Jan. 16 2012 09:36 AM

With the holidays just winding down, now is the time to get your ducks in a row for the spring start-up season. Don’t put it off; the more you plan and do now, the more successful your season will be. Luck tends to frequent those who do their homework.

Here in North Central Georgia, spring will start in mid to late February. By the end of January, we will have sent a letter—not an email, but a real letter—to all the customers who we have served in the past. For the vast majority of these customers, the ponds were installed as totally rock-and-gravelcovered liner ponds, and these really need to be cleaned annually for best performance and optimum fish health.

For those who scoff at this, I would challenge you to drain and clean one sometime. I’ll lay out the method I use and recommend a little later in the article. Rock and gravel-type ponds can look pretty darn good and still be clogged with more crud than a 1,000-gallon septic tank. I built a website over a decade ago dedicated to explaining the task of properly cleaning this type of pond, based on their frequency and popularity, and the information is free for all to see. I also actually use it as a sales tool when a potential new customer with an existing pond wants to know what we do for what we charge. I point out to them that the information-filled website is not only for professionals, but also for a do-it- yourselfer.

Once they see what is really entailed in a proper pond clean, 99 out of 100 sign up on the spot. Feel free to use the website yourself as a sales tool. It is www.pondcleanout .com. It still amazes me how many people have been told their rock and gravel pond never needs to be cleaned. To me, this is like saying your car never needs to be washed or your floor never needs to be vacuumed or scrubbed. It just doesn’t make sense, if you think about it for a minute or so.

The primary reason that many of these ponds really need that clean, is that in spite of often having mechanical filtration as part of the system, most don’t clean them nearly as often as they need to be. In fact, some people—who are more marketeers than knowledgeable pond professionals, and are only interested in making a sale more than serving the customer—claim that their filters only need to be cleaned once a year.

Wow, these folks need to be marketing their 150,000 mile oil filters, too. If a mechanical filter clogs up in a week, then it can no longer filter the water. The stuff it should be catching just flows right out the waterfall and precipitates out, settling in the nooks and crannies of the pond, as well as filling up the bottom with crud much faster than any biological breakdown process can convert it.

Years ago, I had a lively debate with one of the country’s leading fish veterinarians, Dr. Erik Johnson, about the safety of these rock-and-gravel-type ponds, in regards to fish health. His main concern centered around the fact that the crud that naturally settles into the gravel and nooks and crannies of these ponds would, after a couple of years, become highly anaerobic (thrives in a non-oxygen environment) and put off high levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide into the water that would be toxic to fish.

Having several of these types of ponds myself, I felt comfortable that we were getting them clean by draining them, picking all the larger debris out, rinsing it down with a garden hose until we had everything pumped out and looking clean and good, then filling it back, dechlorinating and putting the fish back in. Having had this debate just a couple of weeks prior to cleaning one of my own ponds out front, we followed everything that we had done in the past, but as the pond had filled back up with about six inches of new, clean water, I had a thought. I asked a helper to hand me back the sump pump, with its 1½" flex pipe hose attached.

I dropped it down in that clean water, plugged this 3200 gph pump in and started re-rinsing the way I had just done with a garden hose. Holy crap, Batman.

Here I thought—no, I knew—I had a clean pond.

But the amount of crud and crap that came boiling out of the nooks and crannies around the edge of the pond was truly shocking. As I continued to work the perimeter of the pond, I thought I’d see what happened when I dropped that big hose down right next to the inch of pea gravel on my first flat shelf. Wow, even more stuff got stirred up. If this wasn’t an epiphany, it was really close to a religious moment for me.

We use this ‘garden hose on steroids’ method on all rock and gravel ponds to this day, and it works great. You need to really stir the stuff up. Then, even if you didn’t get 100 percent of the crud out, you have at least kept it from getting heavily anaerobic. That is the key. Shoot for all hand “pickable” debris and 95 percent of the “settlings,” and you’ve got a thoroughly cleaned pond that didn’t get its biosphere slammed back to the Stone Age. And it looks great. No, it doesn’t look like new, because it’s not new—and you don’t want it to be, biologically.

We do not use a pressure washer for cleaning a rock-and-gravel-type pond. I don’t want to blast off the bio-film that takes months and years to form in a healthy pond.

This would just throw the pond back into “new pond” mode, and it would have to re-balance back out as an eco-system, which might take months—at least weeks—and very likely cause all kinds of complications unnecessarily. I also don’t want to take the risk of blowing a hole through the liner. That’s not my primary reason, but it’s one that those considering using one should be aware of. They also tend to blow gravel clear across the yard, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. Shaken and thoroughly rinsed, but not blasted.

Now, I know I have ‘Spring Startups’ as the heading.... While there is much more to address concerning the overall pond industry when it comes to spring start-ups, I feel as if I’ve covered the most important. If you don’t do anything else, do this one thing. Have a great spring, and now I’ve got to go do a pond clean for a client.