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How To Build A Simple, Inexpensive Pond in a Barrel

By graal in Culture
Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 03:54:16 PM EST
Tags: You Know... (all tags)
You Know...

If you've always wanted a pond, but didn't want to (or couldn't) dig a big hole, a container pond may be just the thing. In this article, I show how a simple container pond can be put together for a minimal investment (about US$30), and provide hours of relaxing entertainment.

Container ponds can be sited anwhere - patio, deck, balcony, or anywhere that gets the required amount of sunlight.

I wanted a pond. Our back yard doesn't really lend itself well to pond construction - it's too sloped and would have required some serious earth-moving. I'm too lazy for that, and we're not planning on staying in this house for much longer anyway. A container pond seemed to be the answer - small, easy to maintain, and most of all, cheap. I could have plants, fish and a certain Zen beauty on our back deck for next to nothing.

I happened to have a suitable container, so I set out to build a container pond capable of supporting various plants and a few fish for under US$30. I'm just about finished, and will likely come in under budget. This short article will explain how I did it. There are vast resources online dedicated to water gardening, and I'll include some links at the end. I realize I'm only scratching the surface on some of these topics, but I want to show how someone can get a small container pond up and running in a hurry for a minimal investment.

Short Form

All you really need is:
  1. A container
  2. Water
  3. Plants - in addition to looking nice, they clean and oxygenate the water.
  4. Fish - they control insects and look nice

You can use just about anything you want for a container. Several websites out there show how to create container ponds out of old whiskey barrels. These work pretty well, and the consensus is that they look nice, too. Depending on the condition of the barrel, a liner may be required, though in fairness, the internet-container-pond community seems sort of split on the issue. If the barrel can't be made watertight, you're going to need a liner of some kind. Some stores sell pre-formed rigid liners made specifically for small water gardens. You can also purchase flexible pond liner.

But this is about doing it all on the cheap, and just about any watertight container can be used: buckets, washtub, bathtub, or animal water trough. As long as it's clean, watertight and non-toxic.

I didn't have any barrels, but did have an old plastic planter rattling around the shed. I dug it out, and cleaned it out - scrubbing it with a bleach solution and rinsing it well.

I also had to plug a hole in the bottom of it. I cut a small square of plastic from its drain pan, glued it on the bottom of the pot, then filled it in from the top with ordinary tub-and-bath silicone. I let it sit for a day to cure. As this was all stuff I had laying around the house, I've gotten this far without spending any money.

Figure out where you want to put the container. Most water plants need around 6 hours of sunlight per day. I found a spot on our deck that got the required sun and was close to an electrical outlet should I decide to add a pump/aerator at a later date. Remember that water has weight - I calculated the total capacity of my container at around 45 gallons, which means the thing weighs about 375 lbs. I broke down and bought some long concrete blocks that raise the container off the wooden deck about 3 inches and spread the weight across one of the deck joists. I filled the container with water and was pleased to see that my patch and my deck were holding together. My deck, for those of you who are curious, actually sits on the ground, so a collapse isn't going to be a particularly dangerous situation. Exercise caution, all the same.


Clean water is essential to a healthy pond. Tap water contains chemicals which keep the water clean, but which need to be removed before plants and fish are added. If chlorine is present in your water, simply letting the water sit out for a few days will let it 'dissolve' out of the water. If your water is treated with chloramine, you may need to use a chemical to treat the water. Your local pond stores can tell you what steps, if any, are required for cleaning your water. If there aren't any pond stores in your area, check with reputable aquarium stores. I bought some chemical water treatment, just to be safe, but later found out that our water has chlorine, which would have evaporated out on its own. Rats! I'd spent money unnecessarily. Plan on adding water occasionally to replace what's evaporated. It's possible that your water will cloud up in a hurry because of an algae bloom. Don't panic - things usually level out in a few weeks. Having the right mix of plants can help keep algae at a minimum without the need for chemicals or mechanical filtration.


Plants are vital to the pond ecosystem. They aid in water filtration, oxygenate the water, provide shelter and food for aquatic life, and look nice. There are three different categories of pond plant, and representatives from each are desirable for a well-balanced pond. Like other plants, aquatic plants need occasional care - pruning and thinning, and may benefit from occasional fertilization. I plan to start out simple, so my criteria for choosing plants was cost, ease of care and hardiness (ie, how likely am I to kill this thing?).


