Ask the WWM Crew
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What does it take to "have" an aquatic garden? Really? Just a water-holding container that won't negatively react chemically with the garden's inhabitants. Yes, that's all.
By this definition everyone may enjoy water effects, of any size, shape, indoors/out or stretching in-between; and they do. Folks who live in areas with inclement weather can just "roll out (or in) the barrel" so to speak in keeping their garden going season to season.
These "container gardens" are sometimes small (my sister has one she fashioned from a mop-bucket), all the way up to large indoor contraptions. They're so popular and versatile that we'll devote a whole section to container water gardening.
Biological or no? For containers that will house living organisms (plants and/or fish(es)) you want to plan on having provisions for water change, electricity and possibly filtration. Bear in mind that potted plants will require containers of at least a foot in depth to accommodate soil, gravel and a minimum of six inches of water.
Having a container garden inside presents opportunities and challenges different than those out of doors. Especially in the way of weight, water/humidity and providing adequate light.
Weighty matters, can be a concern for wood floors, particularly in "older" buildings. Check out the bearing of your foundation and do spread out the weight/force of your container with a flat support should it have "feet" instead of a flat bottom.
Humidity, including splashing and spilling must be anticipated. Avoid hassles with significant others, the neighbors downstairs... by placement, being careful and developing a routine for doing water work on the system with towels, a plastic skirt...
Lighting for optimizing plant growth and enjoying the feature should be provided with an intended fixture and bulb. Living system's are best illuminated by full-spectrum fluorescent or specialty pendant-type metal halide lighting.
For live plants you want to select a sunny (3-4 hours per day plus), airy setting with a minimum of deciduous trees overhead. For indoors, be careful to allow space to get around the feature for maintenance and to allow for air circulation to reduce dampness/mildewing.
These come in all sorts of shapes and materials. Tubs, toilets, crocks, ceramic pots, boats with the water inside, wine, olive, whiskey and other wooden barrels; plastic, metal and terra cotta pots, troughs, buckets... you name it.
Definitely, the larger the better, but I have seen no practical minimum size. Big containers are harder to move about, but far more stable, easier to maintain and flexible in the way of decorating.
The two principal concerns stand; that the container be leak proof and not interact in a detrimental way with the water. For a system with no life in it, you still don't want the water to stain, rust, otherwise corrode, possibly damaging the surrounding area, pumping... Criteria for selecting novel materials include corrosion resistance, non-stain ability, easy workability, strength, and of course beauty.
Let your imagination soar. I've seen lead sheeting, copper, aluminum, brass, bronze, cast iron, stainless steels, wood (but not redwood), fiberglass, acrylic and more used for making non-biological containers.
Combating Container Chemical Activity:
Galvanized metal, porous ceramics, woods that have been used for fermented beverages... all need to be sealed or covered over to prevent rusting or chemical poisoning. There are rubberized, epoxy, latex, asphaltous, and other "paints" available; but for wooden containers my best recommendation is to fit the inside with a water-proof membrane. Different water gardens offer PVC ones in pre-made shapes/sizes, otherwise you can "fit your own" out of four to ten mil polyethylene, butyl or PVC liner.
Planting A Barrel Garden:
You might want to use separate "blind" containers to independently pot your plants to facilitate cleaning, changing of plant materials within your barrel; maybe using plastic ware or a "cat litter box" arrangement.
Either way you go about it, my Standard Operating Procedure for substrates for rooted plants in containers calls for 3-4 inches of sandy loam, covered by fine sand, and that possibly covered with gravel or larger stone to keep fishes from rooting up the bottom. (drawing).
Do not use a commercial potting mix or soil-less medium; all you want is regular garden soil when planting aquatic plants. I like to use the inorganic fertilizer tabs mentioned in D) i) b) 1) on an annual basis for feeding the rooted plants.
Take care when filling and planting to minimize stirring up the soil. A plate to run water over is a great help.
The types of plants available and usable in these water features is huge; besides the archetypal lilies, oxygenating grasses, irises and other typical pond plants, there are "aquarium", bog and "hydroponic house" plants galore. You will be amazed at just how vigorous so many plant-stocks are, grown in and around aquatic containers.
Guppies, related livebearers called mosquitofishes, goldfishes of all sorts, even tropical fishes for warmer months may be kept to your advantage in container gardens. These will aid in keeping the water clear of algae and pesky insects.
Take care to not over-feed your finny charges. If the system has little to no filtration/aeration/circulation you will have to be especially careful to not pollute your system by over-populating and feeding it.
Fishy livestock should be introduced a few weeks after planting to allow the water chemistry to stabilize; even then you should purchase and use a new water treatment (from a pet/fish store); and add it regularly when changing water.
Water level should be kept down a couple of inches from the containers lowest lip to prevent your fish(es) jumping out.
For "balanced" systems with lots of plant material and few fishes and feeding their may not be a need for "supplemental" aeration/circulation/filtration; but unless your system is non-biological I would provide some form of filter-help.
The simplest effective type is an air-driven sponge filter arrangement that you can pick up at a fish store. This involves a 110 volt air pump, hose and specialized permanent sponge and lift tube. Beneficial microbes live in/on the sponge and it's trappings using up fish wastes and denying food to noisome algae.
Larger systems, or one's that are multi-level with water falls, sprays and spills might utilize a pump mechanism housed in a box with replaceable, washable filter media. A caution here concerning pumps and small water volumes. Some of these "little" motors produce prodigious amounts of waste heat (while driving up your electrical bills). Look into epoxy-filled "power-head" (magnetic drive) type motorized pumps. For almost all container gardens, these make the best choice in providing adequate flow (pressure and volume) in terms of energy consumption and up-keep.
Please see the previous articles on Electricity and on Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters before plugging in anything around the container.
Maintenance of Tub Gardens:
These container features are virtually maintenance-free. During the warmer months, periodic feeding, removal of excess snails (should you have them) and dead leaves along with water changing is all that's called for.
Frequent partial water changes are a good idea for the same reasons as for folks with aquariums; they dilute wastes which contribute to algae growth, and don't add more mineral which just making up evaporated water would do. The easiest way to go about water changing is to get in the habit of scooping out at least the same amount of evaporated loss (you can water your terrestrial plants with it), replacing and topping the water off with treated tap of about the same temperature.
If the garden is outside, and you live in an area that gets too cold (as in freezing), you will need to bring the container into a greenhouse, garage, or over-winter the livestock per their requirements. Potted plants can generally be stored moist in "pickle buckets" in a non-freezing setting.
Regarding chemical treatments to make or keep the water clear, algicides, fish medicines... stay away from all of them, even "salt" remedies suggested by other authors are more trouble and danger than they're worth. Your water may turn green, grow stringy stuff, look funny, but don't worry; this won't hurt your livestock and it will balance itself out without you dumping and starting it again every week; and without chemical treatments. If you have "too much" algae, your system has too much fertilizer (probably from feeding) and/or sunlight; correct these causes, not their effects.
Arellano, John. 1985. Interior water gardens. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 10/85.
Korolev, Nick. 1987. Build an indoor garden pool without flooding your basement. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 7/87.
Meyer, Stephen M. 1991. Indoor aquatic ponds. Aquarium Fish Magazine 11/91.
Osborne, Kevin. 1984. The miniature indoor water garden. Freshwater and Marine Aquarium 12/84.
Stroup, Denyelle Dove. 1989. Garden ponds in containers; when there isn't room for a pond, the next best thing is a pond in a tub. Aquarium Fish Magazine 6/89.
Woy, Pat. 1988. Enjoying an outdoor tub garden. Tropical Fish Hobbyist 4/88.