How to Make a Sustainable Water Garden Pond from a Wooden Half Barrel

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Half Barrel PondHalf Barrel Pond
Photo Credit: aezarien/Photobucket

Repurposing old wine or whisky barrels into a pond water garden is a great way to build a simple, and sustainable water feature

Whether you plan to use it on a patio or in the garden, you will find that making this simple half barrel water garden pond will provide pleasure not only for you, but for wildlife that relish a habitat in or near water.

Water gardens are a delight to behold, but often feel intimidating to build and maintain.  A half barrel water garden pond is a creative solution for a small, easy to maintain and sustain water feature.  A half barrel pond will give you all the benefits of a lovely water garden on a manageable scale. 


Getting Started
A Half Barrel Pond Water Garden starts with a half barrel repurposed wine or whiskey barrel.  You can purchase these at many home improvement and garden centers.  You will want to line the barrel with a purchased plastic liner to prevent of toxic leaching into your pond water garden. 

We recommend a preformed liner (5’ x 5’) or a cut to fit
PVC Pond Liner readily available in most pond supply stores. Do not settle for less than 20 mil liners, they are not worth the money, since they won’t be strong enough to prevent tearing. 

If you want to skip the liner altogether you will need patience and some native floating plants, such as Giant Duckweed, Floating Yellow Buttercup or Bladderwort.  Some sources say to use water hyacinth, but this is one of the most invasive exotics plants in the world and highly discouraged. 

Water Lilly

Exotic Water Lily
Photo Credit © Elsie Trovato

Fill the barrel with un-chlorinated water and throw in the floating plant.  The floating species will absorb the toxic residues from the former contents of the barrel (phytoremediation).  Dump the water every few days and refill it with un-chlorinated water.  When the odor is gone, give the treatment another week to be safe.   Dispose of the floating plants after treatment.  Then proceed with stocking your half barrel pond water garden.

You don’t need to limit yourself to a half barrel container.   Many people have chosen half barrels for their rustic good looks, but any other container that holds about 15 gallons of water will be comparable as far as maintenance and planting with room for a fountain or some fish.  You can use an old galvanized tub, a planter trough, an antique kettle, a repurposed old bathtub…your imagination can be your guide.

Other than your container the five most important factors to be considered are:

As with any new hobby or project, the more you know, the better things go.  To be sustainable in your efforts please take a little time to check out the various sources and resources we have gathered.   You will benefit from the experts on the biology, ecology and building of water features to maintain a healthy, sustainable ecosystem.

The sustainable ecosystem you are building will then meet the needs of both you and your friendly, pond loving critters in a healthy, pest free way. When you are familiar with Mother Nature’s methods, she has a tendency to smile on your efforts, even if you think you have a black thumb. 

Location — How to site your half barrel pond water garden

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Water — What water garden can do without water?  The question is what kind of water.  There are a few considerations to take into account.

Living Waters Starting a pond water garden isn’t as simple as filling up the half barrel water, though.  Ponds are living waters that have their own ecosystems that include things we cannot see.

Natural ponds have beneficial bacteria that keep diseases and unwanted things like paramecium contamination from spoiling the water.  You will want to recreate this environment.  One way to avoid slimy, oily, smelly water is to add beneficial bacteria.

You will need several gallons of water from a natural source such as a pond, lake, bog, swamp or slow moving stream that has created a natural pool.  You should add this water after you have a neutral water source in your half barrel.  This living water will have microorganisms that keep you pond water healthy for plants and other aquatic life.

If you do not have access to natural waters, you can buy bacteria to add to your water.  Either way you go, add some lava rock or other such chemically inert, porous rock to the bottom of your half barrel pond water garden.  The beneficial bacteria will make a home and multiply, assuring they will be on the job a long time.

Filling the Half Barrel Aside from natural waters you will have to fill the half barrel with water from another source.   The easiest is tap water, but the chlorine will kill fish and plants, and essential microorganisms.    You need un-chlorinated water for your pond water garden. 

You can provide this in a few ways.  Leave tap water in an open container for several days until the chlorine dissipates.  When first starting your pond, before you add any living things, you can do this right in the half barrel pond. 

Refilling the Half Barrel You will need to exchange about 5 gallons of water every week to keep the pond fresh.  Plan ahead to have un-chlorinated water available.

Some people buy a water filter for this.  Others buy tablets or drops that neutralize the chlorine.  Still others use tap water that has been left open for several days prior to adding to the pond water garden.  It does not matter which way you go, as long as you do it.  Your pond depends on you.