Submerged plants are just that - nearly all of the entire plant is underwater, either rooted in some planting medium such as aquatic planting soil or pea gravel, or free floating. Submerged plants oxygenate the water and help control algae. I decided on Anacharis (also called elodea). It's cheap, readily available (although my local pond store is currently out of stock), and hardy. An aquarium shop sells some, so I'll get some today, rinse it out well, and get it in the pond tonight after work.


Floating plants filter water and provide shade for your fish. One of the most common floating plants is the water hyacinth. It looks nice, and cleans the water like a mad bastard. It is also one of the most noxious, fast-growing weeds known to man. If you live in an area where water hyacinths can overwinter, plant it with caution, and don't let it escape into local waterways. You'd think this would go without saying, but water hyacinths have spread in exactly that way - pond owner is thinning out his plants, and chucks the extras into a local pond, lake or stream. Likewise, if you live in an area where water hyacinths grow wild, you may be able to get some for free from your local ditch. Rinse them well before introducing them to your pond, though.


Marginal plants typically grow on the edges of ponds. They're usually situated in containers within the ponds so that the top couple of inches are exposed, with the remainder of the pot underwater. I decided against marginal plants, but some you might consider aquatic cannas, hardy water lillies, or even carniverous bog plants like pitcher plants or venus flytraps. You'll need to provide a submerged shelf of some kind, for holding the containers up, as well as the correct sort of potting soil. There are a couple of other considerations I won't go into here - do your research.

For my container pond, I've decided on water hyacinths, anacharis, and maybe a horsetail rush later on. Whatever you decide, make sure to check its winter-hardiness for your area. Certain tropical water plants may need to be brought indoors. Your local nursery can help you choose winter-hardy specimens. My budget prevented me from considering things like water lillies and lotuses.


Fish are fun, and add a little excitement to the pond. They also help keep the insects at bay. Common pond fish are comet goldfish, mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) and koi. Koi are better off in larger ponds, but at least one barrel-pond-keeper has had decent luck with Koi. I like Koi, but truthfully didn't want to spend the money, and feel that they need more space than I could provide. Maybe on the next pond. Mosquito fish are sometimes given away free by municipalities as part of their mosquito abatement programs. They seem almost engineered to eat mosquito larvae, but are also very, very prolific breeders. My local pond store was out of mosquito fish, so I bought a trio of comets. Our kids like them, and they're easy to spot in the water. And they're cheap to replace.

If the pond is balanced out, the fish shouldn't require feeding. If you must feed, feed sparingly - only what the fish can eat in a five minute period. Excess food falls to the bottom, promotes bacterial growth and fouls the water.

Fishkeeping is a discipline unto itself. I've kept aquaria before, so it's familiar territory for me. In a nutshell: don't overfeed or overstock. Watch the water temperature. If the fish are gasping for breath at the surface, you need to areate the water with an airstone or small waterfall. Start simple. One rule of thumb is that 1 inch of fish for every 5 gallons of water obviates the need for mechanical filtration. Stay on the conservative side, and realize that fish will grow to fit the size container they're put in. A reputable pond or aquarium store with knowledgeable staff will prove invaluable. Failing that, avail yourself of the internet communities, or seek out other pond people in your local area. If it gets cold enough in your area for your pond to freeze, you may need to consider bringing the fish inside for the winter. If the pond is deep enough, the fish may survive the winter providing that the pond doesn't freeze solid, and that any crust of ice on the surface is opened to allow gasses to escape from the water. DO NOT SMACK THE ICE TO BREAK IT. The shock can kill the fish. You don't need to feed them, either. Fish go into a hibernation state when the water temperature is low and will not eat. The food will fall to the bottom and foul the water. If you're in doubt about your region, the size of your pond or your fish's ability to weather the weather, contact a local expert at a pond store or perhaps at a local extension office. If there's no one around to consult, make plans to bring them inside to be on the safe side.


That's about it. These are the hard and fast rules. The rest is basically up to you. I find water gardens very relaxing, enjoy the activity that the fish provide and believe that they'll provide a fantastic educational opportunity for our kids. I'm just about done with mine. All that remains is to add the submerged plants, and the thing should be self-sufficient. I may add another plant later, just for some visual interest, but the essentials will be in place by the end of today. When I get it all done, I'll reproduce this article at my homepage, and include a picture or two.

