Backyard ponds are a great way to bring your love of fishkeeping to the next level. Ponds add a wonderful element of natural beauty to your garden and once established can be a relatively low maintenance water feature for your property. Since ponds occur in the wild naturally, it’s possible that a large enough pond can be maintained without any hardware. This begs the question: do small ponds need a pump?
Yes, the majority of small backyard ponds will need a pump. Natural ponds can survive without a pump for several reasons. They are often much more densely planted than man-made ponds, which helps oxygenate the water and naturally absorb fish waste. Natural ponds are also on the large side, and the fish that live there are likely smaller native species that have adapted to this sort of environment.
These sorts of fish live on insects, larvae or plant matter and leave behind little food waste, which helps maintain the natural balance. Finally, most natural ponds are connected to outside water sources such as streams, or are otherwise wide enough for the weather to sufficiently agitate the surface to avoid stagnation. All of these features can keep a natural pond balanced, but are not available to man-made ponds.
Most backyard ponds are on the smaller side, and are not usually more than a couple of feet deep. Because of these limitations, the water is going to need a pump to keep things circulating. Pond pumps often pull the water into a small filter, and then release it back into the pond from a few inches off the surface to create a waterfall effect. This not only circulates and cleans the water, but also oxygenates the pond to keep your fish healthy.
If you choose to not add a pump to your pond, you will have to use other means to make sure your water doesn’t become stagnate. To provide oxygen, you will need to provide a multitude of aquatic plants, and make sure those plants are getting sufficient sunlight. You will also need to stock the pond sparingly, ideally with small fish that are known for eating insect larvae. Still water bodies attract pests such as mosquitoes, who lay their eggs in the water.
If you live in a cold climate zone where temperatures dip below freezing in the winter, a pump will be an absolute necessity for your small pond. While hardy fish can survive in freezing temperatures, they can’t survive without oxygen. Small ponds can freeze over at the surface, blocking the exchange of gases and suffocating your fish. A pump, heater or de-icer is necessary in these conditions to keep the water moving and prevent it from freezing solid.
Fish to Stock Your Pond
The main difference between natural, pump-free ponds, and man-made backyard ponds is the variety of fish. The lack of maintenance in a natural pond is partially due to the hardy, small, native fish that you will find there- and the fact that these fish don’t live very long. Fish that are kept in backyard ponds are often visually striking, domesticated, and beloved pets which are deserving of the best possible care. Popular choices for backyard ponds include koi and goldfish. These fish are beautiful and hardy, but voracious eaters that produce a lot of waste. A filtration system is necessary for these varieties of fish in order to keep them healthy.
If you are hoping to go for as natural of a backyard pond as possible, you will need to opt for some small and hardy fish. Fathead minnows and Mosquito fish are some great options for a small pond (50-500 gallons).
Fathead Minnows, also referred to as common minnows, are a North American native that grow to be around 2.5” long. They thrive in groups of five or more, and at that size you can fit several in s small pond without too many repercussions. They are also great for keeping the pond clean as they feed on insect larvae, plant litter and algae.
Mosquito fish are another great North American native fish. They are relatively small- growing up to 1.5-2.8” long, and are used to pond life. Like their name implies, they love to devour mosquito larvae- but they also eat beetles, mayflies, caddisflies and mites. This quality makes them a good choice for a pond without a pump in order to prevent pest infestations.
For large backyard ponds with an appropriate size pump and filtration system, the most recommended fish are koi and goldfish. These two types of fish are distantly related, both descended from the common carp. They are both extremely hardy fish and can survive in colder climates.
Goldfish are similar in their overall look but grow to a more manageable 4-12” in size; much more appropriate for a small pond. Both goldfish and koi are social species, and need to be kept in small groups in order to be happy. If your pond is under 60 gallons, you might want to consider a smaller species.
Pond Pump Basics
For most other types of fish, you are going to need a pump to manage their waste- even if you only have 2 or 3 goldfish. Pumps are designed to run 24/7 the same way that an aquarium filter would. Backyard ponds without a pump will likely become stagnant and filled with algae, and will require frequent water changes to prevent harm to your fish.
When choosing a pump, it’s best to choose one that is rated for the exact gallons of your pond or higher. The rating will be based on how many gallons of water per hour the pump can process. Most pumps are designed to be used with a waterfall or fountain in order to increase the oxygen in your pond. Pumps are also designed to be use with filtration systems that are similar to the models used in aquariums, that will offer different filtration methods to keep your pond water clean and balanced. Pumps come in both submersible and external varieties, so make sure you know which kind you have prior to installing.
Pond pumps are a worthwhile investment that typically last 2-3 years. You can ensure a long life for your pond pump by performing routine maintenance and inspections. Similar to maintaining a filter, you will likely find that your pump can become clogged if too much debris builds up over time. Backyard ponds are particularly susceptible to clogging due to the extra plants, soil and leaf litter that can blow through and into your pond. The maintenance routine is especially important during the lead up to winter months in order to avoid the surface of your pond freezing solid.
If you are truly intent on creating a backyard pond without a pump, then you can consider creating a wildlife pond. These ponds aren’t stocked with fish, but instead filled with aquatic plants that provide food and cover to wildlife. Without the added fish, there will be less maintenance or need for extra aeration provided by a pump. However, with any body of still water there’s a high likelihood of attracting insects such as mosquitoes. If done well, a wildlife pond can be great for attracting some of your local fauna such as frogs, toads, and turtles.
Unless you are planning a backyard pond that is dedicated to plants, or only a few small fish, a pump is necessary to your setup to avoid stagnation of water. Not only do pumps circulate water and remove waste, they are also important for preventing buildup of algae and pest larvae. Although natural ponds get by without a pump, it’s not recommended to run a backyard pond without a pump. Natural ponds are often connected to outside water sources which help prevent the water from stagnating. Ponds without a pump will have to perform regular routine water changes in order to prevent this toxic buildup.
The fish found in natural ponds are also much hardier and smaller than the domestic varieties common to backyard ponds- and have a much shorter life expectancy. If you are determined on attempting to set up a pond in your garden without a pump, it would be wise to choose one of these hardy native fish species. When choosing a pump for your backyard garden you need to pay attention to the gallons per hour rating as well as the installation method to ensure that the pump you are purchasing will suit your unique pond. Most pumps are designed to connect to filtration systems or fountains to provide further aeration and processing. If you feel that you can’t accommodate a pump in your backyard garden, another choice is to create a wildlife pond that is not stocked with any fish, but provides a habitat for your local flora and fauna.