Backyard ponds are some of the most exciting ornamental features to design, build, and maintain. A well-made pond can drastically enhance the appearance of a garden, creating a focal point that invigorates all the senses. When it is stocked properly enough to be a diverse and possibly self-sustaining body of water, it can offer a wealth of environmental services to aid in wildlife conservation.
Fish are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to living things that can be stocked into, grown, and interacted with in a pond. Their experience in the water can actually be enhanced by the addition of more types of biota. Other animals and plants, in the right densities, would aid in nutrient recycling, temperature regulation, water flow, and the production of natural food (particularly in naturalized ponds).
Although it is possible to introduce just about any plant or water-loving animal into a pond setup, keep in mind that there should be limitations to your choices. Try to select biota that are native to or have been thoroughly naturalized in your area to prevent unwanted spread. Of course, there’s more room for creativity when adding non-living components. Browse through the suggestions below to get inspired!
1) Freshwater plants
After fish, plants are the most popular pond additions due to their ornamental appeal and ecological benefits. There are dozens of wetland species with adaptations for specific parts of a pond; it would be best to base your selection on where you intend to place them, along with their requirements for light exposure and temperature.
Before introducing aquatic plants into your pond, consider whether they may be toxic to your fish or are likely to be consumed by herbivorous species. Moreover, look into their mode of spread, their maintenance requirements, and their substrate preferences. It’s best to invest in species that are known for thriving in your hardiness zone and are native to your region. The roots of rapid growers should ideally be restricted to pots or mesh baskets. Here are some great types of plants to consider:
Fully submerged plants
Able to root into pond bottom substrates or grow in thoroughly submerged pots, these species are usually great oxygenators with a high capacity for nutrient assimilation. Their vertical structures should help protect young fish and other small animals from potential predators. Their presence may also encourage sexually mature fish to spawn. Ideal types include hornworts and pondweeds. Note, however, that these may require maintenance in productive ponds.
Floating plants are always fantastic choices for outdoor ponds because they help prevent algal growth and excess water heating. Their most apparent benefits also include the protection of fish from overhead predators and general diversification of the pond surface. The most popular types are, of course, water lilies, spatterdocks, and the water fern.
These may be the most important types of plants to add to your pond if you wish to attract wildlife. Emergent or marginal plants provide wild animals with cover and safe entry/exit points. The partly submerged shoots act as structures around which young critters can keep safe and cool.
Additionally, these plants can blur the edges of the pond, making its outline appear more organic. Flowering species are especially favored by pollinators. These include arrowheads, irises, rushes, marsh marigold, and the especially lovely water forget-me-not.
Frogs, salamanders, and newts that are native to your area can be introduced into naturalized outdoor ponds. The best, and coincidentally free, way to acquire these is to attract them in as natural a manner as possible. There’s no guarantee that those with a preference for terrestrial features will stay within the jurisdiction of your garden, however.
One common amphibian that you may be interested in due to its lifelong preference for staying in water is the axolotl. These are fascinating salamanders that respire through their external sets of gills. They never metamorphose into land-dwelling adults and instead must stay in water to survive. Often beloved by both children and adults with an appreciation for nature, store-bought (captively-bred) axolotls can be housed in ponds with medium to large-sized fish.
In general, amphibians are beneficial to ponds because their presence helps create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Their offspring, in the form of tadpoles, help keep a pond clean by feeding on algae and detritus. Tadpoles also serve as protein-rich treats for fish, birds, and other wild visitors. Just keep in mind that the nature of many species prevents them from staying in the pond forever. It’s best to let them come and go as they please!
With their dark heads gently peeping through the water’s surface or with shells that are fully exposed to the sun, turtles can be an absolute joy to raise in a pond. Those that naturally dwell in freshwater systems are more aptly called terrapins, pond turtles, or marsh turtles. These reptiles thrive in mild temperatures and slow-moving waters, where they may feed on macroinvertebrates, small fish, or pond plants.
It may be tempting to simply purchase a turtle from a pet store and then place it in a fairly protected pond setup, but this may not always be the most advisable mode of introduction. Instead, try attracting a turtle through natural means. This way, you can ensure that the species that do manage to enter your pond are native or naturalized to your area. Escaped exotic species due to the careless release of store-bought turtles can disrupt natural ecosystems.
Most terrapins can be kept safely alongside larger ornamental fish in ponds, but there are a couple that may harm them. Avoid introducing or attracting snapping turtles to your pond if you wish for your smaller fish to make it into retirement age!
The jury’s out on these slow-moving critters as they can be either good or bad for your pond. Snails are better suited to medium or large ponds, where their growing populations are unlikely to generate harm. In controlled densities, snails can significantly hasten the decomposition of fish waste, plant matter, and debris. They are more than likely to naturally appear in outdoor ponds via plants, wild animals, new fish, or even domesticated pets, so they need not be artificially introduced into small systems.