My investment:

Concrete blocks and water treatment, $6
Water hyacinths, 5 for $10
Comet goldfish, 3 @ $1 ea.
Anacharis, 3 for $6
Total: $23

Useful Links (some with great pictures)

Make A Big Splash With A Tiny Water Garden
Eric's Half-Whiskey-Barrel Pond Page
The Half-Barrel Pond Page
Fish In A Barrel
Robyn's Pond Pages
USDA hardiness zones
European hardiness zones


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


My Favorite Famous Pond
o Walden Pond 42%
o Golden Pond 14%
o Frozen pond in 'To Die For' 14%
o The Ponds Institute 28%

Votes: 21
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Make A Big Splash With A Tiny Water Garden
o Eric's Half-Whiskey-Barrel Pond Page
o The Half-Barrel Pond Page
o Fish In A Barrel
o Robyn's Pond Pages
o USDA hardiness zones
o European hardiness zones
o Also by graal

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How To Build A Simple, Inexpensive Pond in a Barrel | 43 comments (35 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
careful about exotic species (4.00 / 2) (#3)
by khallow on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 12:38:45 PM EST

Aquariums and "ponds" are an excellent way to spread exotic species (fish and plants mainly). If you plan to throw out a pond or aquarium, please kill what's in it first.

Stating the obvious since 1969.

Yes indeedy. (5.00 / 1) (#6)
by graal on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 12:54:09 PM EST

Good advice, to be sure.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

that's not a fish, it's an emmisary of Satan! [nt] (3.00 / 2) (#14)
by Shren on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 02:36:04 PM EST

god damned commie fish coming to take over our waters. i suggest a counter attack! we should send our ... uh ... why does US wildlife get it's ass kicked by every imported species known to man? It's like every indigenous species has "victim" stamped on it's forehead. Kudzu. Killer bees. Army ants. And now, killer fish. Do we have any native species that would kick some ass sent overseas?

What the hell eats that thing anyway? Not me, I'll tell you that for nothing. It's like a crossbreed of a carp and a shark.

[ Parent ]

Cane Toad! (n/t) (none / 0) (#16)
by Bill Barth on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 03:28:55 PM EST

Yes...I am a rocket scientist.
[ Parent ]
Carp and Shark (none / 0) (#26)
by Verminator on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 10:37:32 PM EST

Aren't both of those good eating? I mean, I probably wouldn't eat the fish either (I mean, if it can destroy the ecosystem just think what it'll do to your stomach!) but not because it looks like a cross between a carp and a shark, but because it's just a freaky fish.

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to misery, misery links to Satanosphere.
[ Parent ]

Re: carp and shark (5.00 / 1) (#32)
by danceswithcrows on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 01:05:53 PM EST

Aren't both of those good eating?

Carp doesn't taste very good at all when you prepare it in the same way you prepare most fish. It's... not gamy, but really strong-tasting and tough. In the southern USA, carp is considered "trash fish" and typically the people who eat it are too poor to afford better.

That said, my aunt has a way of preparing carp... she uses only the white meat (roughly 1/8 of the meat on a carp), a pressure cooker, and some secret herbs and spices. After this, the carp tastes a lot like salmon. This is wasteful, but if you're out for catfish and you snag a carp along the way, might as well use the thing.

People eat some species of shark. The mako shark reportedly tastes very similar to swordfish. I've never eaten swordfish, but mako shark is pretty good.

Things that destroy native ecosystems sometimes taste good. Cattle, rabbits, and goats are all good eatin'.

Matt G (aka Dances With Crows) There is no Darkness in Eternity/But only Light too dim for us to see
[ Parent ]

Bunnies! (nt) (none / 0) (#28)
by fluffy grue on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 11:25:27 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Whoops. WaPo link is down. (none / 0) (#19)
by graal on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 03:45:17 PM EST

Try this one instead.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

The amazing expanding fish! (4.25 / 4) (#4)
by axxeman on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 12:43:11 PM EST

...fish will grow to fit the size container they're put in.

bbl, I'm just goin down to the shops to buy a small trout and a bathtub...

Being or not being married isn't going to stop bestiality or incest. --- FlightTest

It's (generally) true! (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by graal on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 12:46:48 PM EST

Go on down to an aquarium shop and check out plecostomus (suckermouth catfish) - they're usually a couple of inches long. There's one in the Chattanooga Aquarim that's humongous. Granted, you're not likely to see foot-long-tetras, but most fish suitable for ponds can grow considerably.

