is handy if you're renting ~ you can just empty it, put the fish in a bucket and plants in garbage bags to contain the wetness, and off you go.

And if you've always wanted an in-ground pond but aren't sure where you want it, get a trough, set it where you think you'd like your pond, and live with it for a while first.  It'll help you find pitfalls that you'll only encounter when actually doing it.  Believe me, it's MUCH better to find out BEFORE you spend uber-bucks on a liner and many backbreaking hours digging that the pecan tree hanging over that "perfect" spot drops tons of leaves right into the pond.

As with anything new you learn, there is a learning curve.  But if you follow this advice above all else ~ LOTS of plants, few fish ~ you'll do fine.


Materials and price list ~ everything here varies so much, so these are only guesstimates:

Horse trough ~ 2'x2'x4' long ............................. $100 or so
     You may find one cheaper on Craigslist.  BTW, mine are 2'x2'x6' and 2'x8'-round.  They're bigger, so will be more expensive, but the bigger the pond, the more plants and fish you can have.  Get the size you want.  It'll be worth it since it'll last ten-plus years.

Plants and pots ane bricks...................................$50?
     This varies so much that it's hard to say for sure, but you should be able to get plenty of plants for fifty bucks.  And if you know a friend who has a pond, they'll likely give you plenty of starts for free.  Cinder blocks and bricks are cheap.  And surely you  have pots laying around...

Fish ........................................................................ $1
     Seriously, only a buck.  Just get a couple feeder goldfish at PetSmart.  They're only 25 cents.  You can go more expensive with fancy goldfish if you want, but I'd advise against koi unless you get a BIG tank.

Put pots on cinder blocks.
Float Valve ............................................................. $20
Hose to Float Valve ............................................... $20
     This is entirely optional, but if you put your pond in an out-of-the-way spot, like in your backyard where you only visit it on weekends, it's a good idea to keep a constant level for wildlife.

Water treatment ................................................... $10?
     If you have chlorinated water, you'll need to treat it before adding fish and plants.  Since I have well water and don't use the stuff to treat it, I have no idea how much it'll cost.

Fish Food ................................................................ $10
     Get the floating kind so you can easily fish it out if you overfeed.  Plus, it's nice to see the fish come to the top to get it.  Ten bucks will get you enough to last years for just a couple fish. 


Some more thoughts...

Float valve (automatic water refiller).
A mature pond, one that's been there for a few months at least, is an ecosystem in and of itself.  Insects and frogs move in, laying eggs in the water that hatch, providing some food for the fish.  The fish poop in the water.  Every surface below the water eventually gets colonized by beneficial bacteria that filter out that fish poop and other nutrients from rotting plant refuse.  They turn those things into plant food that the plants then filter out of the water, using that food to grow.  As long as you keep a good balance of few fish and many plants, the pond pretty much takes care of itself. 

It's always good to feed the fish a little, but go easy on it.  Too much food and it'll foul the water.  And don't feed them if it's cold, since they won't be able to digest it and it'll make them sick ~ I use a water temp of 60 degrees as my cutoff.

Same with fertilizing the plants.  Most of my pond plants go crazy even if I don't feed them.  When cleaning out the pond, I found that some plants in one pot had grown so much that they'd busted through the pot.  Good thing it was a plastic one.  But still sometimes I'll add a little bit of food to the soil when repotting in spring, especially for the blooming plants.  You can use those tablet fertilizers specifically formulated for ponds, but I like wrapping up a half tablespoon or so of a granular organic fertilizer in a paper towel and burying three or four of those little packages in a pot.

Speaking of potting those plants, you don't have to just use ugly old plastic ones.  Those work best for lilies since you're just going to sink the pot to the bottom of the pond.  But for margnials and bog plants, ones that grow out of the water, you can put them in a pretty pot and set it up on bricks and blocks so that it shows out of the water.  Many marginal plants and bog plants actually grow better that way than the traditional way ~ setting the pot low enough that water covers the rim. 

Yummy icky stuff for the compost pile!
When potting plants to put in your pond, don't use potting soil or any other kind of soil that's high in organic matter.  It'll float out of the pot, dirtying the water, and what does stay put will eventually rot, adding too many nutrients to the soil that contribute to an algae bloom.  Just find the poorest soil in your landscape and use that.  Really.  The rockier, the better.

A note about fish: I know those koi are gorgeous, especially those gold ogon butterfly ones, but don't get them unless you buy a BIG trough.  They may be small now, but they grow fast, and man can they get big.  They need a lot of room to swim enough to stay healthy, and they create a lot of waste which can make them stressed and sick (and even kill them), so it's really inhumane to keep them in a small pond. 

Another note about fish: Start with only a couple small goldfish, an inch or so long, max.  DON'T do what I did when I first started ponding ~ buy a dozen four-inchers from the bait shop and put them all in a small, newly-filled tank.  There are no bacteria to filter out the fish waste, so the water fouls quickly.  And when you have too many fish (and a dozen that size in a small tank is WAY too many), the water fouls even more fast.  How fast?  Well, I watched most of the fish die that first week, despite doing many water changes (putting a hose in it and letting it overflow to "rinse" the water clean).  I still feel guilty for that. 