Many aquarium owners opt to introduce a few to their tanks to prevent algal overgrowth. One type of snail that some koi pond owners may wish to purchase is the Japanese trapdoor snail. This snail is favored because it helps reduce algae yet does not reproduce as quickly as other species. Moreover, koi may feed on them and should be able to help control their population.
The presence of natural snails can be an indicator of polluted waters as they benefit from a high nutrient load and are able to quickly reproduce. If there’s just a handful of them, don’t worry. If there are signs of an infestation, such as plant matter being devoured at an alarming rate, you can always manually remove them by hand or with the help of a pond vacuum.
If you’re interested in cultivating a multi-species ornamental pond, you might want to consider adding at least one or two crayfish. Ponds that are used for the growth of larger species, such as bass and catfish, can afford to have even more of these crustaceans. As scavengers, they will readily consume most types of pond debris, dead plant material, and filamentous algae.
Note that crayfish are not the most ideal additions to brand-new or non-naturalized ponds. They are better suited to mature, ecologically-balanced pond systems with established populations of plants, fish, and other living inhabitants. They may also graze on living plants, so they may be a good means of biological control for rapidly growing perennials.
If you have ample experience with freshwater life and with maintaining ponds, and simply wish to have a new critter to look for and delight in each day, then you can definitely stock a crayfish for added interest!
Unlike the easily observable pond components listed above, this one meets a more functional purpose. The addition of beneficial bacteria can help new ponds mature at a quicker pace, making them more hospitable to fish and resistant to toxic nutrient levels. These strains of bacteria naturally occur in older ponds, especially diverse ones. They will grow on their own in healthy ponds!
One of the key roles of beneficial bacteria is they are able to metabolize waste to hasten the decomposition process. Specialized strains are also able to assimilate potentially toxic nutrients, such as ammonia and nitrate, converting these into harmless byproducts. They don’t at all appear as “beautiful” additions to a new pond, but they can definitely help beautify the larger picture.
7) Other freshwater macroinvertebrates
Macroinvertebrates are critters that lack a backbone and are visible to the naked eye. Those in freshwater systems are often equipped with external skeletons for protection. These include insect larvae, small crustaceans, and aquatic insects, to name a few. These animals are integral parts of every natural pond as they serve the dual purpose of primary consumer and decomposer. They may live within the substrate itself, along the pond floor, or on vegetation.
Wildlife ponds will naturally attract macroinvertebrates as these are introduced through natural means such as eggs, visiting animals, and migration. They may also be brought into ornamental ponds through artificial means, such as feeding (as treats for fish). Their natural populations in garden ponds, particularly those in urban areas, can be quite poor.
If you would like to diversify your pond’s macroinvertebrate component, you may need to attract more insects and wildlife to your pond. You may also purchase insect larvae from fish stores, but note that these will eventually be eaten or will mature into insects that will leave the pond. Small crustaceans, particularly those that benefit juvenile fish, may be a better choice for diversification.
8) Pond islands and décor
There’s a wealth of abiotic components that can be placed in the pond itself. These add visual interest and help draw the eye to specific parts of the pond. In some cases, these may also serve as resting or basking spots for the pond’s amphibious and terrestrial visitors.
Turtles, for example, are often seen enjoying the morning or late afternoon sun on rocky arrangements that serve as pond islands. Adequately-sized structures can invite many birds. These are great spots on which they can rest, and possibly feed, away from predators on the pond’s edge. A bridge leading up to the island is a common feature of Asian-themed ponds.
Sculptural décor within and around the pond can serve multiple purposes as well. Often mimicking the cartoon-like forms of the pond inhabitants themselves, “spitters” help aerate the water while adding a whimsical touch to the overall finish.
9) Decorative rocks, gravel, and sand
Lined ponds that are devoid of any form of substrate may look somewhat flat and plain to their viewers. While placing plants along the edges can help mask the artificial look of liner, the addition of a combination of heavy substrates should effectively help weigh down and hide more traces of it. Boulders, stones, gravel particles of various sizes, and sand would also enhance the ornamental appeal of the pond.
Adding a natural substrate to a pond makes it more hospitable to many types of freshwater fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects. This should increase its diversity potential, giving you more options as you think about which species to invest in. Plecos, Corydoras, and other algae-eating bottom feeders, for example, should thrive best over a gentle substrate.
10) More water features
If you’d like your pond to make a statement, you should definitely consider adding a fountain and/or waterfall for their visual, audible, and cooling effects. There are many ready-made options in the market, so incorporating a simple one into your final design should be fairly straightforward. If you have a more elaborate design in mind, make sure to incorporate it into your plans while narrowing down on the perfect spot and before digging out the pond.
The supplementary water flow should help regulate temperatures and keep the water oxygenated, keeping your fish happy and healthy during the warmest days of the year. The motion created by the water is usually as hypnotizing and seemingly alive as the pond inhabitants themselves, so this is definitely one pond component that demands attention and creativity.