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Urban Pond - Tubbin' Water Gardens PDF Print E-mail
Written by Liz Marchio   

Living in an apartment or condominium certainly can be advantageous. I’m happy just not having to maintain a lawn! I do, however, yearn for a little slice of my own outdoor area from time to time. With spring fever hitting hard, desire for the outdoors starts to peak! So, what’s one to do living the city life with no outdoor world to call your own? You create it! I’m going to show you how to create your own small water garden, perfect for patios or even a sunlit balcony!

Urban Pond-Tubbin' Water Gardens 

The Container

First and foremost, there is space and size limitations with every water garden whether they be in a tub or a full blown pond. It is necessary to use as large as possible container order to maintain the plant and animal life for the season. As with aquariums, the larger the container, the more stable the temperature and water chemistry. Tubbin’ is all about simplicity and having “oops! room” by way of extra water volume is a great way to insure your endeavor isn’t in vain.

In order to house small fish species, twenty gallons or more is ideal, depending on the species of choice of course. We use a seventy-gallon Rubbermaid resin tub. Personally, I would not do any outdoor fish keeping under fifty-gallons, but that can be difficult for most people due to the outdoor space they are working with. If this is the case, experimentation is the only way to figure out exactly what your limitations are.

There is an option to go “fishless”, keep reading for more information.

The First Rule of Tubbin’ is for fish-keeping, the bigger the better!

The Fish

Again, this project is all about simplicity. The number and types of fish you can keep in an aquarium will not be able to convert to outdoor living. There are, of course, modifications available to every project to suit different needs, but simplicity is the rule! Plecostomas, loaches and other current-loving fish will not be good choices. The ideal fish choices are those fishes that can tolerate stagnant conditions. Ideally those fish that thrive in these conditions are a great starter species. Labyrinthfish, such as small gourami species, paradisefish, bettas, and some ctenapoma species are all fantastic choices. Keep in mind that tubbin’ is a whole new world of fish keeping! You won’t be looking in at your fish from the side anymore but peering down into the water’s surface. You may not even SEE your fish for days! So don’t buy the most expensive color variant or species of betta you can find. The great thing about labyrinthfish is that they almost all build bubble nests on the water’s surface! The fish may not be visible, but their unique behaviors will be! Although I am partial to labyrinths as good starter species, there are a few more good choices I’d like to note:

  • Small, hardy tetra species; splash tetras would be a good experimentation!
  • Small* Danio species.
  • Algae eating shrimp species.
  • Dwarf cichlids – Pelvicachromis, Mikrogeophagus, hardy Apistogramma species.
  • Livebearers; swordtails, hardy guppy variants, Endler’s livebearers.
  • Barbs- I always see tub-raised rosy barbs at fish auctions!
  • Killiefish- a great choice.
  • Feeder goldfish- great for kids, but need wintered indoors in a species specific aquarium (i.e. not a bowl).

 Inappropriate but tempting species you may think of trying:

  • Loaches- need more water current.
  • Plecostomas- need more water current.
  • Catfish- need more water current.
  • Neon or cardinal tetras- not hardy enough to take temperature and water quality swings.
  • Larger danios- they jump really well.
  • Koi- remember these are carp and get large. They are also great jumpers.
  • Mollies- need warmer water and higher pH than other livebearers.
  • See the “fishless” idea list below as well!

The Second Rule of Tubbin’ is the smaller and hardier the fish species, the better!

The Plants, with Fish and Without

This is, hands down, the best part of water gardening. I always feel a sense of pride seeing a small starter clipping or seed grow into a thriving, robust specimen. Tubbin’ is a great way to experiment with emersed growing techniques or to grow out some light loving submerged plants in order to bring them in during the winter months.

