Pond in a Pot (much easier and cheaper than you might think!)

I recently started excitedly setting up a little container pond in my parents’ garden. A pond in a pot is an easy project to increase the diversity of habitats in a limited space and can be set up pretty quickly. I can’t pretend to be an expert, but I know a decent amount about wildlife and animal welfare, and have picked up a lot of the basics through researching my own pond pot, so wanted to share my experience. Hopefully I can encourage anyone who is interested but not knowing where to start, or wondering if it’s worth it (it is!).

Here’s how I started mine:

  1. Container
Green pot, roughly 40cm high and 40cm diameter
Step one in setting up a container pond – choose a container! Recycling something you already have is ideal, but if you are keen to create one and don’t have anything suitable, you can always buy a pot of whatever size you are able/would like to use.

I bought a roughly 40cm deep, 40cm diameter pot without a drainage hole for £12 at my local garden centre. It would be ideal to reuse a container you already own, if you have one. It could be anything from an old sink to a tin bath to any other container that won’t leak. It’s recommended that, if you can, you should try to have at least 60cm of depth as this will help prevent extreme fluctuations in the water temperature, but wildlife never reads the instruction manual and if you’re providing something they can use then there’s a good chance it will be found and appreciated.

2. Water

According to the Freshwater Habitats Trust, it is best to fill any pond with rainwater. They explain that this is to avoid adding nutrients and disinfectants to the pond, which will kill many pond plants, and is also cheaper and avoids inappropriate use of valuable tap-water. I am lucky to have a rainwater butt in the garden, so used this to fill my pond container.

3. Placement

I decided to bury my pot, to make it seem more like a natural pond and to make it easier for any creatures to climb in. Froglife, in their advice leaflet, also suggest sinking the container into the ground. After digging an appropriately-sized hole and plonking my pot inside, I banked up some of the spare soil around the edge to create a slope for any animals to easily get into the pond. Whilst the pond was still in progress, I also immediately added a long, branched stick to make sure any creatures could climb out if they needed to.

It is of utmost importance to put some kind of “ladder” or slope in the pond for any animals to use to climb out – this stick is not ideal but seemed to work as a temporary measure.

The downside of using a pot or other container for the pond is that it will be steep-sided, so it is extremely important to form a sloping edge for any animals to get out of the pond. I chose to use stones and gravel to form a sloped bank and some structure under the water.

It was a bit of a pain to make the stones form a nice slope under the water (and my hands were freezing!) but the last thing you want is some poor animal being unable to get out and drowning in there. Providing different levels within the pond in this way will also allow any animals entering to choose where they are most comfortable. Different depths and areas under the water will have different temperatures and amounts of shade, so adding some levels and structure under the water will make it more likely that visiting animals will be able to find an appropriate microclimate for themselves.

4. Plants

I was keen to put UK native plants in my little pond. Even if a pond seems self-contained and unlikely to spread invasive plants, there will be unexpected connectivity – since the point of the pond is to provide a welcoming space for wildlife, it makes sense that (if all is well) creatures will enter and leave the pond, potentially spreading plants as they go. I have been told about a small (apparently isolated) woodland pond which started growing Crasulla (invasive New Zealand pigmyweed), presumably brought in by a duck from another site. Froglife have included the following list in their recommendations for non-native invasive plants which are particularly important to avoid:

  • Floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides)
  • Parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum)
  • New Zealand pygmyweed or water stonecrop (Crasulla helmsii) (often sold as Tillaea recurva)
  • Water fern (Azolla filiculoides)
  • Nutall’s and Canadian pondweed (Elodea spp.)
  • Curly pondweed (Lagarosiphon major)
  • Water primrose (Ludwigia grandiflora)

In researching plant options, I’ve found it’s advised to have submerged, surface and emergent plants. Submerged plants will oxygenate the water, surface plants will provide shade and resting spots for invertebrates such as dragonflies, and emergent plants provide further cover and can provide food for pollinators. So far I have Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) as an emergent plant and Spiked Milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) as submerged. I recently learned that Water Mint is one of the plants used by newts to fold their eggs into, which is one of the reasons I was eager to get it, even though I don’t think my pond is big enough to support breeding newts! When the plants emerge from their winter dormancy and become available in Mid-May/June, I am also keen to get Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) – a native plant which looks like tiny lily pads.