And when cleaning out the pond, don't take the word "cleaning" too literally.  Just get rid of the much at the bottom.  You don't want to scrub the sides.  That slime on there is really colonies of beneficial bacteria, the ones I mentioned before that clean out the fish poop.  If you scrub the sides and remove the bacteria, you'll likely experience an algae bloom while waiting for those bacteria to grow back.  No one likes pea soup in a pond.  Ick.

Now I'm off to shop for a water lily and some more fish!  And maybe a little fountain set-up.  And a bird bath specifically for the ponds.  And...


Here's what the new large tank pond looks like a week or so later.  
This is NORMAL and will clear up on it's own over time.

At the same time, the existing tank that I'd just cleaned out and moved was a lot clearer, though not completely clear.  The difference in water clarity is because of those beneficial bacteria I told you about earlier.  The smaller, older tank had a full colony of them all over the sides of the tank, so when I drained it, got the goop off the bottom, set it back up and refilled it, the bacteria were already there, and started filtering and changing nutrients right away.  They did take a bit of a hit because of the draining, removing old bricks (I should have put the same ones back in, but didn't), and refilling, so the water wasn't completely clear.  But it was a lot clearer than the new big tank.  

The new pond doesn't have those colonies of bacteria all over the sides of the tank, so any nutrients in the water don't get changed into plant food.  They're still there, in the form of "bacteria food" which happens to be the same form algae likes, hence the algae bloom.  (Another reason for the algae bloom is all the sun hitting the water.)

Given time, those bacteria will colonize the sides and all other surfaces under the water and the water will start to clear (Also, once I get some lilies and more plants in there, they'll grow in and start shading the water to block that aforementioned sun, and the algae will lessen even more.).  That's one reason for the chunk of plants floating in there ~ to inoculate the water with those bacteria and give them a jump start (and because I didn't have time to repot them ;).  

Don't worry if you don't have anything to inoculate the water with.  If you can find it at a water garden nursery, you can buy a bottle of "bacteria starter" or "filter starter", a liquid (usually) that contains these beneficial bacteria.  Or you can just let nature take it's course.  I like letting nature do it.  Cheaper and easier.  

I also plan to gather up all the shards of broken clay pots, put them in a big plastic pot or basket, and sink them in the big pond.  The broken ones that are still mostly whole I'll put in there in such a way that they form "caves" for the fish to hide in.  This will add more surface area for more bacteria.  Since the big pond is the koi pond and they poop a lot (A LOT), that will help things in there.  And gives me a use for all those broken pots!




  1. Galvanized tanks leach zinc - I won't use for dog water...when combined with minerals in limestone water, the zinc really leaches...not so good for fish or other animals...birds....Galvanized = zinc.

  2. Thank you for your concern, Anonymous, but I don't think there's that much cause for worry. Galvanized does mean zinc coated, but I don't think that means poisonous.

    Zinc is a naturally occurring mineral in many foods and an essential nutrient for our health (if I'm remembering right, over half a million children die worldwide from zinc deficiency ~ can you tell I researched this a while back? LOL!). Besides the widespread use of galvanized things, many people take zinc lozenges to avoid colds, apply it on their noses to avoid sunburn, and avoid diaper rash by smearing it on babies' butts. All that (especially the baby butt thing) makes me think if there truly were a serious danger, we'd know by now.

    Of course, despite what Mae West said, too much of anything can be bad, even good things. Zinc overdose is certainly possible and detrimental, even fatal in large enough quantities, but to put it into perspective, the amount that's considered an overdose is almost the same as an overdose of Vitamin C (and it's quite a bit). I share your concern over being exposed to things we don't need to be, so I shy away from products that contain zinc (sunblock, conventional antiperspirants). But I don't do it so much because of the zinc, but because of ALL of the crap in them, and that they're easily avoided (wear a hat, replace Speed Stick with one of those mineral salt things).

    So I don't think anyone needs to worry about zinc leaching from galvanized horse troughs. I don't doubt that some does leach, but I do doubt that it's in large enough quantities to be harmful to anything. If I'm wrong, please do let me know that I am and how I am, but for now, I'm not worried.

  3. The new water garden looks great. I have various stock tanks that I grow water lilies in but they are made of a durable plastic material.

    You can speed up the cycling process by introducing a large amount of aquatics at once and aiming for about 70% plant coverage.

  4. Thanks, Lorenzo! Stock tank water gardens are fabulous, aren't they? I want a couple more...

    You are exactly right about the plants and coverage, and thanks for the percentage to shoot for. I'd mentioned lots of plants to cover and block out sun, but didn't go into detail ~ that's something very helpful for everyone to know.

    I plan on having that much coverage by summer. I've just been lazy about repotting the plants I have in other pots outside the tanks (I grow things like Louisiana iris and Lizard's Tail in empty molasses lick tubs, low and wide plastic pots with no holes in them), and since the radiator blew in the truck, there went my water lily budget. *sigh* Next month!

