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Stock Tank Water Gardens - Oases for Native Plants, Wildlife and You

Stock Tank Water Gardens - Oases for Native Plants, Wildlife and You

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Director of Horticulture, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Photographs courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Water is a precious commodity for all forms of life in our hot, dry climate. Creating a simple stock tank water garden can provide enjoyment for you and a valuable, supportive ecosystem for dragonflies, birds, frogs and other wildlife.

A galvanized metal stock tank is a common, simple base for such a garden. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, where I serve as director of horticulture, features one prominently at the entrance to its Theme Gardens, which may have something to do with their local popularity (or so we’d like to think!).

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Follow these tips to create a beautiful and resilient stock tank water garden of your own:

Park That Tank

First, find an ideal location for your tank, which can be set directly on the ground or partially buried. It’s possible to place it in considerable shade, but leaves falling from nearby trees are a maintenance headache. And a half-day or more of sun supports a wider variety of flowers.

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Pick Your Plants

For aesthetic and functional reasons, include a variety of plants that stand upright, trail or float, and a few that remain submerged (which typically add oxygen). Tall vegetation, such as horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), makes excellent perches for resplendent dragonflies, which provide captivating lessons on courtship and territorial behavior. Mat-forming or floating plants, such as water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) or coastal water-hyssop (Bacopa monnieri), provide good platforms where frogs, butterflies and other insects can rest, sun and drink from the edge.

Ideally, vegetation should cover about 70% of the water’s surface during the summer. Providing a diversity of plant forms with staggered flowering periods will make the most interesting and ecologically balanced arrangements.

Maintenance is minimal: When necessary, remove algae and leaves by hand or with a net. Trim plants that get too large and cut back dead (or frozen) foliage, which is unsightly and can create anaerobic conditions in the water.

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Water Well

If your water source is from a well or city, allow it to sit for a minimum of 24 hours before adding plants or fish. This allows well water that may be low in oxygen to absorb it from the air. Pro tip: You can manually jumpstart this process with a sprinkler (droplets have greater surface area, which facilitates oxygen exchange). A day or two gives chlorine from municipal sources time to evaporate. Occasional partial water changes will generally reduce the amount of built-up toxin such as chloramine (added by some cities). If you have rainwater, you may add fish and plants immediately.

Make up for evaporation by keeping the water level constant. If you fill with city or well water, it is best to add only a few inches at a time, waiting a day between fillings.       

Note: In some conditions, overly acidic water may react with galvanized metal, elevating zinc to toxic levels (several academic sources indicate that zinc levels of 0.05 ppm or less are generally safe for aquaculture). If this is a concern, consider sealing the tank with heavyweight epoxy or a fish-safe polymer.

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Get Fishy

Fish are fun to watch and key to a successful pond; plus, a healthy population of mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) or other hardy native species means fewer mosquitos (win-win!). When adding them, set their container into the water to allow the water temperatures to equalize. Slowly add small amounts of pond water to the container to acclimate the fish to the new water chemistry. This process should take at least 15 minutes. It is not necessary to feed your fish and doing so may lead to water quality problems. Fish will eat mosquito larvae and other small aquatic insects as well as some algae.

Provide for other fauna by adding a flat rock sloping gently into the water. This can serve as a bathing area for birds; a rescue platform for creatures that can’t swim, such as toads; or a sunning or resting place for turtles and butterflies.

Lastly, sit back and enjoy the show!

Native Plants for Texas Ponds

These recommended native plants are good choices for Texas, but may not do well elsewhere in the country, and while native to this region, they may be invasive in another. Check the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database to search for wetland plants that are suitable to your own area and ecoregion. 

Coastal water-hyssop (Bacopa monnieri)

Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale)

Texas spiderlily (Hymenocallis liriosme)

Copper iris (Iris fulva) or other native irises

American water-willow (Justicia americana)

Virginia saltmarsh mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica)

Yellow waterlily (Nymphaea mexicana)

Marsh obedient plant (Physostegia intermedia)

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus)

This article originally appeared in Wildflower, the member magazine of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a native plant botanic garden in Austin, Texas.

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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