I looked for plants at my local garden centre and B&Q but only found non-native Water Lily which was too big for a little container pond, and another non-native species (Pontederia cordata). There aren’t any other shops near me to try, so I had a look online and found a site (watersidenursery.co.uk) which marks each species clearly as UK native or non-native, and offers advice on combinations of plants to use. They delivered the plants in damp newspaper ready to put in the pond. I had no idea how big the plants would be and found after they arrived that I may need some more even after getting the Frogbit, but it is a start!

As I have no previous experience in pond-planting, I was a bit concerned when I started looking into it that I would need to buy special aquatic soil and figure out how to do this in such a small container without making the water a muddy mess, but this wasn’t necessary. It seems most suppliers of pond plants will provide a basket for the plant to be put straight into the pond as it is, so it couldn’t have been easier! I used my gravel-sloped side to place the basket at the appropriate depth (specified on the label as up to 5cm of water over the top of the basket). Likewise, submerged plants can be put straight in the water (though I am yet to make the Spiked Milfoil sink to the correct 30cm depth).

Another concern I had was that plants might grow out of control and choke up the pond in the limited space available, but just as with a full-size pond, it’s recommended to cut back and remove excess and decaying foliage in Autumn, so that it doesn’t fall to the bottom and add nutrients to the water. I am hoping therefore that with a bit of plant maintenance each year I should be able to keep my little pond healthy. I plan to keep an eye on it and intervene if things seem to be getting out of hand!

5. Wait and watch

Now it is in progress and on its way to becoming established, I’ve started wondering what ecological difference it will make and how likely it is that I’ll see anything using it. (Probably the wrong way around to do things, but I was fairly confident that it at least wouldn’t be a bad thing). I found online a whole research paper on the ecology and diversity of urban ponds. It is stated in this paper that ponds are valuable supporting habitats as part of landscape-level conservation. One reason for this is that although individual ponds may each contain a small number of species, as a network they can provide a great diversity of environmental conditions compared to large water bodies.  

Froglife are urging everyone who can to make a pond, no matter how small, and have an amazing advice booklet for anyone wanting to make a pond themselves. Their campaign is called “Just Add Water”. Whilst I was wondering what might actually find and use such a small pond, I stumbled across this picture of a similarly small, buried container pond in a London allotment which was teeming with frogspawn and then tadpoles. And even if a pond is not supporting breeding animals, adults may still find the pond and use it as a stepping stone to the next pond, finding much-needed moisture there, as well as food due to presence of invertebrates. For these reasons, it really is worth making a little pond, to provide options and supporting habitat for local populations – the more people that are able to create wildlife ponds, the better the connectivity of habitats in an area will be.

As my little pond is brand new, I will be waiting and watching from now onwards and hoping as my pond in a pot develops that it will be welcoming some pond-life. I would urge anyone reading to consider trying this at home! Watch this space for future pond updates.

Work-in-progress – some submerged plants, an emergent plant, underwater structure and slopes for entry and exit. Still needs a surface plant to provide a bit more cover, and possibly further submerged plants for sufficient oxygenation. In no time it should be even more welcoming!

Time spent: Up to an hour and a half (digging, filling with water, adding plants and safety features for animals to get in and out of the pond)

Cost: £32 total to set up – pot £12, plants and delivery £20 (after I’ve managed to get the Frogbit!), pebbles, stones, branched stick and water for the pond were all, luckily for me, already in the garden. Costs can be reduced/eliminated by reusing a container already owned, and allowing the pond to colonise naturally rather than buying plants, although this will take much longer – potentially up to 5 years.

Message: With a short amount of time and even with a small budget, anyone can provide valuable pond habitat to help reverse the decline in this important habitat type.

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