    Speaking of that, you have some gorgeous ones!! I just might have to become a customer! I've been looking at mostly hardies since they're easier, but man, what gorgeous pictures I see on your site.

    Everyone else, go check out Lorenzo's lilies:
    That Rachel Presnell is gorgeous. And Charlie's Pride ~ beautiful. And Elsie, and Finn O'Hagan, and ... *swoon*

  5. I have a 100-gallon black poly stock tank. Is there any reason why I couldn't use that for a water garden? Would I have to do anything differently?

    1. I'd think you could use that, Vicki, just make sure it's not set out in the direct all-day sun, especially in the evening, to avoid poached fish stew. You do need a good bit of sun for most water plants to do well, but all day long would be a bit much, especially if you live in Texas or the other Southwestern states.

      If the only spot you have is in all-day sun, you could still have it there, but would have to put in a bit more effort ~ either bury it in the ground to make it stay cooler, paint the outside white or some other light color, or maybe stack some of those garden wall blocks you get at home improvement centers around it. If you choose a dark color wall block, I wouldn't think the heat would travel through them to the tank due to the air space between, but I don't know that for sure. And if it'll be set on concrete in the sun, it wouldn't be a bad idea to put something insulating between the tank and the concrete to stop heat transference ~ old carpet if you have it, or one of those 4'x8' sheets of styrofoam they use in building homes. You could cut that styrofoam to fit and have enough from the one sheet to use two or three layers for even better insulation.

      Other than that, I'd just be careful of how many fish you put in there since there's not much water. Start with one small one and see how it goes. Once you get the hang of it, you can make an outside filter system if you want a few more fish (Google up Skippy Filter for more info on that). And stick to goldfish or other small pond fish. Same advice on lilies, if you want one of those ~ stick to small ones.

      I've seen some adorable small ponds, so I know you can do it. So go for it!

  6. Per the zinc comment....these are LIVESTOCK tanks and they are the exclusive drinking water source for livestock all over the world. I would think if there was going to be an issue with zinc overdosing in the drinking water, we'd have heard about it by now, and expensive livestock would be drinking from other materials!!

  7. Cool and fun info. And yes, I'm stalking you. ;) I had a lot of fun being around the water gardens at my last job... something I will miss a lot. My better half and I want to do a water garden of some sort, but haven't worked out the details yet.

    1. Ha, Devon! Stalk away! It was a nice surprise to see you here. What was your last job? What were the water gardens like? I need to restart mine. They've languished in neglect. Don't even have any water lilies anymore. Booooo!

  8. Awww, gotta have some water lilies if you have a pond! My last job was at Hill Country Water Gardens, a garden center and water feature supply store. There are display ponds, streams and fountains all over the property. Very pretty.

  9. I was wondering do you need a filter for a stock pond or do you just do multiple water changes through out the week for the fish?
    I wanted to start my own pond, about 90-120 gallons but i'm not sure where to start and what i need.

  10. Where can I find that type of float valve (that is just clamped onto side of stock tank,right?) I have a stock tank pond,but the stock tank hole where a float valve might be attached thru was expanded and used for tubing.Thanks!

    1. Yep, it's just clamped right on the side. You can get them from most any local feed store (support Mom and Pops!) or even order online from Tractor Supply or some such place. The full name on the box of the new one I just bought is "Trough-O-Matic Automatic Float Valve".

  11. Do you have to clean the inside of the tank before you add the water and fish? Thought I saw someplace you should clean with ammonia, another said vinegar and baking soda, both sound bad for fish. Also does anyone know about using a liner inside the tank? One site said plastic causes the galvanized tank to rust quicker?

    1. If it's a brand new tank, Kathie, it's a good idea to clean it with vinegar just in case. There may be oils left from the galvanization process or some kind of other preservation additive/protectant for shipping, so just to make sure they're gone, wipe the entire inside with a rag dripping wet with vinegar. Then rinse it well and you're all set!

      I've not heard of using ammonia or baking soda, but if you rinse it well, I don't think either of those would be a problem for the fish. Any trace amounts left would become so diluted once you put the however-many-hundred gallons of water in it that it wouldn't pose a problem. Goldfish and koi are tough. As a matter of fact, this whole setup is much tougher, easier, and more forgiving than an indoor aquarium. Besides, lots of aquarium sites advise to add ammonia to the water in a brand-new aquarium for a few days or a week before adding fish to help it "cycle" quicker (cycle = grow that nice layer of beneficial filtering bacteria). Pee is ammonia, and that's what those bacteria thrive on, so adding it sans fish and giving the bacteria time to grow and multiply is a better, safer-for-the-fish way of doing it since the bacterial filter would be all grown in, or at least well on it's way, before the fish ever got in there.

      I don't know if using a rubber liner would make it rust quicker, but wouldn't be surprised if it did. Besides, it's really not needed, and pond liner is expensive! So save your money for lilies.

  12. Always fascinated towards water gardening. I am also doing Aquaponic form of gardening and it's wonderful.


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