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/Aquatic Gardens, Design, Construction & Maintenance

 The Awakening Pond and Spring Pond Maintenance


By Bob Fenner

Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

Spring Has Sprung?

Not much goes on in an overwintering pond. With the water being less than 55 F, plants, fishes and invertebrates are largely in a "resting mode" metabolically, requiring no feeding. Pond gear, like pumps and filters may actually be turned off completely, particularly in regions where water may freeze. Deep ponds may be neglected entirely, whereas shallow ones might require your intervention to prevent freezing over (and down) completely. Maintenance activities are at a standstill as well. Wastes should have been removed during the latter Fall and new leaf litter et al. left for removal in the coming Spring. Fooling with very cold ponds can be disastrous, both to pond livestock and their care-keepers. Best by and large to do your planning, and leave the pond be during the coldest season'¦ if you have such in your setting.

For those uninitiated with ponds and cold winters, do NOT fool with a fish-containing system covered with ice. The shock of even walking on the surface, let alone striking it, can easily kill your fishes.

When Days Get Long/er:

Changes in your pond are far more telling than a rising reading on a thermometer. Look to your plants and animals for signs of Spring and as with your terrestrial gardening, be prepared with a plan, tools and materials to meet the new season.

Once frost is gone, marginal plants can be worked, thinned of dead growth. Fishes should be fed initially low-protein (less than twenty percent) diets once the water attains a daily temperature of 55 F. and they show sufficient interest in same.

True aquatic plants and mucking about in, cleaning the pond basin/s should wait till the water is warmer'¦ for you and your livestock. A good minimum of sixty degrees Fahrenheit is about right. The stress of overwintering and your stirring about in the system is otherwise too much for "just defrosted" livestock.

If your pump/s, filters and plumbing have been off during the cold weather, do make sure and "flush" them with water, voiding the initial water to waste, to prevent poisoning the system.

Later On:

As your fishes bulk up on regular feeding and your biological filtration is restored (if shut off as in colder regions for the season), heater/de-icing gear should be turned off/removed and thought given to a semi-thorough cleaning of your pond basin/s. Likely a good net-leaf removal will serve to eliminate the bulk of material that has accumulated over the Winter, but if you have a vacuum system, a careful partial removal over a period of days to weeks may be in order. Best to remember that "cleanliness is not sterility" in biological systems like ponds, therefore to go slowly in removing organic material and never remove all. Take care to treat replacement water with dechloraminator and make changes with water of about the same temperature.

Should your water turn murky, or an unsightly algae bloom seem to "take over", don't panic'¦ Look to the root causes of these cycles. Warmer water, extended photoperiod, the release of bound-up nutrients and new chemical foods through your feeding. If your fish livestock is none the worse for these events, consider a slow approach to their solution. Not unlike turning a large ship with a small rudder, nothing good happens quickly in a biological pond. Slow and steady as she goes. As the Spring wears on, activities like re-potting and fertilizing plants, adding fishes and other animals can be engaged.

Spring Pond Maintenance 

Though the seasons are of a certainty cyclical, we mostly center on springtime as the "beginning" of years'¦ As a pond-keeper this IS the time of your greatest activity and concern. In the new year's warming months, all related gear is checked and re-instituted, livestock "wakes up" and is at its most vulnerable to damage, and we, ourselves venture out to enjoy, engage our water features and their inhabitants.

Spring Sprung?

A systematic approach to details of pond mechanicals and cleanliness will ensure you a trouble-free, enjoyable summer and fall with your water feature. Pond filters, plumbing, pump/s, controllers if any need to be checked, tested, and water vented through them if they've been shut down for the winter. Livestock will begin to stir as the water warms and should be examined as they begin to feed, for signs of parasitic infestation. If you've had a notion to initiate new algae control measures, now is the time to set them in motion'¦

But before you start, do make sure that the cold weather time is past; by monitoring your ponds water temperature. Air temperature during the day or night is no valid indicator of what is going on in your system. Get and use (preferably a encased, non-breakable type with a string!) a good thermometer and record your water temperature for a good week or two after it approaches 50 F. during daytime. When in doubt whether time has come to start working on your pond, wait.

Pumps/Plumbing/Filters & Basins:

Once the chance of water freezing in your plumbing is past, and there is a definitive warming trend in the weather, one can give attention to inspecting, repairing and "firing over" pond pump/s and filters (if they haven't been running continuously of course, as in warm weather regions). Though the water may still be quite cold to you, once it nears and stays about 50 F. or higher during the days, it's time to prime the lines, turn on filter and recirculating pumps, test all valves and skimmers for function and turn all on. A cautionary note re the initial start-up: It is STRONGLY advised that the first few minutes of water coursing through your lines and filters be vented to waste, to prevent the pumping of polluted water into the system. Be forewarned that this water can be stinky!

Basins, whether cementatious, fiberglass, polyethylene or liner in construction need to be checked for integrity'¦ as does any penetrating rock work, particularly that which may make up your waterfall/s. Cold weather, water/ice expansion can play havoc on the water tightness of basins and such during winter. Make sure your system doesn't leak before leaving the pumps running. Liners may crack, one-piece basins be uplifted, whole basins may require lowering the water to effect repairs.