Still, the thought of a 10' salmon makes me drool.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

There are many different species (none / 0) (#39)
by 0xA on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 07:19:16 PM EST

There are a lot of different species of Plecos, some are only a few inches long full grown.

A common Pleco or Sailfin Pleco will get to about a meter in length, They commonly don't becuase people kill them. A Plec that size will eat an increadible amount of food and generate an increadible amount of waste.

A well cared for Pleco will get huge, I've had mine for 3 years and he's about 9 inches.

[ Parent ]

I think he meant the fish _population_ (n/t) (none / 0) (#31)
by joshsisk on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 11:50:03 AM EST

logjamming.com : web hosting for weblogs, NOT gay lumberjack porn
[ Parent ]
I've been doing this for eight years :) (5.00 / 2) (#7)
by joegee on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 12:55:32 PM EST

Half barrel, Tetra pond liner, water hyacinths, mosquitofish. You get nice blooms, mosquito-free water, and happy fish.

It becomes self-sustaining after the first month or so. All you need to do is keep the water level constant and toss in a few pieces of food now and then.

<sig>I always learn something on K5, sometimes in spite of myself.</sig>
Wonderful. (none / 0) (#10)
by i on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 02:12:33 PM EST

I was toying with the idea of making a little pond in my garden, and this article gave a completely new direction to my thought. Why didn't I think about it before? Thanks.

and we have a contradicton according to our assumptions and the factor theorem

turtles? (5.00 / 3) (#11)
by dr k on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 02:15:40 PM EST

I'm about to acquire some pet turtles and want to build some kind of container pond for them, so the timing of this article is amazing. Does anyone have any experience with turtle ponds?

BTW, turtles are quite entertaining pets.

Destroy all trusted users!

Local herp group? (5.00 / 1) (#13)
by graal on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 02:33:19 PM EST

There are lots of herpetological groups out there - there may be one in your area. I've never kept them before, but imagine that a turtle pond would have the same basic requirements as any other healthy pond. Balanced ecosystem, shelter, food, water. I have no idea what sort of load turtles place on the water, but I imagine a herp person could tell you.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

Turtles and Ponds (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by shyy on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 03:50:01 PM EST

Firstly, I've heard that turtles should not be put into any pond that uses a plastic liner (usually, only larger ponds) as they tend to bite the sides and put holes into the liner.  Hard-Container ponds should be okay, though.  

Secondly, do not leave your turtles in an "opened" area out-doors, especially not at night.  Even if the turtles are enclosed on all sides and cannot escape by themselves, frequently other animals such raccoons will pick them up and run off with them if they can.  

Lastly, I think that turtles make lousy pets.  I'm not a very big fan of keeping any animal that doesn't particularly enjoy my presence and needs to be contained unnaturally to keep from running away.  That's just me, though.

[ Parent ]

feeding time (none / 0) (#22)
by dr k on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 04:00:30 PM EST

But they get so excited when you are about to feed them. And it is fun to watch them swim. Moreso than fish, at least. "Hey, look at me, I'm an expensive fish. I'm swimming." Bleh.

Destroy all trusted users!
[ Parent ]

Pets... or something else? (3.00 / 1) (#30)
by bgarcia on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 07:11:36 AM EST

I'm not a very big fan of keeping any animal that doesn't particularly enjoy my presence and needs to be contained unnaturally to keep from running away.
Heh. You've just described my kids.

[ Parent ]
http://www.tortoise.org/geninfo.html (none / 0) (#41)
by oblivion9999 on Fri Aug 09, 2002 at 09:52:07 AM EST

I stumbled across this site. It has a pretty long article on turtle ponds in the General Husbandry section.


[ Parent ]
Nice addition to K5 (4.75 / 4) (#12)
by semicolon on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 02:32:48 PM EST

One of my favorite aspects of K5 is the potpouri of articles that make this community so unique.

This article was a delight to read. Thanks.

