How to make a barrel pond water feature for your garden

I’m slightly different to your average garden designer. My background is in Psychology so i’m not just interested in creating functional spaces that simply look nice, I’m also interested in making spaces that have an ambience of their own and generate positive emotions that soothe the senses to anyone who wonders through them. One of the ways I do this is by working with the elements earth, wind, fire & water. This ‘how to’ focuses on introducing more of the water element into your garden by creating a relatively inexpensive (compared to a lot of things I looked at) water feature out of a 1/2 barrel planter.

Our front garden was missing the sound of water so I spent a considerable amount to time shopping around in search of the perfect water feature. After looking at what must have been hundreds of different water features none seemed to hit the mark for the little corner I had ear marked as its possible new home. It took me a while to realise that I wasn’t just after the sound of water, I also wanted to create an opportunity for my daughter to learn. What I needed was a pond not just a water feature.

A pond presented an awesome learning environment for her to be able to explore and it had the added benefit of being multi sensory. It’s interesting visually, the sound of water is proven to calm the nervous system, running her little hands under the fountain stimulated the touch sense, water Lillys smell absolutely fabulous when in flower and I’ll also share below how I introduced the ‘taste’ sense into the mix as well. I also wanted her to be able to observe fish, take responsibility for feeding them (She’s currently only 4 months old so this will have to wait until she’s older) and see how plants grow under water as well as above ground.

As we had just spent a small fortune doing hard landscaping in the front garden so the ‘pond’ would need to be compact, raised (as it wasn’t possible to dig out a hole), low maintenance and be able to support the life of fish and plants. I also didn’t just want a still bowl pond, it had to have the sound of water running. I joined a few pond Facebook groups in search of hints and tips but they all told me that my wish list was a little too unrealistic for a simple barrel pond. After much discussion and feeling a little deflated I realised that most of these groups are populated with pond enthusiasts who when I say ‘fish’ they hear ‘koi carp’. They were right to say that what I was suggesting wasn’t suitable for Koi but after connecting further with a few of the more open minded pond enthusiasts it did become clear that my barrel pond would happily support the life of the odd Goldfish, some Minnows and Sticklebacks.

I’ve had my ‘pond’ now for just over a month. It has two goldfish and 3 Sticklebacks in it, a mushroom water fountain and filter along with a viewing dome and a few plants that are still establishing. I can honestly say that it has brought the whole family so much joy. My husband ( Previously a pond naysayer on the grounds of maintenance) and I love to sit on the deck with a Gin and Tonic watching the fish and listening to the sound of the water and my 4 month old daughter Océa is mesmerised by the flashes of goldfish and lets out little squeals whenever they go up into the viewing dome.

Below is a step by step guide on how I created the whole thing with links to products I used and a complete outline of expenses.

The pond container

When we first moved into the house our garden was overrun with massive bushes that spread into the garden and took up space, The grass was peppered with thistles and our time spent outside wasn’t particularly user friendly or enjoyable. However, we were in the middle of renovating the house and had zero energy, time or money to do anything with the but I desperately missed my herb garden which I used to use on a daily basis when cooking. I nipped to the garden centre in search of a container i could plant a few simple herbs in to see me through until we got around to doing the garden. I saw some old whiskey barrels and it was buy one get one half price so I ended up coming home with two. I filled them with herbs and they served me well for a whole summer before we eventually got around to landscaping the garden. One of the finishing touches for the garden was a living wall for all my herbs which made the barrels redundant. One of the barrels eventually become a planter for huge yellow wave phormium and the other just sat in the back garden collecting rain water. It was an obvious choice for this to become the base for my pond. I forget how much I paid for them but a quick search online and you can pick them up new for between £40-£60 and there’s one on our local facebook market place currently going for £10 so it seems that a bit of searching means you can pick them up fairly cheap.

