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Rub a Dub Dub, There Are Fish in the Tub

I have always been fascinated with nature. Bugs and spiders, fish and fowl, critters of every kind have attracted and interested me. It's not surprising then that some of my favorite times with my children have been in watching them discover new facets of nature. What could be more educational than learning how water striders skim along on surface tension by watching them do it? What could be more fascinating than seeing the hidden life in a pond as you observe mosquito wigglers, daphnia, and cyclops under a magnifying glass? And every child should see a tadpole turn into a frog! One of the best opportunities for education and enjoyment came with our own back yard pond.

Surprisingly, a back yard pond can be made easily and economically. One of the easiest ponds to make is a barrel pond. A barrel pond can be made from items found at any local discount department store. You will need the supplies listed in the box above to set up your pond.

Before constructing the pond choose a site that receives four to six hours of sunlight per day. Try not to position it too closely to a tree that sheds leaves or blossoms heavily. Prepare the spot either by taking away the grass and leveling the earth or by putting down patio blocks or bricks and building up the soil underneath until the surface is level. Once this is done, set the barrel in place. Unfold a large section of black plastic and place it over the barrel. While one family member holds the edge of the plastic six to eight inches over the rim of the barrel, another should push the plastic down into the barrel. Cut the extra plastic, leaving a generous surplus around the outside. You may want to have two layers placed perpendicular to each other.

Once the layers are in place, slowly fill the barrel with water while pushing the plastic into the bottom edges and evenly folding the excess plastic along the sides. Take your time and be particular since the plastic is very hard to adjust when the tub is full. When the barrel is about two- thirds full, turn off the water, trim the plastic more evenly, and fold it under so that the fold of the plastic is even with the inside top edge of the barrel and the rough cut edge of plastic is hidden. (Don't position the plastic over the edge of the barrel because plastic exposed to the sun will harden and crack over time, allowing water to seep under it.) Now staple the plastic in place by positioning the staples at half-inch intervals around the barrel about one-half inch from the top edge of the plastic. Make sure to even out the folds as you staple. It is sometimes helpful to work one edge for a short distance and then work on the opposite side. This extra care assures even distribution of the plastic and prevents bunching or pulling.

After the plastic has been stapled in place, gently pull back the top edge and run a narrow bead of silicone seal close to where the staples have entered the wood. Then press the plastic back into place and finish filling the barrel to no more than four inches from the top to allow for water displacement when the plants and rocks are put in.

About now the kids are wet from head to toe and for the last hour have been impatiently asking when the fish can go in. Don't worry. The initial set-up is almost finished, and I have a great excuse to let the whole thing rest for a day. Water from the tap usually has chlorine in it which would kill both the fish and the plants; therefore, it is important to allow the water to sit in the barrel for at least a day before adding either. With the physical labor done, you can turn your energy to more aesthetic problems: plants and fish.

When picking out plants, look for variety. Oxygenating plants are essential to the health of your fish and therefore are a must. Two common varieties of oxygenating plants are Anacharis (Elodea) or Cabomba (Fanwort). Both of these plants float below the surface. As they conduct photosynthesis, they release oxygen directly into the water for the fish to "breathe."

Surface plants are also a good choice. These plants float on the water and provide shade for the fish, keep the water cool, and reduce algae production. Water lettuce is one variety that is available at most nurseries that deal in water gardens.

A nice complement to the surface plants are bottom plants such as water lilies. These bottom plants add interest and perspective to the lower regions of the barrel. Prices on these vary greatly, but it doesn't take an extremely fancy water lily to add dimension to your pond. Our family has enjoyed our little yellow buttercup-like lilies, and they have proven to be hardy and self-sustaining. To get the pot to the bottom without losing large amounts of soil, the surface around the plant should be covered with gravel or small rocks and then the plant should be slowly immersed. The plant does best when placed just off the bottom on a single rock or brick. This discourages roots from trying to get through the plastic and the fish can munch on the new root growth.

Another type of plant that adds interest to your back yard pond (and a landing pad for dragonflies) is the bog plant. Two of the most familiar bog plants are the arrowhead (Sagittaria) and the horsetail (Equisetum). Bog plant pots should be supported by bricks or rocks stacked high enough to allow the top inch of the pot to be out of the water. We like to set this pot on a larger piece of slate so that when we have a turtle, it can rest close to the surface.

With the plants in place it's time to add fish. Choosing fish is easy. Something a bit fancy will do, but feeder goldfish are best. They are inexpensive and hardy and will grow to a nice size for the tub. Two to four fish are about all that a tub pond will sustain. Although they are popular, avoid buying koi, since they love to eat aquatic plants and will slowly digest your investment. After the pond is established, a bottom feeder such as a catfish will eat excess food, thereby helping to prevent murky water. Ask a salesman what breeds are hardy and can live in cold water. At first the goldfish will need to be fed once a day with goldfish food or worms, but later occasional feeding will suffice. When your fish are small, cut the worms into manageable portions; later the fish will eat whole worms like spaghetti.

The pond is now finished in the technical sense, but the education is just beginning. My children love adding to our ecosystem by gathering more water life during excursions to a nearby lake, pond, or stream. In preparation for an expedition, take a trip to the library for books on pond life to see what you can collect. We have collected water striders, snails, and tadpoles as well as water beetles, crayfish, and painted and snapping turtles. Natural additions also occur as writing spiders build their webs in bog plants and dragonflies come from seemingly nowhere to lay their eggs. Each addition is observed and enjoyed as a marvel of God's creation and creates a memory that will last far longer than the pond itself.


  1. Tadpoles are good for holding down mosquito larva populations, and snails are natural algae eaters.
  2. Pond water may be cloudy or clear and still be very healthy, but you should clean dead leaves and debris from the bottom on a weekly basis.
  3. Try to avoid draining the water or cleaning the sides, since this will only force the pond to start over in its balancing act.
  4. Ponds in moderate climates can be wintered without removing the fish or plants. Most of the water plants are perennial and will come back in the spring.
  5. Fish can live under several inches of ice for a few weeks. Do not feed your fish in the winter.
  6. Children can drown in just a few inches of water, and precautions will be needed to protect them from the danger. You may want to call your township or city offices to check possible regulations concerning safety measures you can take.

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