Excellent article, indeed! (none / 0) (#34)
by Ruidh on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 01:32:53 PM EST

I've wanted to do a fish pond, but I was very worried about having a toddler fall in.  An above ground solution is just perfect.  Thanks to the author.
"Laissez-faire is a French term commonly interpreted by Conservatives to mean 'lazy fairy,' which is the belief that if governments are lazy enough, the Good Fairy will come down from heaven and do all their work for them."
[ Parent ]
Amen to that [nt] (none / 0) (#35)
by anon0865 on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 02:55:27 PM EST

[ Parent ]
What about... (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by gidds on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 06:57:00 PM EST

...cats?  I live in an area with an abundance of felines, so I doubt any fish would live for very long :(

Depth is the key. (5.00 / 1) (#24)
by graal on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 08:16:36 PM EST

Predation is a serious concern for pond owners, especially by herons and raccoons. The key is provide enough depth for the fish to escape to. My container is about 2 feet deep, and the edge is actually higher than that off the deck. There's a railing nearby, so I suppose the area cats could hop up there and look down, but I'd hope the fish would have the sense to stay down low. And if not, hey, the fish are cheap to replace.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

One word: (4.00 / 1) (#25)
by JChen on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 09:19:49 PM EST


I promise you will never have problems with cats again. Or any other animal that decides to invade your pond. Ever.

Let us do as we say.
[ Parent ]

My friend Delphine has a fish pond (none / 0) (#27)
by fluffy grue on Mon Aug 05, 2002 at 11:22:51 PM EST

And she also has three cats of her own, and often takes care of other peoples' cats when they're out of town. She says that Darwinism has worked for the better - all of the stupid fish didn't last long, so only the ones smart enough to swim down when a cat approaches have bred.
"Is a sentence fragment" is a sentence fragment.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Hmmm.... (none / 0) (#29)
by Insoc on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 02:22:53 AM EST

I saw the comment about turtles, and I was wondering if it would be possible to use a type of water-inhabiting snake in an pond? I think that would make for a more entertaining feeding time than, say, fish, frogs, or turtles.

If you build it, they will come. (none / 0) (#33)
by graal on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 01:30:13 PM EST

At least, in Georgia. I'd imagine that any significantly large pond could attract native water snakes, especially if their food of choice was available. Not so sure you'd want them around, though, especially if you have pets and kids about. Still, some people build ponds with the intention of attracting native wildlife and providing additional habitat. My back yard is simply too small for that sort of thing. I'd want to situate something like that a good distance from the house.

If I ever get my 100 acres...

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

Heck yeah... (none / 0) (#37)
by Kintanon on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 04:00:12 PM EST

Almost anything in Ga will attract snakes, my parents started raising chickens, *POOF!* snakes everywhere. My brother built a small goldfish pond, *POOF!* snakes and frogs and turtles appear... Much fun.
I'm now thinking about buying a small kiddie pool and turning it into a pon for my porch!


[ Parent ]

cold winters (none / 0) (#36)
by anon0865 on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 03:06:35 PM EST

First of all, thank you for the fascinating article. I've always been enamored by self-supporting ecosystems.

I would love to set one of these barrel ponds up; however, Michigan winters are bitterly cold and in all probability, would freeze most of the water in the barrel.

Is there any easy way to warm the water enough to keep it from freezing during the winter, or is moving it indoors the only option? And if it must be moved indoors, will it smell? :-P

Birdbath heater (none / 0) (#38)
by graal on Tue Aug 06, 2002 at 06:53:54 PM EST

...is one solution I've seen. Another would be to simply bring the fish in, though that'd require setting up an aquarium/pump/filter, etc.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

thanks for the advice [nt] (none / 0) (#40)
by anon0865 on Wed Aug 07, 2002 at 11:27:17 AM EST

[ Parent ]
We can't do this Louisiana. (none / 0) (#42)
by valar on Thu Aug 15, 2002 at 06:05:49 PM EST

It would become a breeding ground for west nile virus carrying mosquitos. And that is bad supposidly.

Hence, the fish. (none / 0) (#43)
by graal on Fri Aug 16, 2002 at 07:31:06 PM EST

My pond's been set up for 2 weeks, and I live in Georgia. Haven't seen a single mosquito larva in there yet. Fish just eat 'em up. And we've got mosquitoes all over the place. West Nile, too, apparently.

For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every
inordinate affection should be its own punishment.
-- St. Augustine (Confessions, i)
[ Parent ]

How To Build A Simple, Inexpensive Pond in a Barrel | 43 comments (35 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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