Spring Start-Ups: Ponds

Getting your pond ready for spring

In my last article (January, 2012), I discussed the importance of draining, rinsing, and cleaning of a pond in the spring as one of the most effective ways to start the pond year. I still believe this is very true. There are many people who do nothing else for the rest of the year, and that spring cleaning is the only thing that allows their pond to function properly rather than be a nightmare.

There are other things to consider as well in your spring start-up process. Biological products, such as bacteria and barley straw extract, are a couple of common ones. These two products are, in my opinion, many times over-promoted as some kind of miracle cure—or in many cases as a substitute for a desperately needed clean.

However, if their use is understood, bacteria-based products can be a valuable tool to assist a customer’s pond in maintaining its balance under many conditions. As this article unfolds, I’ll mention a few cases where bacteria-based products are useful.

For example, adding bacteria is a great way to help a brand new pond or bio-filter get up and balanced in record time. I recommend bacteria-based types of products to customers with problems of a specific nature.

I’m not an advocate for just dumping ‘stuff’ in a pond when there is no problem. Many customers don’t need a product as much as they need to understand their various problems and their causes. It makes much more sense to treat the root of the problem rather than the symptoms.

Be sure to use a bacteria product with a proven track record. There are many that don’t perform, for a variety of reasons. Many bacterial-type products have a very limited shelf life. If you open the container and it smells dead, it probably is.

By the time you open that brand new (to you) bottle of “bug juice,” it may have been sitting in a warehouse for a year and a half in 100+ degree temperature in summer, and possibly half frozen in wintertime temps. Then it may have sitting on the shelf in your supplier’s store for another year.

If the bacterial contents inside the container only had a shelf life of one year, you’re just dumping high priced water in your customer’s pond. Buy from suppliers with fresh inventory. Look for a product with a “best if used by” date or a “batch date” on the label. Most manufacturers shoot for a one to two year viability on their biological products.

Keep this in mind when you’re buying ‘biologicals’. Bacteria are a living entity. They have a finite life span when stuck in a bottle with no new food or oxygen other than what was in there when it was sealed.

Freeze-dried bacteria are a bit different. They have been quick-frozen and supposedly enough can survive this process and come back to life to be a viable product. Some folks I trust quite a bit don’t comment much about this type of product, other than to say that they only offer live, liquid-based product, after doing extensive testing on the freeze-dry process.

A pond that hasn’t been cleaned recently will oftentimes develop algae problems, due to the surplus of nutrients available from the vast accumulation of decaying organisms in the water. This is inevitable. Mother Nature is always striving to achieve balance. She will not let unused nutrients go to waste, and will supply something to utilize them. Usually this is string algae or phyto-plankton that makes pea-soup colored water.

In this instance, if the pond isn’t a total cesspool, a bacteria-based product, (sometimes with an enzyme additive) will compete with the algae for the nutrients, thus alleviating some of the algae problems.

A very dirty pond also creates an environment that can be extremely hazardous to fish health. The more biological activity going on in a pond, the less oxygen will be available for other things, such as your clients’ fish. Many of these bacteria need oxygen to do their job. The bigger the job, the more oxygen they use; the more oxygen they use, the quicker the fish end up in trouble.

In my last article, I mentioned the other type of bacteria that don’t use oxygen, and the nasty things they put in the water as a result. See the January issue of Irrigation & Green Industry, 2012.

Quite a few biological products are promoted to alleviate pond problems; however, in many cases they end up exacerbating the problem. A lot of times, it was because you and/or the customer weren’t familiar with the proper use of the product. It behooves you to understand how to properly use these products, so that you can actually contribute to the solution rather than the problem. These products can do harm as well as good. Get knowledgeable.

I’ve seen many people kill their off their clients’ fish after a major water change or spring clean by using a liquid de-chlorinator. The active ingredient in most liquid de-chlorinators is a dissolved solid chemical additive that immediately starts to break down and literally evaporate once the seal is broken on the bottle. As little as three months later, it’s worthless for its designated task and no longer neutralizes chlorine and other harmful additives common in municipal tap water.

Buy the real stuff, not the watered down versions; store it properly and it will last for years. I don’t usually ask a sales rep what the good stuff is, I ask fellow experienced pond contractors for their thoughts and opinions.

One of the most important tools that a pond contractor will use over the course of the year is a clean-out pump. I prefer an open impeller, submersible-type pump in the high 3000 to mid-4000 gallon per hour range. I use a two-inch flex PVC pipe for my hose. It doesn’t kink or collapse like the flimsy cheap plastic ones. Yes, it’s more bulky, but it’s worth it to not fight the constant collapse. I can also add lengths with a simple Fernco fitting in just a minute. We carry a 25foot hose on a cam lock for the main pump, but also carry a 50-foot roll if an extension is needed. Some of our customers require 100 feet of hose when we clean them each spring.

I make a pump boot out of some ½-inch plastic fabric that I bought initially to make covers for fish-holding tanks. This boot slips easily over the pump when we’re draining a pond with a lot of gravel in the bottom. Any small pebble that gets through the fabric will not create a problem, as the pump just spits it out with the water. It also keeps you from sucking smaller fish into the intake of the pump.

Unfortunately, it is no protection for tadpoles or fish fry. They offer their own challenges. If your customer doesn’t want to lose any of their tadpoles or baby fish, recommend that they wait until their baby fish get a bit larger, and that we clean their pond before the next spring spawn can occur.

One last tool that I’ve found increasingly useful in working around and cleaning ponds is a wet/dry shop vac. I use a 12-gallon one from one of the big box stores that was recommended to me by a fellow contractor. Just remember to take the dust filter out before you start using it as a wet vac. It’s a great way to get those last few gallons of nasty water out of a pond, a waterfall filter unit or a skimmer.

We have also discovered that we can fit a 2-inch flex PVC pipe up to 50 feet long to the shop vac’s hose. We came up with this on a project where we had to carry the darn thing full of pond water about 50 feet to a mulched area to dump. After several trips, the creativity light bulb came on, and the crew gave it a try.

The dumping area was slightly downhill from the pond, so it worked like a charm. It will not suck through that much hose uphill at all. In fact, over four or five feet, you’ll have a problem with suction. Although it’s a tool with limited use in some applications, creativity and a will usually finds a way.

I hope you’ve found some useful information in this article. For those who are willing to do some research, there is virtually no end to the information available to those of us blessed to be in our wonderful industry—that wonderful world of ponds and waterscapes.