Clean-up Time:

Along with general checking on the pond, its components and livestock is the issue of "spring cleaning", the removal of accumulated "gunk", leaves, soil, what have you, from the basins. This should not be attempted while the system is still cold, and a good indication of when it might be time is the relative temperature of your tap/source water. It's best to wait till these are about the same, as you will be re-filling the system with this water and it needs to be about the same temperature. Another concern is that you not be too fastidious in your cleaning. You do NOT want to totally dump, scrub, and remove all traces of detritus in your initial effort here. Very important instead to take your time in vacuuming, netting out a good portion (let's say up to 80-90 percent) of unwanted material, and no more than 20-25% of the water'¦ re-filling it slowly (as in a drip), with dechloraminator to prevent poisoning from tapwater sanitizer.

Check around the pond perimeter for movement of soil that should be removed to prevent it entering the pond. Check your drainage scheme to insure that it is clear of debris to preclude floodwater from entering the pond or water overfilled from the pond escaping to other areas.

Established Livestock Concerns:

Now is the time, while investigating the surrounding landscape, to devise your plan for scaling back seasonal overgrowth and making mental notes re what you intend to add during the growing season to embankments and nearby plant areas. Remove dead and left over excess growth of out of pond plants, fertilize them and/or augment soil as you see necessary, but hold off till the pond is a bit more re-established (let's say mid to late spring) to do much with the bog and truly aquatic plants. Once again, there is a need to "go slow" initially in doing much with changing water quality in the new year. In later spring, potted and interior border-grown plantings can be re-potted and fertilized as new growth becomes evident. A semi-last cautionary note here: be careful in getting in and out of your pond. These are treacherously slippery, and oh-so easy to slip and fall in.

Fishes should be carefully examined for signs of disease. The spring is their parasite and infectious fauna's "hay day" and it's important to catch any latent or new problem here and now. You will find there are many, MANY disparate opinions on the how and what to treat symptoms, apparent pathogens with'¦ Whatever protocols you settle on I encourage you to administer medicants OUTSIDE your pond'¦ in a more controlled, easier observation container like a net-covered kiddie pool or large aquarium. Historically, attempts at treating livestock in their main ponds are expensive and disastrous. Most result in more damage than good.

It's best to hold off on such treatments till the water is at least 60 F. These medicants may take the form of liquid prep.s of formalin, malachite, copper'¦ or medicated foods, even injections. Take a look on the Internet AND established print sources of information on pondfish disease before embarking on any given regimen. If you can, hold off on handling, moving your fishes till the water is in the 60's F. Moving them before this time/temperature can be much more harmful than the effects of any given disease. 

Plants can be divided, re-planted and fertilized once the water is steadily in the 50's F. or higher'¦ I like to wait (for my comfort) till the water is even warmer still, but as a general rule most plants should be so manipulated no later than mid to late spring. Use the appearance of new-growth to gauge when to start such work.

A brief related note regarding the use of various test kits (pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate et al.). There are times when folks seem to become mesmerized with testing. Such assays for water quality do indeed have their place, but I caution you to first and foremost rely on your powers of observation on examining your livestock. Few "things" happen quickly in ponds that are pleasant'¦ and you are cautioned to "when in doubt, leave it out", where questions arise as to take action or alter your waters make-up in the face of apparent good health in your fishes and plants.

Acquiring and Placing New Livestock:

Other than concerns re pest snails and possibly algae, you might think the introduction of new aquatic plant material holds little challenge in ongoing ponds. Such is not the case however and you should isolate new purchases for two weeks or so to weaken potential infectious bacteria and parasites, possibly immersing them in a prophylactic alum (aluminum sulphate) bath before allowing them to be placed in your pond. The standard operating procedure for alum baths is to mix a teaspoon of the solid in a quart of water, immerse the plants for about ten minutes, and then rinse them thoroughly. Most plants offered/utilized in ponds are of cool water origins, but you should wait on introducing non-hardy water lilies, water hyacinth and water lettuce till your water reaches the mid 60's F. consistently. <Pix, some hardy and tropical lilies'¦ most of the former are "warm colored", reds, yellows'¦ and have flowers whose petioles/stems lay flat at the waters surface. Tropicals are often "cool colored" and have stems that are immerse. And a pic of Pistia stratiotes, Water Lettuce>

With fishes you are advised to utilize the same simple, effective quarantine method with all new purchases. The same "treatment" system of a covered holding tank, filtration/aeration can be employed here. All new fish purchases should be acclimated and maintained for a minimum of a two-week period to 1) give them time to "rest up", 2) grant you opportunities to observe them for possible pathogens, and 3) if necessary treat them for same. If you live in a cold (ice) to cooler weather region, you're encourage to hold off on acquiring new fish till later spring, when these animals immune systems are entirely functional.

If you've kept your fishes, maybe even plants "indoors" in an aquarium or pool in the garage, patio over winter, do wait until time in which their current ambient water temperature matches the warming weather, water temperature of the pond to re-locate them outdoors. Thermal stress is a principal determinant of health/disease with this life, and adding to the negative side of the equation by too-early moving of livestock can be disastrous.

