Spring Maintenance for your Water Garden

Cherie Moyer
Adams County Master Gardener

Oh, we have had a few warm spring-like days and do we have the "itch" to get outdoors and commune with nature. Spring is one of my favorite seasons, and I look forward to it with enthusiasm and zeal. I can look out my kitchen window and see the fish starting to surface and jump with joy that spring is around the corner. Now is the perfect time to put cleaning and preparing your pond at the top of your list of priorities.

Why should the pond be cleaned? If your pond has a moderate amount of debris on the bottom (more than half an inch), your pond will have a great deal of trouble staying clear throughout the summer. Single cell algae feed on the organic decaying matter at the bottom of the pond. In other words, the organic matter acts like a fertilizer to feed algae blooms once the weather and the water start to warm.

Disease causing parasites and other insects that live in this decaying matter are other reasons to clean your pond. These harmful parasites will multiply and divide, seek out your fish and before you know it, your fish will be sick

There are numerous ways to clean your pond. Some people just use a net and keep stirring the debris off the bottom and netting it out. You can get by with only this step providing your pond isn't too dirty. However, if it hasn't been cleaned on a yearly basis and wasn't covered during the fall and winter, it probably will need a more thorough cleaning.

Gather all the supplies that you think you will need, including old towels, water hoses, a spare air pump with tubing and air stone, tubs to hold the fish with screens to cover them, buckets, and nets. Siphon all the water out of the pond with the garden hose, or if you have a shop vacuum that will do a fine job as well. I also have used my water pump to pump the water out using a couple sections of flexible large-diameter hose hooked to the output side. This way the water is deposited on the lawn, fertilizing it with the water's rich nutrients. As the water is draining, start pulling the marginal plants and lilies out of the pond. If the lilies have new growth on them, set them in a shaded area and cover with wet newspaper, as the sun and air will kill the new growth.

When the water gets to about 5" from the bottom, it is time to net out the fish. It is no use trying to catch them earlier than this, as there is too much water in the pond. All you will succeed in doing is putting additional stress on your fish and wearing your patience down. Gently put the fish in the holding container you have prepared for them. Use a 25-gallon plastic tub that has handles on it. Fill this container with the water from your pond, which you siphoned off at the beginning. Turn on the air pump with the attached air stone to provide additional aeration in the temporary quarters. You can also add some non-iodized salt to the container to help ease the stress on the fish and kill some of the parasites that may be along for the ride. Use non-iodized salt at the rate of one teaspoon per gallon or you can use a product called "stress coat." Cover the container with a window screen. This is especially important if you have koi as they are particularly fond of jumping.

After the fish are removed, finish draining the pond, looking for the small fry like snails and frogs that you may want to keep. When I get near the bottom, I use a plastic dustpan to finish getting the silt or muck out. This muck makes excellent fertilizer for the garden or compost pile. Using the nozzle of the garden hose, spray down the sides. You do not want to scrub and clean the pond like the kitchen floor. The growth on the pond's sides is beneficial bacteria that aid in balancing your pond, helping to keep it clear.

At this point, you're almost done. Start refilling your pond with fresh water. If you are using chlorinated water, be sure to use a product called "dechlor" to rid the water of chlorine and chloramines that are deadly to your fish. You will want to check that the pH is the same as the water in the holding container. Also check to see that the temperature is approximate. If these parameters are not acceptable, start adding some of the water from the garden hose into the holding container about a gallon at a time every 15 minutes. This will help acclimate the fish to the new water parameters.

While the pond is filling, you can check the fish for parasites and sores. If they are sick, put them in a quarantine tank, or you will have to treat the whole pond. Parasites do not leave of their own accord. The fish must be treated.

When a couple of inches of water is in the pond, put the fish back in. Pour the water from the holding container back into the pond. This water helps to inoculate your pond with beneficial bacteria. When the above criteria have been met, it is time to add the fish. You do not have to wait till the pond is full to reintroduce the fish. The fish are better off in their own clean home as soon as possible.

While the pond is continuing to fill, rinse off the plants and put them back in the pond. Clean the pump to make sure it is working properly. Check the filtration system and clean the filter media. You may find it necessary to buy new filter media if it is too hard to clean the old. Also, add barley straw to help keep the string algae at bay and add beneficial bacteria at this point. I divide and fertilize my plants in a couple of weeks.

Now that you have taken care of potential problems before they have a chance to overtake you and your pond, you can relax knowing that the hard part is done. You can now enjoy your water garden for another season. Happy Ponding

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