Flowerbed water gardens and porch ponds are easily installed and inexpensive, and they make sensational additions to your home’s landscape. These small water features are ideal for someone who is hesitant to create a large pond, perhaps because they lack experience, space, funds or time. Small water features are often considered starter sets and unfortunately are sometimes unfairly denigrated by those who fail to realize their tremendous value. Flowerbed water gardens and porch ponds typically range from 20 to 500 gallons of water, and if installed wisely, will deliver spectacular results. The lines of distinction between flowerbed water gardens and porch ponds are somewhat hazy and depend upon interpretation. I have categorized the types as follows.
Porch ponds, which are also called deck, self-contained or patio ponds, are approximately 20 to 100 gallons in size and are round, oval or square-shaped. Traditionally, they are rigid plastic liners surrounded by wood, such as pine or redwood, that provides the liner with support and insulates the interior from direct sunlight. Some porch ponds are constructed from high-tech material and do not require an additional outer protective layer. Manufacturers are able to make these new polymer-based ponds appear strikingly real with faux granite, concrete and slate surfaces. Even though the new materials are highly insulative, it is always best to provide some shading for porch ponds, regardless of the construction. This is especially true if fish are kept. Porch ponds are designed to rest freestanding on a hard surface.
On the other hand, flowerbed water gardens are usually between 50 and 300 gallons of water and are normally dug into the soil. They can be constructed from either rigid, pre-formed plastic or made from a flexible pond liner. Both types of flowerbed water gardens are available as complete kits. You can also purchase all of the pieces (liner, pump and filter) individually to create your own design. Flowerbed water gardens can be enjoyed with or without fish.
The most versatile outside water feature is the porch pond. Porch ponds are self-contained, portable and are at the top of my recommended list for those on a limited budget who want maximum flexibility of placement and ease of maintenance. Porch ponds can be purchased as a complete system from local pond centers or can be mail-ordered. Some hobbyists choose to custom-make a porch pond by purchasing the plastic liner and building their own wooden covering. Pond manufacturers have recently noticed a demand for these unique water features, and are going all out to provide unique styles and options for their products. Optional equipment includes LED lighting, various fountainheads, planting baskets specifically designed for small ponds and accent decorations, such as plastic turtles that double as aerators.
Porch ponds are simple setups and consist of the following components:
- Rigid plastic liner with a protective wooden outer covering or a molded one-piece poly-resin container.
- A water circulation pump, and sometimes filtration, if the size and depth of the pond are suitable for keeping fish.
Fishless Porch Ponds
Fishless porch ponds are one of the easiest water features to keep because they are usually tucked under a covered porch, a breezeway or on a deck well away from blowing leaves or grass clippings. Since there are no fish, placement is not critical. For an interesting effect, some hobbyists choose to elevate their ponds by placing them on raised solid platforms allowing viewing of the water at waist level. Fishless ponds are mostly unaffected by the hot sun and require only sufficient water to keep plants moist and the fountain pump running. All you need is to find an aesthetically pleasing location and position, level the pond, fill it with water and plug the pump into a GFCI-protected circuit. It couldn’t be easier. Maintenance of these water features is ridiculously easy. Basically, after unplugging the pump, a quick rinsing with a garden hose is just about all you have to do. Clean out any debris (which usually amounts to dead bugs and trimmed leaves from aquatic plants). Brush any algae from the sides and rinse again. Washing the water pump’s intake screen, refilling the pond and adding any plant nutrients complete routine maintenance. It only takes a few minutes if conducted weekly. If live plants are included, they will have to be removed during colder months, but if plants are not kept, fishless ponds can be enjoyed year-round as long as the water does not freeze.
Porch Ponds With Fish
Fish porch ponds require careful selection and enhanced care. Prior to purchasing, make sure that the pond you are considering is recommended for fish. Some ponds are too shallow or too tall (too little water surface area) and are unsuitable for keeping fish. If in doubt whether a pond is appropriate for fish, consult a pond professional. Select a location that prevents overheating due to excessive exposure to sun or sweltering summer temperatures. The location is critical because with such a small amount of water, extreme temperature fluctuations could occur, resulting in an inhumane situation for the fish. Even short periods of direct sun can dangerously raise the temperature, so plan carefully.
Just as with an aquarium, new fish ponds must be cycled prior to introducing any appreciable quantity of fish. There are bacteria-enhancing products available to expedite this process. One time-proven method is the introduction of sand or gravel from a well-established pond. This substrate is replete with beneficial bacteria and shortens the cycling time.
From personal experience, I recommend that the quantity of fish stocked in a porch pond be half the quantity normally considered safe in a comparably sized aquarium. Seek the assistance of an experienced pondkeeper or retail pond center to determine the best stocking levels for your pond. Unlike an aquarium that resides in a relatively stable setting, porch ponds are subjected to widely changing temperature fluctuations and other weather conditions beyond our control.
A second recommendation is the use of a properly installed titanium grounding rod especially for ponds resting on concrete. Stray voltage emitting from water pumps and lighting can leak into the water and can be felt as an uncomfortable tingling on fingertips when placed into the pond. This condition is true with any aquatic display, either pond or aquarium, but is normally unnoticeable. But when kneeling on a damp or wet concrete surface for maintenance, the voltage can get your attention! The grounding rod removes the voltage and sends it to the ground. Seek assistance from an electrician for proper installation of the grounding rod.