About Algicides:

Well-designed and maintained water features don't have serious "troubles" with excess algae, but all must need be watched/monitored to prevent outright algal "explosions". If you sense you have too much algal growth, you likely do'¦ and need to give thought to your best control methodology. Is it an excess of nutrients, too much available sunlight, a lack of competition for these same? Is your water chemistry out of whack? Is your waters pH too high or experiencing too much diurnal fluctuation? What do you feed (purposely and inadvertently through fertilization and water changes) into your system? When is the last time you thoroughly checked your filtration? Would improved circulation, aeration; even the addition of barley bales, an in-line ultraviolet sterilizer or purposeful beneficial bacteria improve your chances of controlling excess algae?

A very reasonable and easy mechanism to reduce the likelihood of "green, murky water" in spring is to effect a series of partial water changes. After your water warms to 50 F. or higher, a portion (10-20 %) can be vented and slowly (as with a drip from a hose) refilled (with water conditioner added ahead of time). This change-out accomplishes several important benefits: diluting wastes accumulated during winter, reducing the amount of nutrients available to pest algae, flushing out pathogens, and infusing the system with oxygenated water. 

Lastly on your list of "tools to combat algae" should be chemical algicides. Few of these are effective and none are truly safe to use. If you go the chemical route, do so with the knowledge of the actual gallonage of your system and carefully administer doses with an ever-present eye on its effect on your livestock. Be aware that most of these compounds have a very narrow range of efficacy. That is, there is not much "room for error" in their overdosing. Some that are Simazine based are toxic to surrounding terrestrial plants as well as aquatic. Use with extreme care.

>Sidebar< Calculating Pond Volumes:

There are a few mathematical formulae for estimating the size and hence the volume of a given pond (there are about 7.5 gallons of water in a cubic volume of one foot), but the best, most accurate method of approximating volume is to measure the rate of flow to filling a given known volume (like a five gallon "pickle" bucket) and measuring the time it takes to fill your pond'¦ multiplying the equivalent time by the time per known volume. An example: Let's say it takes twenty seconds to fill a five gallon bucket from your house, and some two and a half hours to fill your pond'¦ From the first experiment, your hose delivers about a gallon every four seconds'¦ and it took (2.5 hours times 60 minutes per hour, times 60 seconds per minute equals) 9,000 seconds'¦ so, 9,000 seconds of water, divided by 4 seconds per gallon, gives you 2,250 gallons of volume in your pond.

About Feeding Your Fish:

Breaking into and establishing a routine of offering food is tricky just after wintertime. First foods should be low-protein (less than 20%, check the bag label) and composed of little animal material (for ease of digestion). Feed sparingly'¦ only a few pellets or sticks, at first, and if the food is not accepted, remove it and add no more till the water is warmer. A general rule of thumb is to feed nothing at temperatures below 50-55 F., once a day between 55-65 F., twice a day between 65-75 F'¦ But be wary of the initial start-up of feeding. Koi and goldfishes will eat more than they can digest'¦ and simply ingesting food will do them more harm than good. Again, my advice, feed nothing until your water is at least 50 F. during the day. Oh, and higher-protein foods can be commenced once your water temperature is in the 60's F., initially mixed in with more easily digested lower-protein kind/s.



With increasing temperatures of our planets solar cycling, come awareness and tasks for the earnest Pondkeeper. Make a list of activities, tools and materials; adapted; adopted from this article and "be prepared" for checking your system, its livestock and doing requisite clean up come spring. Be aware that as your livestock's metabolism "wakes-up" this is a very delicate time to adjustment, and that you should proceed with caution in adding to chemical, physical and/or biological changes. Wait till the water has warmed up, remains in the 50's F. before proceeding, and then not overtly. Fifty degrees Fahrenheit is indeed a "magical number", signifying about the time that's best to re-start pumps, initiate feeding of pondfish, re-pot and fertilize plants, and begin regular maintenance to your "new" pond.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Blasiola, George C. 1986. Spring koi pond maintenance. FAMA 3/86.

Fenner, Bob. 1997. General care for your pond. FAMA 12/97.

Fenner, Bob. Algicides

Kebus, Myron. 2002. Spring stress. Follow a few simple rules about water temperature, feeding, and handling to help your fish survive the strain of waking up from winter. Water Gardening, Jan./Feb. 2002.

Meyer, Stephen M. Springtime for ponds. The warming water temperatures of May and June bring new challenges. AFM 7/98.

Speichert, Greg. 2002. Spring pond care. Water Gardening. Mar./Apr. 2002.

Speichert, Sue. 2000. Five easy steps for the perfect spring pond. Water Gardening. March/April 2000.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Anonymous. A seasonal guide to pond care. Aquarium Digest International #52.

Di Fiore, Tony. 2001. Your pond in four seasons. TFH 9/01.

Meyer, Stephen M. 1996. Seasons of the pond. The nature of ponds throughout the year. AFM 2/96.

Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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