Horticulture Magazine

How To Make A Mini Barrel Pond For Garden Wildlife

surface plants growing in a barrel pond

Ponds make a lovely addition to any garden.

They’re attractive and functional, giving you something nice to look at as well as providing a safe place for all sorts of wildlife and creepy crawlies to make their home.

If you’d like a pond but don’t have the space to install a traditional one though, you don’t need to feel left out. You have plenty of options; one of which, the barrel pond, we’re going to introduce to you now.

woman cleaning a garden barrel pond
A particularly small example

Barrel ponds are an excellent way to repurpose and upcycle an old barrel, taking full advantage of its natural ability to hold large amounts of liquid, and using this as the basis for a wildlife haven of your very own.

In this guide we’ll introduce barrel gardens, explain how to get one set up, and run you through the steps to bring yours to life.

What is a mini barrel pond?

If you chop an old barrel in half and fill it with water, then add a few plants and features, it makes an inviting space for all sorts of wildlife. A barrel pond is, quite simply, a pond in a barrel.

Why make one?

This is a fun project for any gardener, but is of special interest for three particular demographics –

  • People who live in homes that don’t have a large enough outdoor space for a regular pond.
  • People who live in rented accommodation and don’t have permission to install a pond in their garden.
  • People with kids! Children are inquisitive by nature, and what better way to ignite this curiosity than by attracting wildlife into your garden.

Barrel ponds are wildlife magnets.

Depending on the choices you make when designing your garden you can attract birds, bees, dragonflies, pond snails, newts, frogs, toads, damselflies, and many more.

There’s nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of a pond to bring a garden to life, and you’ll be doing your bit to help support the populations of these creatures – some of which are at increasing risk from the gradual destruction of natural wild spaces in the UK.

If you’re a grown-up looking to liven up your garden a bit, a barrel pond is a great shout. You’ll have something pretty to look at that brings in a medley of wildlife for you to enjoy.

If you’ve got kids, they’ll be fascinated and intrigued by the rotating guest list of visitors to your garden.

You can teach them about habitats, ecosystems, animal life cycles, and more. You can watch things like frogspawn hatching, birds feeding, and newts making folded leaf nests. All things that most of us don’t get a chance to see very often, but which hind at the beauty and majesty of nature.

What you need to make a mini barrel pond

When making a mini barrel pond you have flexibility about what the end product looks like, but there are some things you must have. Let’s take a look at those first –

  • Water. Obviously. Otherwise you’ve just got a barrel, rather than a pond. Thankfully this is easy to come by, and you’ll add it at the end.
  • A barrel. Again, without a barrel you’ll be hard pressed to make a barrel pond. You can pick these up at gardening centres, antiques shops, Ebay, and more.
  • Plants. Your barrel pond needs to include certain aquatic plants to help it thrive. There are four types and we’ll introduce those in detail later.
  • Baskets. Plants are planted in special baskets and submerged into the water, rather than being planted in the barrel itself.
  • Aquatic compost. You need this special compost to ensure your plants can thrive in the water. Regular soil won’t work.
  • Gravel or grit. A layer of this goes on top of the compost to stop it from floating away!
  • Bricks. Different plants need to go at different heights, so grab a few bricks to help with this.

Once you’ve got those things, there are some optional items you might want to include. Things like a stick or other perch for birds to rest on, any ornamentation, or additional plants.

a pretend duck in a small wooden pond with decking tiles in the background
Maybe you want a pretend duck in your pond, but this isn’t compulsory

You may notice that filters and pumps are absent from the must-haves list: this is because the combination of plants you’ll have in your mini barrel pond regulate the water condition naturally, removing a large chunk of the hassle of pond ownership and maintenance from the process.

How to make your mini barrel pond

Here are the steps to make your pond –

1. Find the right spot

Choose somewhere with a good amount of sun, where your hose can reach.

2. Put your barrel in position

Move the barrel into its final position before you fill it with plants and water, because it will be incredibly heavy afterwards!

3. Prepare your plants in baskets

There are four types of plants you’ll need in a barrel pond –

  • Emergent plants that come above the surface of the water. Things like reeds and similar. Dragonflies, damselflies and similar like to lay their eggs in these plants.
  • Floating leaf plants like lilies or similar, to cover the surface, reduce the amount of sunlight in the water, and keep things cool. These plants also reduce the risk of blanket weed.
  • Oxygenators like hornwort or similar that keep the water from becoming stagnant.
  • Marginal plants that sit at the zone between the water and the barrel. Newts and frogs like to lay their eggs in these plants, so they’re important if you’re looking to attract these critters.

This combination of plants will keep the water in good condition with no need for a pump.

To prepare each basket, add some aquatic compost, place your plant, pack more compost around the roots, and then add a layer of gravel or grit.

flowers and green pads of water lilies on a pond surface
Pond lilies regulate temperature and make water more inviting

4. Use bricks to elevate the baskets

Each type of plant needs to be positioned differently. Emergent plants should be no more than 10cm below the water surface, so use a few bricks to raise the baskets to this height.

We recommend getting your bricks in position before adding water, just as it makes the job a little easier.

You can place the floating leaf plants on top of one brick: they need to be raised slightly from the bottom, but not too much.

5. Add water

Use a hose to fill the barrel with water. This might take a while so you might want to rest the hose in place and go grab a refreshing glass of lemonade.

You’re aiming for the water surface to be a few centimetres below the top of the barrel, no higher than the gravel surface of the emergent plant containers.

Note: if your barrel leaks initially, just keep filling it with water. Leaks can be caused by the wood drying out, and once it swells again with moisture, the barrel should become watertight once again.

6. Add other plants

You can add the oxygenator plants straight to the water: no need for a container or any compost.

Marginal plants should be positioned near the edges. Depending on the plants you go for the instructions will vary, so check accordingly.

7. Add a perch, if you’re using one

If you want to attract birds, we recommend including a large stick or similar perch for them to sit on. You can rest this against the edge of the barrel, ensuring a good foot or so extends beyond the water surface.

This perch also allows animals to get out if they fall in the water inadvertently, whether they be rodents, bees, or anything else.

8. Add a way in

If you want to attract frogs, toads, newts and similar we recommend adding a few rocks around the side of the barrel to give them a way up and in.

Choosing a barrel

The instructions above are written with a barrel about 60cm by 40cm in mind, but you have flexibility here.

Obviously anything smaller may restrict what you can fit inside, so we’d recommend thinking carefully before buying anything smaller.

Your very own mini barrel pond

There you have it: 8 simple steps to creating a mini barrel pond to liven up any outdoor space. Whether you’re looking for a new project for an expansive garden, or you’re looking to attract wildlife to a diminutive outdoor space, a barrel pond should do just the trick.

While there are a few steps involved in getting your barrel pond established, once it’s up and running it should do a fairly good job of regulating itself. The combination of plant types means that pumps and filters aren’t required, and as long as you remain vigilant to check that nothing is dying off or struggling to thrive, you should be able to nip any issues in the bud.

So just sit back and enjoy the show as all sorts of wildlife find their way to your newly-accommodating garden. Enjoy the buzz and drone of bees, dragonflies and other winged creatures. Marvel at the aquatic antics of newts, frogs, and pond snails. And just bask in the harmonious whole that nature becomes when it’s given a space to thrive.

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