The pond liner

The liner we also had free as it was left over from waterproofing the ‘living roof’ on top of our bin and wood store but again these can be picked up fairly cheap on eBay. If you type in pond liner you should see ones with 25 year waterproofing guarantees for £6 + depending on how much you need. I cut a square, laid it over the top of the container and pushed it down onto the base folding it neatly into all of the edges. I then used a staple gun to secure it to the rim of the barrel and then trimmed off all the surplus. Again, we also have the staple gun from a previous project. This is the one we used (click here), admittedly this one is fairly expensive at £27 but i’m sure you can pick them up cheaper or possibly use another means to attach it.

The pond base

I got a small bag of horticultural stones from the garden centre that cost a fiver. They had a logo on the side that said they where suitable for fish but they still needed a fair bit of cleaning first. I just used a sieve under the garden tap to clean all the stone dust off them then I covered the base in a thick layer of them. The whole bag cost me £5 and I had a considerable amount left over at the end. I also got a bag of bigger river stones to put around the edge of the pond to finish off the aesthetic.

Pond water & swan mussels

I’d seen at the garden centre that they had some live swan mussels for sale. These are apparently great in natural ponds as they are filter feeders that naturally filter the water and I had my mind set on them being an extra addition to my pond for Océa to observe and learn from. As they need a certain level of algae in the water in order to survive I decided to hit my neighbours up for some pond water from their already well established pond. They said yes so I nipped around to theirs with a bucket and decanted it into my barrel. My pond was now a thick green soup and I couldn’t even see the bottom stones even though it wasn’t very deep. Admittedly it wasn’t really the aesthetic I was after on my decking but I thought the mussels would clear it up quite quickly. After a bit more research I learnt that this wasn’t the case and if i wanted fish in the pond I really needed a filter and that the filter would clean up all the algae that the swan mussels needed to survive. It became clear that I could have either swan mussels and algae or fish with a filter and clear water meaning no food for the swan mussels. Not both. The addition of a filter would literally starve them. I decided that for this pond I wanted fish over swan mussels so had to empty out the green soup pond water and replace it with clear tap water. My plan is to introduce a nature pond in the back garden at a later date and put swan mussels in there and not introduce fish or a filter to that environment. A natural pond would attract frogs to spawn and newts to take up residence and be another great environment for Océa to learn from but for this first pond I wanted fish and clear water. I filled it up with water from the hose pipe and left it to sit for a few days. This is really important part of the process as waterboards use chlorine to sanitise the water and unfortunately chlorine literally burns fish from the inside out. It kills them fairly quickly so you have the let the water sit so that the chlorine can evaporate and make it safe to add fish. Some waterboards also use chloramine which doesn’t evaporate so in this case you really need to use a water conditioner treatment to remove the chloramine which you can get from a pond shop or garden centre. I just let mine sit and when my fish arrived a few days later they were really happy in that environment.

Pond plants

After a bit of research i’ve found that apparently the best ratio of plants to pond is that at least one third of your pond should be full of plants. This ratio helps oxygenate the water, naturally filter the water keeping it free from pond slime and it also gives the fish somewhere to hide and something to nibble on. It also adds to the aesthetic of the pond. In my excitement I ran down to the garden centre and saw that plants varied in price from £7-£20, A quick search on amazon and I found the same plants for sale for £4. I went home and ordered them online and they arrived two days later admittedly looking a little yellow. A bit disappointed and not very hopeful about their growth, I was just about to nip down to the garden centre again and buy the ones i’d seen a few days earlier when suddenly they perked up. Within two days of being in the pond they had come to life, were lush green and even sprouting new growth. This is also one of the areas that I introduced the taste sense by purchasing watercress. Please note that some of the photos below are before i emptied the pond water out and replaced it with clear tap water.

