How to Create a Container Water Garden

Learn where to put it, what to fill it with, and how to keep it healthy.

Three purple and blue lotus flowers blooming in water basin

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  • Working Time: 2 hours
  • Total Time: 2 hours - 2 weeks
  • Yield: 1 container water garden
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $30 and up

A container water garden is, on the most basic level, a pot of water that contains aquatic plants. Something this simple comes with a wealth of benefits—not only does it act as an elevated focal point of any landscape; it also can attract an array of wildlife to your space.

These human-made, above-ground ponds are magnets for birds, squirrels, frogs, and chipmunks. They add an element of serenity to their surroundings, they can range from 20 gallons to 500, and you'll be happy to know they are wildly low-maintenance.

Learn how to create a container water garden and what to grow in it.

Choosing a Container for Your Water Garden

The concept of a container water garden is quite broad and ripe for customization. The first step in making it yours is, of course, to choose your container. Any sort of watertight vessel will do so long as it's at least six inches deep. The larger it is, the more viable it will be as a habitat for plants and fish. Common vessels include buckets, tubs, resin whiskey barrels, and large ceramic pots.

What to Plant in Your Container Water Garden

Two metal troughs filled with aquatic plants

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Ponds-in-a-pot, as they're often called, are for more than just the run-of-the-mill water lilies (although you should absolutely include water lilies because their beloved pads are great for regulating water temperature). The plants suited for this environment fall into the following categories:

  • Floating plants: Water lettuce, water lilies, and water hyacinth float on the surface and do not need to be planted in soil.
  • Bog plants: Umbrella palms, papyrus, pickerelweed, dwarf cattails, and colocasia grow best when the water just barely covers the soil.
  • Oxygenators: Fanwort, horwort, and arrowhead clean the water and add oxygen to it.

What You'll Need


  • 1 container
  • 1 pond liner


  • aquatic plants of your choice
  • tap or rainwater
  • pea gravel or other rock (optional)
  • bricks or clay pots (optional)
  • water garden pump (optional)
  • goldfish or mosquito fish (optional)


  1. Scout a Location for Your Water Garden

    Remember: Water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon, which means even a small five-gallon container would wind up weighing more than 40 pounds after being filled with water. Make sure you have a solid foundation for it, be that on a flat patch in your garden, on your patio, or on a concrete pad. Be cautious of weight when installing a water garden on a balcony or tall deck.

    Another thing to consider is sun exposure. Too little sun can hinder aquatic plants, but too much is bad for fish and can lead to algae problems. Ultimately, you want your water garden to get a good mix of sun and shade.

  2. Prep Your Container

    Once you've decided on a location for your container water garden, set the container in its new home and prep it for water. This should include lining it with pond liner if it's a wooden planter or a metal tub. It could also include covering the bottom of your container with rock, which has several benefits if you're working with a big vessel.

    Rock is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it provides media to which aquatic plants can attach their roots. If you plan to keep fish in your container water garden, having rock on the bottom will also give bacteria a place to colonize so it can do its business filtering out fish waste.

  3. Create Arrangement With Bog Plants

    If you're using potted plants—"bog plants"—in your container water garden, create your arrangement before adding water. Use an odd number of plants for the most aesthetically pleasing effect. Use bricks or overturned clay pots to help prop these plants up. Once they're in their right places, cover the tops of the soil with pea gravel to hold the plants in place and provide a landing pad for birds and insects.

  4. Fill With Water

    Fill your container with water. The height of the water should align with the tops of the soil for plant health and so that your rocky "landing pads" are effective. Collected rainwater is the best to use, but you can also use water straight from your tap so long as you don't have a water softener. Soft water is not good for container water gardens because it's too high in salt.

  5. Add Your Fountain Pump

    If you're adding a fountain feature to your water container garden, do this before you introduce floating plants. Fountains are great for adding a relaxing ambience to your garden and in keeping mosquitos at bay. Follow the installation instructions from the manufacturer of your fountain. Wait to turn on the pump until after all plants are in the garden.

  6. Plant Floating Plants

    Raindrops on a water lettuce in the pond, Vietnam, Dalat
    Water lettuce. Alina Chernyshova / Getty Images

    Floating plants like water lettuce and water hyacinth should be added toward the end. These plants do not need soil and draw all the nutrients they need from the water itself. Floating plants are great at providing shelter for fish in your container water garden.

  7. Introduce Fish

    Goldfish or mosquito fish are sustainable choices because they can control undesirable algae and mosquito populations. If you're considering adding fish, make sure they have plenty of room to swim—the general rule is one to two inches of fish "length" for every square foot of water.

    Only introduce fish after you've allowed the garden to cycle—and the pump to run, if you've installed a fountain—for a couple of weeks. This gives good bacteria time to establish and balance out your garden.

    The best way to add fish is to allow them to acclimate slowly. Introduce fish while the garden is shaded. Put the baggie that they come in on top of the water first for about 15 minutes before releasing them. Make sure you feed them regularly—at least in the beginning, while algae develop over the first couple of months.

Container Water Garden Maintenance

Container water garden with fish on brick patio

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The beauty of container water gardens is that they require very little maintenance. Just make sure the water is always topped up to a healthy level as it will probably evaporate some during the warmest months. Sometimes leaf decay and other debris can clutter the water or make it an unsightly tea color. This might require a bit of extra cleaning.

If you have goldfish or mosquito fish, make sure you're providing a healthy environment for them and keeping them well fed. Bring them inside during the winter. If you don't have fish—and especially if you don't have a fountain in your water garden—prevent mosquito infestations with a tablet like Mosquito Dunk, which contains a bacterium that kills larvae for 30 days.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How do you keep your container water garden clean?

    Some bacteria are good for container water gardens, but if you notice murky or debris-filled water, it might be time for a clean-out. Take out all plants and fish and keep them in separate water while you're cleaning. Rinse the container clean, but do not scrub away all the bacteria. It's a good idea to supplement with fish food for a week or two after doing this.

  • What containers can you use for a water garden?

    You can use just about any watertight container so long as it doesn't have draining holes. You can even use a wooden planter—such as a resin whiskey barrel—if you line it with pond liner first. Besides that, you can use ceramic planters, watering troughs, buckets, aquariums, or tubs.