How to Set up a Container Pond (and Select Fish): Step-by-Step

If you’re a pond-lover that’s space limited perhaps you should look at setting up a container pond! These designs can be as small as a pot or as large as a tub, giving you unparalleled flexibility and creativity.

Best of all, they’re extremely easy to move or redesign as needed! Let’s talk about container ponds and why one should be your next outdoor project!


Why Should I Consider a Container Pond?

Container ponds are very underappreciated relative to both aquariums and in-ground ponds. Being so small they can be set up over the course of an afternoon. The setup is significantly cheaper than an in-ground pond yet your fish and plant selection is just as varied!

Container ponds also create a small oasis for dragonflies, frogs, and other visitors to hang out at. They are a natural accent for gardens and outdoor recreation areas and are very low maintenance as well.

Pond plants such as lotus pods and lily blossoms are also attractive in their own right and add to the diversity of your landscape.


Setting Up a Container Pond

The fun thing about container ponds is that there are very few rules on how to set up one! Any size container can be used for one, from large planting pots to plastic prefabricated tubs. Choosing your container and location are by far the most important steps.

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Prefabricated kits are some of the easiest ways to get set up quickly. Since they include filtration, tiers for plants, and a cozy home for fish, all you need to do is add livestock and find a place for them.

Choosing a Location

Choosing the best location comes down to more than aesthetics. For instance: how much sun will your pond receive?

Intense sun on a smaller pond can cause it to drastically heat and cool throughout a 24 hour cycle, which can kill fish. More sun is better for plants but it can also cause algae issues to worsen.

Are there deciduous trees nearby that will constantly drop leaves into your pond? Runoff from rooftops and other sources can leach metals and toxic chemicals from the roof that can harm pond inhabitants.

While container ponds aren’t too difficult to move, give careful thought before committing to a final decision.

Filtration

Your filtration needs depend on the size of your container pond as well as the amount of livestock you intend on keeping.

Some of the most popular designs rely on live plants to lock away fish waste and ammonia byproducts. So long as you keep the stocking level extremely low you can do away with filtration entirely!

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If larger fish like Goldfish are planned, you’ll need ample filtration to help break down their waste. Pond filters come in all sizes, including designs suitable for 80-100 gallon tubs like this one!


Fish for My Container Pond

Since container ponds aren’t typically heated we need to consider carefully which fish to keep outdoors.

Warm Water Pond Fish

Livebearers

Guppies and their cousins are not only superb tropical fish but do very well outdoors during the warmer months. Livebearers are hardy and will snap up insect larvae and graze on algae in addition to standard prepared foods.

Livebearers may even thrive outdoors into the fall, depending on your local climate, as most species do well down to 68F. Platies, Mollies, and Swordtails, being North American natives, are ideal but Guppies are hardy in the American South and other warmer parts of the country.

Betta

If your summer temperatures don’t get too far below 70F at night giving your Betta some outdoor exposure is a great idea! Not only will the natural light bring out better color but your Betta will be able to snack on insect larvae and other treats that colonize your container pond.

While they can survive some swings in temperature Bettas can only be kept outdoors all-year round in tropical regions of the country, such as south Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Otherwise, move your Betta indoors once things get too cool.

Coldwater Pond Fish

Goldfish

Koi are the first fish many people think of when they think of outdoor ponds. Unfortunately, Koi grow too large for ponds under 300 gallons. Fortunately, we have Goldfish, a close relative that thrives in as little as 50 gallons of water volume.

Goldfish are not only famously hardy but come in an astounding array of breeds and color varieties. From the olive green wild type comes the classic orange, mottled Shubunkin, and fancy Orandas and other plump varieties. Most varieties grow 8-12 inches long at maturity.

Goldfish thrive in water below 72F and can even overwinter in container ponds that are suitable deep. Being carp they do love to root around, which may be a problem if your plants aren’t fully established or you’re using a looser substrate.

Weather Loach

Dojo or Weather Loaches are an East Asian species that thrive in temperatures as low as 50F. They get their name from their sensitivity to barometric pressure; low pressure cause them to frantically dash about, which often heralds an approaching storm.

Much like upscaled Kuhli Loaches, Weather Loaches prefer fine substrates like sand or mud that they can bury into. While they prefer worms, insect larvae, and other invertebrates they are flexible and willing to accept most prepared and frozen foods as well!

Mosquito Fish

Mosquito Fish (Gambusia affinis) are another livebearing relative of the Common Guppy that are native to North America. Since they are found throughout the Midwest they can tolerate an American winter well enough to survive outdoors all year round.

They get their name from their voracious appetite for mosquito and midge larvae, helping prevent ponds from becoming breeding grounds for biting insects. Like Guppies they are also prolific breeders and will rapidly fill your container pond with large, healthy fry.

Mosquito Fish also eat nuisance algae that grows on the sides of your pond and on plant leaves, making them nearly essential to most outdoor ecosystems!

US Native Fish

US Native fish are very underappreciated, especially in their home country! These fish are much more popular in Europe and thrive in unheated aquariums and ponds.