A Few Choices

Ceramic TubFishless: sometimes maintaining fish in every container you set up just isn’t feasible or maintainable. There is the option of tubbin’ with only plants. This is much easier and still very rewarding. Some things I’ve done in the past are:


  • Setting up a sealed ceramic pot for a species of marginal plant such as taro or irises. These grow well with appropriate lighting and nutrient addition and their containers only need be topped-off due to evaporation.
  • Setting up a sealed ceramic pot and growing submerged plants out as emersed. This is a fun experiment with Amazon sword plants since there are so many variants to try. You’ll be amazed at what these look like out of the water! Again, top-off only.
  • Using a low-rise pot (squat but with a lot of surface area) to grow dwarf cattails and parrots feather. The contrast looks great and when we did this project, there were amazing amounts of natural fauna growing and populating the tub! This also needs topped-off as needed.
  • My last project was last year’s container that I grew Phyllanthus fluitans (“Red Root Floater”) and a collected species of Potamogeton, which I found in a roadside ditch near my home. Due to being more sensitive plants, this tub could not dry out and needed topped-off more often.

The Third Rule of Tubbin’ is fishless systems are easier, but may need more routine maintenance!

Fish Tub: if you’re interested in keeping fish in your tub garden, first make sure the animals can be housed in your container appropriately. If you aren’t sure, use the ASW forums to ask. A few of my past projects in a 70-gallon Rubbermaid resin tub are listed to stimulate some ideas.  The tub is plumbed with a quick-draining system in order to do water changes quickly, as needed, and to tear down the tub quickly in the winter (see picture). This is connected to a standpipe that acts as an overflow in case of heavy rain. That way the fish down wash out! This also serves as a surface skimmer and a lawn-watering device! Doing some planning in these regards have made my tubbin’ quite easy! Also, my tub always receives about 5-6 hours of full morning sun. Don’t forget to plan your tub according to available light!

My past and current projects:

  • 2006 Tub with Lotus Nelumbo 'Momo Botan'2006: Lotus Nelumbo 'Momo Botan' – a day blooming dwarf lotus was our focal point plant. It puts up floating leaves and then standing leaves. After the first few standing leaves, with enough sunlight, the flowers begin to come up. The first few are usually weak, but the following are spectacular. That year we housed Danio feegradei. As soon as I put them in, half of them jumped out! I ended the season with 1-2 left out of 10. This year, I lost some fish, but still resolved to try again next year!
  • 2007: Nymphaea zenkeri “Red” – The red tiger lotus was last year’s focal point plant. I’ve kept tiger lotus in aquariums for years and have to say keeping one “naturally” was a fantastic experience. The emersed leaves were amazingly sturdy and beautiful and the flowers were spectacular. (see photo 4 “red tiger flower”) This experience is the reason why I suggest emersed experimentation! That year I grew out a pair of Pelvicachromis humilis “Liberia Red” with a swarm of Endler’s livebearers. The Pelvics did well, no spawns, but built pits and valleys in the mud (very cool!). The Endler’s did well, and I still have the group. Other plants included Lotus Nelumbo 'Momo Botan' again, and Phyllanthus fluitans (Red Root Floater).  This was a successful tubbin’ year!
  • 2008: This summer, I’m definitely trying the Red Tiger Lotus again. You can’t beat a cheap water garden plant! Also, looking to grow Salvinia oblongifolia and Azolla (which always seems to find its way into our tubs eventually anyways!). The fish are the hardest part to decide upon. There’s thought to growing out some Melanotaenia parva (Dwarf Flame Rainbowfish) or conditioning/breeding a new wild-type livebearer we recently got, Xenotoca melanosoma. I am also going to collect some wild plants, Equisetum scirpoides, the dwarf horsetail rush and a Potamogeton species from a local waterway. Those will go into my emersed ceramic pot.

 2007 Tub with Flowering Lotus A few other plants to consider keeping:

  • Salvinia species (any and you can do more than one!)
  • Pista stratiotes, water lettuce; there’s a dwarf variety too.
  • Ludwigia sedioides; mosaic plant- this is an awesome looking floating plant.
  • Nymphoides and Nymphaea species- make sure they are tub-appropriate in size! Some get HUGE!
  • Water sprite, Ceratopteris pteroides.
  • Sword plants, Echinodorus sp.; can be submersed or emersed.
  • Hydrocotyle species; will grow in and out of water!
  • Stem plants in general make interesting experiments for tubbin’.

There are many other plants that would be worthwhile to try outdoors as well. Make sure that if you try something new and are successful, pass that information onto others. The wonderful thing about aquarium/pond keeping is the opportunity to experiment, break new ground, and help others achieve success. With that in mind,

The Fourth Rule of Tubbin’ is to always pass on what you’ve learned and enjoyed to someone else!




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