Pond fish viewing tower

I’d seen on Pinterest some raised glass platforms in larger ponds that enabled fish to swim up into them and therefore be seen above the water. I’d decided that my barrel pond simply must have one of these so scoured my cupboards for any vases and other items that could be used in this way. I found an old bell jar from TKmax that i’d purchased years ago and thought I’d gave this a try. It worked perfectly. I simply put it beneath the water and let all of the air out of it and then tipped it right way up and lifted it onto a platform i’d made out of plant pots (I used these just to test it). As long as the rim of the jar/vase/tank/container/whatever else you use remains beneath the water and no air is allowed to enter it the vacuum will remain the space will stay full of water and fish can enter it. One thing I will say is that when you lift it up you realise how heavy it is when full of water so thin glass items would easily cave and shatter under the pressure. Luckily my bell jar was quite thick and able to withstand the pressure. After testing it and realising that it worked I then had to find a suitable stand to place it on. The plant pots where ok but they took up a lot of space at the bottom of the jar making it difficult for the fish to enter, as a result none did. I had to find another solution. After trying multiple items, non heigh enough or wide enough i finally found an old latern that we where throwing away, We took out the glass pains and it worked as a great base for the bell jar to sit on. I won’t go into anymore detail on the modifications we needed to make to it in order for it to work as your situation will likely involve different materials to ours. You just need to find a base that supports the weight of your viewing dome and allows your fish to enter it from all directions (no sides). A bit of trial and error is required here.

One problem I have encountered with the viewing tower is that the curved glass turns into a bit of a magnifying glass. Although this is great for viewing the fish as they look MASSIVE when they go into it it does cause one unexpected problem. When the sunlight shines through it in the afternoon it magnifies the rays and burns holes into the pond liner. It only does it above the water mark so its not so much of a big deal but sadly the first day it did it it was on a day when the pond was quite low in water so now the first holes in the pond liner are below the optimum water level mark meaning that it now can’t be filled above that point as it just drains out. The first day it happened I was sat in my chair moaning for an hour about being able to smell burning plastic. After wondering around the garden sniffing EVERYTHING we eventually realised what it was. I’m going to experiment with some gaffer tape and puncture repair kit but its just something to consider when using curved glass as a viewing dome.

Barrel pond filter

With regards to the pond filter this is where the pond enthusiasts in the facebooks groups came in super handy. They saved me a small fortune in trial and error and someone recommended a filter that supported the size of pond I had and it also operated as convenient water feature too in the form of a fountain which had multiple attachments for a variety of affects. The filter wasn’t cheap but i’d read that lots of people had gone for cheaper filters only to find that they didn’t work so had to upgrade later down the line which ultimately lead to more expense in the long term. I decided to just buy right and buy once and went with the recommended filter that a few people said they had used. They had even showed me photos and videos of it in use in their barrels pond and it was evident that the pond clarity was exceptional and the water feature fountain was exactly what I was after. I figured that if you’re going to spend money anywhere it should be on the filter. After all, if the pond became smelly and green soupy it just wouldn’t have survived for very long on my decking before my husband would have drained it and returned the barrel to the back garden junk pile. The filter I purchased is a plug in one, there are solar ones available but I’ve read they aren’t as good as the power ones and as we had a plug socket right next to my proposed location I decided to go for that. I got it from amazon for £59.99 All Pond Solutions CUP-305 UV Steriliser Filter Pump . This didn’t come with a plug. I had to steal one off a broken lamp and wire it on. So far so good. I can’t advise on a solar panelled one as I didn’t try any but what I will say is that you may be able to get away with a solar panelled one if you only had Minnows and Sticklebacks in the pond and not any Goldfish. My friend Sarah in London is currently experimenting with this as she wanted a pond too after seeing mine but didn’t have a plug in her garden. I will feedback when gives me a report. See below for my comments on fish. I use the mushroom attachment on the filter which gives a lovely flow of water that mirrors the shape of the bell jar viewing dome. You can also adjust the flow of water if need be. The first time I switched it on it shot a jet of water into the sky that went above the drain pipe on our roof so this obviously had to be adjusted which is as simple as turning a knob on the side. One thing I would caution about the filter is that because the pond is so small, when it’s windy the water is often blown out of the side of the pond which if left over a prolonged period of time could easily drain the pond entirely and kill the fish. If were going through a windy period I tend to turn the filter down which is easily done by twisting the top of the attachment. Keeping an eye on this is really easy for us as the location is right outside our patio living room doors but if you’re placing it at the bottom of a garden then it may be worth considering this element a little further and possibly looking into other filters or not using the fountain element of this filter (it also has an attachment that just sends a jet of water back into the water and not above the water).