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Plants — Aquatic plants are the definition of a water garden.  Native aquatic plants the defining factor in a sustainable water garden.  While there are many sources of exotic plants for a water garden, you will want to avoid these and choose native species instead.  

Exotic aquatic plant species have gotten loose in the wild and caused tremendous problems, even in the name of scientific experiment.  These invasive exotics have caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage and you don’t want to contribute to this in any way.

If you feel you must use exotic species, choose ones that are not invasive, such as hardy exotic water lilies,  then use the greatest of caution to make sure they never leave an enclosed water environment.  If you need to thin out your plants, either give away (with warning) or throw away any extras.  Never dispose of them in a natural water source.

Water plants are prolific and left unchecked, they will take over.  Too much plant life will spoil the ecosystem of your small container pond water garden.  Balance is always the key.

Cardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis

Cardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis
Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Except for true floating plants, it is best to have your plants in submerged pots.  This will make it easier to control the size and amount of any given plant in your pond water garden.   Be ruthless when the aquatic plants get too large for the pot.  Thin them without reservation.  Give away or get rid of (safely) any extras being sure to never allow any exotic materials or water that they were in, to escape the container.

For more information on the different kinds of water garden plants you will want to use and why, see our article, Plants for a Sustainable Water Feature.  To choose additional native plants for your pond water garden we recommend AquaPlant  of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service,
National Plant Indentification Network and the
PLANTS database of the US Department of Agriculture.

You will find a wealth of information in these resources.

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Maintenance — Half Barrel Pond Water Gardens are low maintenance provided you have followed the sustainable measures we outline in this article.  The reason is that you have then established a self-sustaining ecosystem that needs little intervention from man.

Still, all water features need some regular maintenance. 

Fun — Fish, Fountains and Figures

Fish - You may want to include some small fish in your pond water garden.  The emphasis here is on small.  Guppies, goldfish and mosquitofish are all good choices for a pond water garden.  Koi will not be appropriate both because they are too large, and because they produce too much waste.  Goldfish can also grow too large for a container pond garden, so be on the lookout as time goes by.


Mosquito Fish
Mosquitofish  Gambusia affinis
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mosquitofish have an added benefit in that they eat tremendous amounts of mosquito larvae.  You never have to worry about being a breeding ground for mosquitos when you have a few of these friendly fish in your water feature.  You can often get mosquitofish from your local mosquito control center.

Here is a great video on Mosquitofish from Fish Biologist Chris Miller.

Fountains While fountains are fun, they also come with additional requirements, such as nearby electricity and hoses to conceal.   If you want a pump style container water fountain you have to decide this before you get started.

Hoses can be concealed with a little finesse.  If you are handy with power tools and you have chosen a wooden half barrel or other container that can be drilled, you can put a hose in close to the bottom for a neat appearance. 

Drill a small hole very close in diameter to the size of the air hose and caulk around it on both sides with silicone caulk.  Test the seal before you take the final steps in stocking your container pond water garden. 

A bubbler or small spray fountain heads would be ideal for this kind of pond water garden.

Another option is a Floating Lily Solar Pond Fountain.  This is a lovely addition and requires no pump and no electricity.  Shaped like a water lily pad, this fountain has a gentle spray appropriate for a small water feature like the container pond water garden.  The pump energy recharges from sunlight and the fountain has a remote control for easy on-and-off operation.

Water spitters are another way to add a fountain-like effect to your container pond water garden.  These have exterior pumps and hoses, so you don’t have to do any construction on the container itself.  Find a perch for the spitter, and there you go!

Figures — There are many resin type garden statues that will work well in a container pond garden.  Perhaps a meditating Buddha is the perfect serene figure for your water garden, or maybe a Saint Francis Statue patron of animals and the environment, will bring a blessing for you. 

You can celebrate your favorite NCAA college, MLB or NFL with a collectable gnome.  There are so many different statuary choices you can let your imagination take flight!

Don’t forget…check out the sources and resources for additional information.


Jeff Cook, Half Barrel Pond Page
Natural Resource Conservation Service, Backyard Pond - Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet, Mississippi State University, Creating Water Features in the Landscape
Texas Agrilife Extension Service, AquaPlant 



Native Aquatic Plant Material Sources

Plant Native   -  Native Plant Nursery Directory

TN Nursery Wholesale Nursery Company  -  1-877-771-7655

While this is a wholesale nursery, contacting them for a local retailer will get you native wetland plants for your container pond water garden.


Directories of Native Plants for Water Gardens —

AquaPlant  of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service,
National Plant Identification Network and the
PLANTS database of the US Department of Agriculture.


Books about building, designing and planting ponds —

Some are so inexpensive as to almost be free, and others are dynamite references to own if you plan to water garden. 


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