FOR MOST OF THE U.S. POND BUILDING INDUSTRY, THERE ARE FOUR SEASONS. WE ARE currently in the middle of the winter season here in Georgia. This is the time when we get our equipment and supply inventory ready for spring start-ups, the official launch of the New Year’s business for the majority of pond professionals across this great country.

As soon as water temps start to rise about 10 degrees above frozen solid, we start venturing into the field, getting our customers’ ponds cleaned out and off on the right foot for the new year. For rock and gravel-style ponds or ponds with no bottom drains, an annual drain and clean-out is just about mandatory to maintain optimum water quality and fish health long term. We should remember that a pond is a living entity.

An annual checkup and cleanup by a professional is recommended...

Note: Before I start getting blasted with emails about the pond that hasn’t been drained or cleaned in years and you’ve never had any fish or water quality issues . . . fine. You’re the lucky exception. As a professional, I recommend an annual checkup and cleanup by a professional.

We do 100 percent water changes when we do a spring start-up, otherwise known as a spring clean. Why do we do it this way? Well, let’s think about it for a minute. The pond has been out there accumulating organic and airborne debris for a year. Granted, some will have been captured in a skimmer, but a lot of small organic debris will have become waterlogged and settled into all the nooks and crannies of larger rocks as well as sifting down into any gravel on flat surfaces.

Some bacteriological activity has been going on, converting some of the waste down to plant food. Think about it, when someone tells you that a “once a year” clean out of the filter media is all that is recommended. To me, that’s like being convinced that this oil filter is good for 150,000 miles. Ever hear of “channeling”? That’s what happens when your filter pads are clogged and the water is going around the corners or edges of the filter media. That means your filters are clogged and all the crud is going right back into the pond. The biological processes that are actually going on in the pond are grounds for a whole other article.

Remember, these are ponds without bottom drains, usually with gravel in them and they don’t really have the built in ability to get this debris out of the pond, especially if the only mechanical filtration is cleaned once a year. This debris has to get out of the pond prior to it becoming septic and lethal to fish and aquatic life. Simply draining and refilling the pond with new water is really only putting a Band Aid on a potential tourniquet wound.

You need to thoroughly rinse out all the nooks and crannies, rinse it down to the lowest point in the pond and get rid of it. This water is great for plant beds and lawns because of all the nutrients in it.

Using a two-pump system when doing a spring clean, one pump is used to lower the water down to a level where it is relatively easy to catch the fish. Put some of the cleanest pond water in a tank, about a quarter of fresh tap water, then add another quarter of dechlorinated and treated water. This allows some jump room in the tank to deter fish from jumping out, and allows them to start acclimatizing to the “new” water when they’re put back in the pond. You should also cover the tanks with nets for additional insurance and supply aeration. Both are important.

The other pump, which pumps about 4000 gph with either 1 or 2 inch flex pipe is used for the remaining water to rinse and flush all the accumulated “crud” out of all the nooks and crannies down to the other draining” pump. It’s amazing how much debris is caught up in the course of a year in a natural water garden. Use the volume of water, not pressure, to rinse this debris out of the pond. Anything over 85% of debris that has been cleaned is considered good. The rest has been both shaken and stirred and can be considered excellent bio-starter for the pond to kick off the new season. Ten years of applying this method and logic have been proven to be highly successful and effective.

A checklist can be very helpful in keeping you from forgetting a step and optimizes the business return potential. Stop and think about the steps and services that should be included in a pond clean-up. Make a list, follow it and improve or add to it as needed.

Items for your list to be considered: fish, (appearance and overall health); equipment, plants, displaced or shifted rocks repositioned, dechlorinator, time-release fertilizer tablets, outdoor-rated wire connectors, nets, clean out pumps and hoses, drop cords, water hose, rubber boots, holding tank(s) for fish, aerators for fish holding tanks, covers for holding tanks, replacement filter media, replacement hardware for rusted or corroded fittings.

Check your client’s submerged lights when you do a pond cleanup. This can be somewhat of a pain when the pond is full of water. However, if you’re doing a total drain and clean-up of a pond, what better time to check and replace light bulbs and/or fixtures that have failed? They’re high and dry when the pond is drained. Be sure to take a few seconds and clean the lens covers of all the underwater lights. When the lights come on that first night after the clean, the customers will swear you put in brighter bulbs.

The same is true of thinning out overgrown aquatic plants. You can thin them out, taking the viable surplus back to the shop to be repotted for future sales, prior to refilling the pond. On an established pond that we are draining and cleaning, we normally only add fertilizer tabs to the lilies. This gets them off to a great start and helps them bloom more profusely (lilies in heavily shaded ponds benefit the most from the additional nutrients and oftentimes won’t bloom well or at all without the extra kick from time-release fertilizer tabs).

Lotus plants are another pond plant that does well with the extra boost that fertilizer tabs offer. Most aquatic marginals that are naturalized in the pond are established well enough after their first year to not need this extra boost. Containerized plants will most definitely benefit from the fertilizer, as most plants have thoroughly leached all the nutrients out of their planting media by the end of their first or second year in a pond. Many will need to be transplanted to larger containers.

A quick side note on dechlorinators is in order. Caution: many liquid dechlorinators lose their effectiveness quickly once the bottle is opened. Even a sealed, factory-packed bottle may be totally ineffective if it has been on the shelf somewhere for more than a year. Many an experienced pond builder loses a customer’s entire collection of fish by using a recently purchased bottle of liquid dechlorinator that has no effective ingredients left in it.

We have been using sodium thiosulfate crystals that we purchase in 50 pound bags direct from a chemical supply house, with no problems.

We dose liberally, as we feel its cheap insurance to use a little extra rather than not using enough and possibly lose a customer’s fish. Sodium thiosulfate can be overdosed; however, it takes about 50 plus times the recommended dosage to even get close to endangering fish. Using two or three times the recommended dose is not uncommon for us.

Know your local water sources.

Different municipalities and counties oftentimes use different chemicals and water treatment methodologies that may very well affect what type of water treatment neutralizers you’ll need to use to safely return fish to your customer’s pond. This is your responsibility. Know the water. Never stick the refill hose down in the water, even from well water. Prop it on the edge of the pond and let it splash on the surface. This allows many possibly toxic gases and chemical additives to off-gas and be released into the atmosphere, rather than being trapped in the water and possibly compromising the pond’s fish.

Some municipal water is so soft that you’ll need to add sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) immediately to the new water, along with a de-chlorinator to keep the pH from radically fluctuating. In one of the Atlanta area water districts, this has to be done to the water weekly, as it is so soft it can’t maintain its buffering ability without the bicarb. Several of our customers buy 50 pound bags from me. I get mine from the professional pool and spa supply house, and most of the time it’s cheaper than Sam’s or Costco.

The care of a pond’s fish is probably one of the most important aspects of doing an annual drain and clean-up of a pond. There is no quicker way to get a customer upset than to treat his fish in a cavalier manner when catching, holding and returning them following the pond process. For those who don’t know what a sock net is, Google it and get one if you intend to handle fish safely, responsibly and professionally for your clients.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Jones is the owner of The Pond Professional, Woodstock, Georgia.