There are a large number of fish to choose from that can live in container ponds! Pygmy Sunfish (Elassomatinae subfamily) can live outdoors all-year round throughout the South and the males are brilliantly colored. Rainbow Shiners are a showy native that are becoming more popular in fish stores as are American Flagfish.

Darters are bottom dwellers without swim bladders that are extremely colorful and well worth considering as well. And believe it or not, Sailfin Mollies are an American native, found in coastal rivers and brackish estuaries from the Carolinas down to Mexico.

So long as you stay away from the larger gamefish (bass, pike, etc) you’ll have plenty of hardy, colorful fish to choose from.


Plants for My Container Pond

There are hundreds of plant species suitable for container ponds. However I wanted to cover a few of the most common and easily grown species worth considering!

Floating Plants

Water Hyacinth

Water Hyacinth is a popular pond plant that is a perennial in growing zones 8 to 11 but dies where the winters grow cold. Considering how invasive this species is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; water hyacinth can double in area over the course of two weeks!

These plants have gas bladders they use to stay at the surface as well as delicate purple and white flowers. The flowers can last throughout the year until fall, making them a fantastic accent plant.

Like most floating plants, hyacinth also locks away nitrogenous wastes, keeping your fish healthy while fueling their own growth!

Hornwort

Hornwort is often sold as bundled plants to be rooted in the substrate. However it loves intense lighting and prefers to sprawl across the surface, greedily drinking in light.

While your fish will love the shade it provides, floating Hornwort has a somewhat unkempt appearance that may be at odds with the aesthetic you’re going for.

However if you prefer a natural-looking container pond this North American native is nearly bullet-proof. Hardy, winter-tolerant, and fast growing, it’s one of the easiest pond plants to grow!

Submerged Plants

Water Lily

Water lilies (genus Nymphaea) are a diverse group of plants. Most are flowering and have brilliantly colored blossoms that are just as attention-grabbing as their leaves. Lilies also overwinter well, channeling starches into a buried bulb that the plant survives off of until spring returns.

The iconic floating pads of these plants are not just cozy resting spots for frogs and dragonflies. Lily pads shade the area underneath them, keeping algae under control and preventing the water column from heating as quickly. This shade can be detrimental to aquatic plants below them, however, so plan accordingly.

Cabomba

The delicate fan-shaped leaves of Cabomba make it an aquarium and pond favorite. Native to the Eastern United States, Cabomba does well in any location where it can get the intense lighting it craves.

Healthy Cabomba often takes on a purple or red sheen in good lighting and it may even open tiny white flowers at the surface. While Cabomba does well as a tidy rooted plant it can also be allowed to float freely, though it tends to sprawl in a manner similar to Hornwort.

Be careful when keeping Cabomba with plant eaters like Goldfish, though. The stems are delicate and easily shattered and the soft leaves are a delight for vegetarian fish.


Maintenance Issues for Container Ponds

Once you have your plants established and your filtration up and running container ponds need little in the way of maintenance. Simply top them off with dechlorinated water and perform biweekly water changes as you would on an indoor aquarium!

However you may run into one of the following issues. In that case, here are some of the best ways to control both algae and natural predators!

Algae Control

Given how much natural light is available outdoors algae is a constant issue. From green water to hair algae, anything immersed tends to gain a verdant coating over time that requires constant scrubbing to keep tidy.

Like larger dug-in ponds there are several control methods to help you get a handle on algae concerns:

  • Straw bales: typically used for larger ponds in sunlit locations. Barley straw bales release chemicals when decomposing in water that inhibit algae growth. While they don’t kill off already present algae, a small bale tucked away in a hidden spot will help keep algae from reappearing.
  • UV Sterilizers: UV sterilizers are used to kill off free-floating green water algae. These devices are typically hooked up to a pump where water is forced through an interior chamber that’s continually bathed in hard UV radiation. UV sterilizers are particularly efficient for smaller ponds as they turn over more water faster and the higher bioloads can contribute to heavy algae growth.
  • Algae Eaters: besides hand scrubbing these are the most common way to keep algae in check. Most freshwater algae eaters won’t survive outdoors except in the warmer months of the year. Mystery snails will thrive all year-round, though the babies will likely be eaten by Goldfish. Livebearers like Mosquito Fish and Guppies are also good algae eaters!
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Local Predators

Cats, herons, racoons, and other opportunists can be real pests. Unlike an in-ground pond most container ponds are quite shallow. Fortunately there are several ways to keep predators from snatching your fish:

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  • Decoys: owls are natural predators of many of the animals that would eat your fish. Placing a decoy in a visible location can scare off animals but you’ll need to move it every few days to keep them from growing wise to the deception. One downside is that they can also scare off songbirds and other wanted visitors.
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Conclusion

Container ponds have many of the same issues as koi ponds only smaller in scale. However they are also significantly less expensive to set up and maintain, and can be up and running in a single afternoon!

Space-conscious landscapers will find container ponds have endless possibilities and are well worth setting up in your backyard or porch!

The Aquarium Handbook

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