Maintenance is similar to aquariumkeeping — regular partial water changes and preservation of the beneficial bacteria are essential. Unlike a fishless pond where the hobbyist simply empties all of the water and refills the container with a garden hose, the fish pond requires partial water changes, and the new water must be treated with a water conditioner to remove chlorine and chloramines. Replacement water temperature should be similar to the temperature of the dirty water removed. Finally, to prevent killing the beneficial bacteria, the filter should be rinsed in water that is free of chlorine and chloramines.
Fish Porch Pond Planning Tips
- Select a location that receives bright, indirect sunshine.
- Position the pond directly on the ground, preferably on concrete. Direct ground contact prevents heated air from circulating underneath and allows convective heat transfer, helping to keep the pond cool in the summer.
- Place terrestrial potted plants around the pond to filter any early morning sunlight that might project onto your porch
There are two additional considerations that apply to both porch ponds with fish and those without fish:
- Water weighs about 8.33 pounds per gallon, and a full 100-gallon pond can easily exceed the safe load limits of a deck or other structure.
- Don’t assume your pond is suitable for fish if your pond kit comes with a water pump fitted with a small sponge. The sponge is simply there to prevent debris from fouling or damaging the pump’s impeller. Check with the manufacturer to see if your pond is intended to be used with fish.
Flowerbed Water Gardens
Springtime, with its warming weather and budding flowers, is traditionally considered the season for pond installation. However, I say that fall is the preferred time if you are looking for a good deal. On our property, we had to transplant a large evergreen tree that had been planted too close to our home, and after we dug up the tree, there was a large hole begging to become a pond. I found a 170-gallon pond kit for a ridiculously low price of $40 at a large discount store during the month of November. The pre-formed pond was heavily soiled and had one easily replaceable hose missing; otherwise, it was perfect. Tremendous bargains can often be found off-season, especially in the winter prior to the arrival of springtime inventory.
With our new purchase, we hurried home to fill the hole with a water feature that provides striking reflections of colorful flowers and soothing calmness. And by installing the pond in the fall, we were ready to go in early spring as soon as the weather permitted. For six years, this small water garden has become a neighborhood conversation piece and inspired our friends to replicate its beauty.
Rigid Vs. Flexible Water Gardens
I normally recommend pre-formed (rigid plastic) pond kits for those desiring a quick and easy installation. Simply dig a hole, prepare the area, drop in the pre-formed pond, and then backfill around the walls with sand. They are so simple because someone else has already calculated the required filtration, water pump capacity and sometimes plant shelves. A significant advantage of pre-formed ponds is the ability to easily relocate them in the event of landscaping changes. On the other hand, one major disadvantage of pre-formed ponds is the inflexibility of the shape. They are normally molded in oval, kidney, hourglass and a few other shapes. Another disadvantage is that most are only 18 inches deep or less, which is too shallow for overwintering fish in the colder regions. These ponds are intended to be used year-round in warmer climates but are restricted to seasonal use in northern areas.
Ponds with flexible liners are also an excellent choice, but if they are not purchased as a complete kit, they will require more effort. You will have to choose between several types of materials and calculate the required amount of liner material, pump size and filtration to purchase for your project. Another distinct disadvantage of the flexible pond is achieving a precise shape. It is possible but time-consuming, and it sometimes is frustrating to get it exactly symmetrical or to create a perfect circular shape. A major advantage of flexible liners, however, is the ability to create your own water feature design, which is highly desirable, especially in confined or odd-shaped garden areas. Plant shelves can be dug at different levels to accommodate the needs of various plants. Another advantage is the flexible liner’s ability to fill in any excavation, regardless of the shape. Deep ponds with flexible liners are ideal for overwintering fish.
Planning considerations include safety, electrical connections, drainage and a source of water. Ponds are magnets for children, so consider whether it is safe to install one in your yard. Consider drainage whether you choose a rigid or flexible liner. Run-off water that was previously absorbed by shrubs and flowers might not have a place to go after the installation of your new pond. The last thing you want to do is direct this unwanted water toward the foundation of your home or into your pond. Directing the flow of your home’s rainwater downspouts to underground piping keeps vast quantities of water away from your foundation. It is much easier to fix potential drainage problems before installing your pond rather than conducting a difficult and time-consuming retrofit.
Finally, consider where your pond water will flow when you conduct partial water changes. Most pond pumps and lighting come with generous lengths of electrical cord, but experience has proven it is never enough. For safety and convenience purposes, it is always best to have a certified electrician install a GFCI receptacle very close to the pond. Long cords in and around a garden are an accident waiting to happen.
Water gardening can be enjoyed regardless of your experience level and available space. The choices are abundant for selecting a porch pond or flowerbed water garden to suit your needs. No matter what their size or location is, porch ponds and flowerbed water gardens provide an atmosphere of peace and serenity for the eyes and ears — a perfect antidote for stress relief.
Stephen G. Noble is a scuba instructor and water garden consultant who built his first pond in 1969 to accommodate an injured turtle. He has designed and created numerous water features and ponds.