Family Projects, Outdoor Aquarium

Water Garden

What do you do when you are so busy you can’t keep up with daily chores? Add another chore, of course!

A little background: For months now, my kids have been asking if we could have a fish tank. It’s probably our fault. We took them to the really awesome Dallas World Aquarium last year for our vacation. We stayed there for hours and, honestly, the kids could have stayed longer. They loved the colorful birds, and interesting mammals. Most especially they loved all the different kinds of fish, of every shape and size.

The problem is I’ve taken care of 10-20 gallon aquariums before. That is not an experience I really wanted to have again. I would like a pond one day (so would the rest of the family), but we don’t have the space, time, or money for that right now.

By chance, I was browsing Pinterest in January (looking at all the lovely flowers I couldn’t have at the moment) and ran across something called a water garden. There were all these pretty pots filled with water and plants sticking up from the bottom. Some of them even had fish. That’s when the light bulb appeared over my head a la Loony Tunes.

I may be bad with aquariums, but plants I can handle. And if I could get the plant life correct, the fish would fit in nicely and complete an already well-established tiny eco-system.

Over the next few months, I read and read about water gardens, plants, water care, fish care outdoors, etc. Finally, at the beginning of May, I decided I had read enough and it was time to start doing.

I knew I wanted a large tank, both for adding several plants and to give fish some room to swim. Also, I had read the larger the tank, the easier to care for. So I was aiming for a 30-50 gallon container that could fit in the last little spot in my vegetable garden. I had tried a plastic tub, similar to those I use to plant in, but the sides were not rigid enough to keep them from bowing out once I added water. I didn’t want to spend an enormous amount setting this up, but the hard containers I looked at online were in the $75 – $150 range.

At that point, my idea was to buy the container and gravel one month, add the plants the next month, and then add the fish the following month so that the budget wouldn’t take such a big hit. Then, while shopping with my husband, I ran across this:

fish tank
Feed me…

It had the perfect dimensions, hard sides, the top was removable, and it was only $45! So what if it wasn’t the prettiest? I could go ahead and set up the entire water garden at one time. Woohoo!

After purchasing river rocks, I headed to the pet store to get underwater plants. After a little deliberation, I chose an Amazon sword plant, 2 Java ferns, 4 bunches of anacharis, and a moss rock. We had a few bricks and concrete blocks on hand, as well as some seasoned wood we never got around to burning. The initial set up looked like this:

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I wasn’t totally happy with it, but we had to start somewhere and the kids were ready to add the water.

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The fun part! There may or may not have been water flying elsewhere, too.
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“A couple of rocks were out of place, Mom. But it’s ok. I fixed them.”

Along with the purchased plants, I dug up some plants from the ditch on the edge of the property (what? free plants!) I had noticed these guys loved the water and clay soils, so I purchased the little containers you are supposed to use under potted plants so water doesn’t go everywhere.  They come in a variety of sizes, most under $1. Using clay from the ditch as a substrate (free soil!), I planted the sword plant, java ferns, a couple of sedges, and creeping water primrose, making sure to cover the clay completely with rocks so it didn’t muddy the water. The anacharis I weighed down with rocks inside the holes of the bricks.

The kids were already asking when we could get fish, but all the reading I had done said it was best to wait until the tank was established before getting fish. I told them we would learn about and enjoy the plants for about a month and then look at getting fish.

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Getting it all together.

The next day I came out with my coffee and sat looking at the water garden. The more I looked the more I felt it needed just a few more plants (story of my life). So back to the ditch I went, a little further than the day before. We hadn’t had rain in about a week and I was trying to get clay that wasn’t rock hard. As I bent down to dig up more sedges, I noticed movement in one of the tiny spots of water still left in the ditch. Looking closer, I realized the little hole was a crawfish home and it was full of fish trying to stave off death for just a little while longer.

What was I supposed to do? Leave them to die in the hot sun? I actually said out loud, “The tank isn’t ready, but if y’all can live in that muddy hole, y’all are welcome to try living in an uncycled tank.” Yes, I talk to animals out loud. No, I’m not crazy (at least, I don’t think I am…) Maybe one day St. Francis and St. Martin de Porres will tell me they did the same and we’ll laugh together.

I didn’t know what kind of fish I was carrying back and gently placing in the water garden. I didn’t know if they would even make it through the night, as everything I had read said putting fish in a new tank was almost a guaranteed death sentence for at least some of them. I consoled myself with the fact that by the next morning, their water would have been gone anyway. At least I was giving them a chance.

The kids were very excited to have fish a whole month ahead of schedule. They spent a good part of that afternoon just watching them swim back and forth, under and over and through the plants. Most were very tiny, but we had one much larger than the rest. After Googling through local fish images, we discovered they were Gambusia affinis, more commonly known as mosquito fish. Tough little swimmers, we had likely stumbled upon the perfect beginner fish. Not only could they tolerate a wide range of water temps and conditions, they would eat any mosquitos larvae in their water. Anyone who has experience with mosquitos and standing water will know how much a relief this was to me. Feed the fish and kill mosquitos. Win/win.

Total cost for initial set up (container, plants, pots, gravel): $80.

I have plans to add decorations and more plants in the coming months, but we’ll see how everything works out for this month. Fingers crossed this goes well.

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