How to Set up a Garden Fish Pond (for Cheap!)

By braniac; Updated April 24, 2017
Ponds don't have to be big and expensive to be beautiful.

Imagine relaxing on a summer day next to a glistening garden pond with beautiful flowering plants and exotic colorful fish gliding by. You may have seen elaborate Japanese garden-type ponds, complete with bridges and waterfalls and thought, "Beautiful, but way beyond my budget!" Think again - there's a potential pond to suit any pocketbook.

Ponds should be near a water and an electricity source.

Rather than a costly pre-formed pond, consider a heavy waterproof tarp, or a plastic half barrel, available in garden stores. I use the half barrel, which cost under $50 and has steep enough sides to discourage predators like cats and raccoons. The next important consideration is location. The pond should ideally be within reach of a garden hose to facilitate fill-ups. Ideally, it should also be accessible an outdoor electric outlet. You will need to set up an aeration/filtration system, unless you're planning to have very few fish (which few people are satisfied with). The pond should be in a partially sunny location. Too MUCH sun will encourage algae growth, making it resemble a large vat of pea soup. On the other hand, it's aesthetically pleasing to have the sun shining right to the bottom of the pond occasionally. Also, if you place it under a tree, you'll spend a lot of time removing leaves and other tree debris from the water. Finally, it should be in a place where it's safe to dig, i.e. no underground pipes, wires, etc. Digging the hole is the hardest past of the job.

Lucky bamboos ready for pond placement.

JUST ADD WATER. Having dug the hole and placed the container, the next step is adding the H2O. Most tap water has chlorine in it, which will kill fish. Your options are to let the pond sit for 24-48 hours to let the chlorine evaporate, use untreated spring water, or to add chlorine remover (available at tropical fish supply stores). Natural ponds usually have springs or rivers feeding in and out of them, keeping the water pure. I use a pump and filter intended for aquarium use in my pond. Most people associate water lilies with ponds, but they can be pricey and as they require a pot with soil, also potentially messy. Inexpensive alternatives include water hyacinths (which produce beautiful purple blooms) and water lettuce; both of which are freefloaters - meaning no pots/soil required. Those "lucky bamboo" plants thrive in an aquatic environment. I bunch together a half dozen or so of them which rise out of the water like a reed marsh, and provide the fish with a shady respite area. I get 18" tall bamboos for $2 apiece at a local Oriental market.

Fresh purchased goldfish, ready for their new home.

Commercially available fish best suited for outdoor pond life across most of the temperate US are the closely related and similar-looking koi and goldfish. Prize winning koi can be valued in the thousands of dollars, and even small koi tend to be more expensive than similarly sized goldfish, so you may wish to stick with goldfish to keep expenses down. Moreover, you might consider so-called feeder fish; especially if your local fish dealer will allow you to pick and choose. This year, I purchased some feeders for 39 cents each at a large national pet store chain - many of them barely distinguishable from the $3.99 Sarassa red and white comets in a nearby tank.

Tip

You don't need a big pond, nor even to dig. So-called container gardens allow you to have a water feature complete with fish on a deck or porch. Koi and goldfish are both members of the carp family. Koi have catfish-like whiskers near their mouths, which goldfish do not. Both species come in assorted shades of orange, yellow, black, white and even multi-colored calico. If your pet store is reluctant to allow you to "pick and choose" feeders, offer to catch and bag them yourself. (This doesn't always work, but it's worth a try.) Comets and shubunkins are the best goldfish types for ponds as they are built for speed - allowing them to compete for food and escape predators. Fancy varieties like fantails and black moors are better suited for indoor life. Tadpoles and snails are not only compatible with fish and fun to watch; they also voraciously eat algae and debris that would otherwise pollute the pond. Ponds will naturally attract wildlife like birds and frogs. Salamanders and small (harmless) snakes live right by my pond, dragonflies often visit and I was surprised to see a white dove flutter down for a sip of pond water one day. My pond is surrounded with colorful and interesting rocks and driftwood scavenged from the beach and other areas, which also helps cut down on windblown debris getting in the water. For more info, buy my book "How to Build a Garden Goldfish Pond - Without Spending a Lot of Gold"! Send $4 (checks payable to George Sommers) to: George Sommers - 73 Albatross Rd. - Quincy, MA 02169

Warning

Make sure all electrical equipment is kept dry in case of rain. You may wish to get a cover for your pond at night to deter predators. I also tend to cover the pond on rainy days as it tends to muck up the water. Allow newly purchased fish to float in their bag in the pond for at least 20 minutes to allow the temperature to equalize and prevent shock. Net them from the bag and release when ready. Don't empty the water into the pond or you might import disease. Fish can overwinter in a pond -AS LONG AS IT'S DEEP ENOUGH THAT IT DOESN'T COMPLETELY FREEZE, and there is an aeration source keeping at least a small area of open water at the surface. Some experts say that pond fish don't need to be fed; let nature take its course. I don't leave this to chance and do feed mine daily; but it's not a problem to leave them unfed for 2-4 days if you're away. Never release any fish or plants into native waterways or you will risk upsetting the balance by introducing "exotic invasives". Certain pond plants are banned in some states for precisely this reason.