Barrel pond fish

Another friend (Jonathan Bacon) helped me out here by suggesting that I purchase from a company called Carpco . Their shipping isn’t cheap but they are one of the only places I found that supplied Sticklebacks and Minnows. I originally bought one goldfish, 3 minnnows and 3 sticklebacks. Sadly 2 of the minnows disappeared one night and the following day I saw the last remaining minnow floating headless in the viewing dome. My only explanation is that the Goldfish must have eaten them. This is quite unusual behaviour as Goldfish are normally quite peaceful and well behaved but after exploring many other alternative explanations this is the only one we can settle on. It’s such a shame as the minnows where my favourite. They swam around in a little 3 strong shoal and they were so much fun to watch. However this did make a bit more space in the pond so i got another Goldfish. On reflection I wish I hadn’t got either of the goldfish and got a bumper crop of minnows instead, this would have also meant that I didn’t need the powerful filter. The sticklebacks are still going strong as are my two Goldfish. If the Goldfish were to die (brutal I know, but lets face it, Goldfish are known for giving up on life fairly easily) i’d instantly re purchase some Minnows as they bring a lot more viewing pleasure than the Goldfish ever will which is an interesting observation that I wouldn’t have considered before getting the pond. I would have always thought the Goldfish would have been more fun as they are more visible due to their size and colourings but the minnows have much more fascinating behaviour to watch over a G&T. Also because they follow each other around they are actually really easy to spot (Easier than the sticklebacks anyway). Carpco pricing, Minnows are £1.34 each, Sticklebacks are £0.74p each and Goldfish are £1.43. Postage is £11.94 at the time of writing. They arrived in a blow up bag floating in watering were packaged really well. I was in to receive them but you don’t need to be as they can leave them in a safe place for you. Please google how to introduce fish to a new pond, you need to leave the bag floating on top of the water for some time first in order to acclimatise them.

Ignore the writing on the pics below. They are screen grabs from my instagram stories because i forgot to take pics and I got my fish numbers wrong.

Barrel pond maintenance

I feed the fish twice a week with some fish crumb I got from Carpco and some pellets I got from the garden centre. Other than that I just top it up every now and then as its in full sun all day so there is a natural level of evaporation.

Cost of making a barrel pond

Barrel - Free (Usual cost anywhere up to £50)

Liner - Free (usually £6-£10)

Stones - £5. I also got some nice chunky river stones to put around the base of the barrel which really complete the look in my opinion

Plants - Up to you how much you spend and it totally depends on how many you buy but I spent around £12

Viewing Tower - Free (Obviously you can purchase one but I suggest you look for things you can use around the house or skip this process entirely)

Filter - Mine was £59.99 + the price of a plug if you don’t have one laying around. If you’re not having goldfish you could probably try a solar filter which are much cheaper or an even cheaper option is just to make a natural pond with no filter and just use plants to clean the water.

Fish - I spent £19.61 but it’s up to you what you buy and how many you buy.

Total = around £95 which is fairly expensive but worth every penny. If you wanted to do it cheaper you could aim to attract frogs and newts instead of fish and skip the filter which is the most expensive bit.
Conclusion

We LOVE our barrel pond and the decking now feels complete with the presence of a multi sensory water feature. Whenever anyone comes to our house they are always automatically drawn over to the barrel and everyone has a peer over the edge to see what’s going on in there. Kids are absolutely fascinated by it and one of my favourite things to do with my daughter Océa is to sit in the chair at the end of the day and hold her over it. She loves the sounds and moving sights below and will happily sit there for a good 30-40mins completely mesmerised by it. The filter made it bit more expensive to make than I had initially hoped but actually it needed it and my opinion it was money well spent. I can’t see us getting rid of any time soon, actually I want to make more. The back garden will definitely have another pond in there when we eventually get around to spending some time in there fixing it up.

Onwards…

Hails