Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pond Gadgets

Now that you have a pond, you need a pond shelf in your garage, or a pond place in your outdoor shed to store your pond gadgets. We accumulate pond gadgets that we find we cannot be without. For those of you just starting, this is a beginning list of pond gadgets to have around the house because you will need them and you will need them when stores are closed.

HIP BOOTS for getting in the pond to fertilize water lilies or to trim plants. If the pond is deeper than hip boots are tall, you either need a BOAT because you have a lake or a BUCKET AND A ROPE because you have a well.

Of course, you can go in the pond barefoot unless you think there may be critters in there you would rather not encounter without foot and leg protection.

AQUA GLOVES You can fertilize lilies or cut back plants with clippers in your bare hands or you can use aqua gloves, a glove with long plastic sleeves, if you are afraid of pond critters and there certainly is no reason to be unless you live where poisonous water snakes also live.

HAND POND PRUNERS These are made with ultra long handles so you can clip plants while standing next to your pond, but if you have your HIP BOOTS on and are already in the pond, you can use regular clippers. Your bare hands will work pretty good here too.

POWER NOZZLE What on earth is a power nozzle? It will become your most valuable pond accessory and here's how to make one: Get a hose cut off valve and a separate nozzle with a small hole at the end. It fits on the cut off valve. Get both at your local hardware or big box store. Screw the pieces together and to your hose. You now can spray a stronger stream of water than you can with any one piece nozzle. Buy several of these because everyone will like it, borrow it and you will never see it again. Use the nozzle to get dirt and algae off the waterfall, the rocks and to clean the filter. Do not wring out filter material as it breaks down, gets smaller and smaller and soon you will have to buy new.

TWO SCREWDRIVERS One Phillips head and one flat head because the makers of screw driver bits have visited a plague upon us and make two different kinds of common bits, so we never know which one we need until we see what needs to be done and we always have the wrong one in our pocket. Buy and carry them both for pond chores like removing hose clamps and using your POWER NOZZLE to blow dirt out of your tubing and pump.

NET You need a net to scoop debris from the bottom of the pond. I normally do this from outside the pond so I don't need the hip boots. If you need to catch a fish, the net comes in handy as well.

DECHLORINATOR Please, please keep a bottle of dechlor on hand. If you never need it, that's wonderful, but here's why you need to have it on hand. You turn the water on to top off your pond. It's going to take a bit of time, so, you decide to fold the laundry while you are waiting. The phone rings. You chat with your friend for a few minutes. Then you remember you have to get some bill payments in the mail, so you hop in the car to drop them off at the post office. While you are out, you decide to pick up a few things at the grocery store and pick up the dry cleaning. In the cleaners, you talk with the clerk about the weather for a few minutes, get back in your car and see the car needs gas, so you stop to fill up the tank. You get home and for the life of you, you can't figure out why the driveway is flooded.

Suddenly it dawns on you. You rush to turn off the water and see your fish lying at the bottom of the pond not moving. If you have dechlor in the house, you can probably save those fish. Whew, aren't you glad you have some?

EXTRA PUMP, TUBING, HOSE CLAMPS Because they always break when no store is open and you need to do repairs immediately before tonight's dinner party.

AQUATIC PLANT FERTILIZER If you don't have fertilizer made for water lilies, you can use Job's Tomato Spikes, if you can't find those, you can use Job's Tree Spikes, if you use the tree spikes, then you will need a HAMMER because you must break those babies into 4 parts and only use one per gallon pot and you can't break them with your bare hands

MICROBE-LIFT PL I have found this to be the best thing to eliminate blanketweed or string algae and to keep your ecosystem balanced and water clear.

BEER I don't know who tried it first, but it often works to clear up blanketweed or string algae. Just pour it in the water. Or if it's really hot outside, drink it.

With these materials nearby, you will be able to do the necessary pond maintenance, do quick and easy repairs without running to the store first.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pond Pumps and Filters

Early pond building

When I built my own pond in my back yard in 1987, filters and skimmers were used on swimming pools, not ponds. Flexible rubber liner ponds had not yet been heard of. I used a PVC liner that was meant to be used as a liner in sanitary land fills. A pond pump was bright blue and normally used as a sump pump in leaky basements. Shortly after I started building ponds commercially, a few companies started building pumps especially for ponds, made them black and different sizes. We connected the pump to a garden hose to run water over a waterfall. If we wanted two streams of water over the falls, we used a hose divider to get those two streams. The largest pond pump was 1200 gallons per hour.

The pond market grows

Within a couple of years, companies realized that backyard ponds was the niche market of the future and started making products strictly for ponds. We had bigger pumps, special hoses, special dividers and now needed hose clamps. Our liner choice was still laminated PVC.

But the market grew and as it did, opportunists arrived. Until skimmers and filters were marketed, no one needed them. Koi pond enthusiasts were already using elaborate swimming pool filters. I was known to remark that the filtration system of a koi pond I was working on looked a bit like a heart - lung machine. If you wanted a pond with goldfish and plants, you did not need a filter, nor a skimmer. You still don't.

The new pond companies that were proliferating throughout the country began to convince pond installers and do it yourselfers that filtration was a necessity and no pond would work unless it had a skimmer.

Filters and skimmers arrive on the market

Pond filters and skimmers are relative newcomers to the pond building industry.

A pond skimmer is a black plastic box that attaches to the side of a pond with bolts and nuts through the now rubber flexible liner. The pump sits inside and draws pond water through the skimmer into a basket inside and removes surface debris before sending the water on over the waterfall. You clean the basket periodically.

If you build your pond under a tree, you might need a skimmer. Unfortunately leaves that fall from a tree don't stay on the surface very long and that skimmer cannot get leaves or other debris off the bottom of your pond. So there is your skimmer with the nuts and bolts and seal that have penetrated your liner. If the seal fails, and it frequently does, it can cause huge and possibly unrepairable problems.

A pond filter removes organic debris from your water, cleans it and returns it to your water. And it does a remarkably good job at that. If you feed your goldfish, you probably need a filter of some sort. I like the under $10.00 homemade ones. They do an excellent job.

Balance your pond

So how does your pond survive with no skimmer or filter? Balance it ecologically, with submerged vegetation and floating plants that cover at least 50-70% of the surface area. Do not overload your pond with fish and most importantly do not feed them! Those fish live off the submerged vegetation, usually anacharis, and the fish waste fertilizes it. Anacharis grows faster than the fish can eat it.

You don't need a pond filter or a pond skimmer. More money can be in your pocket to spend on better things than pond filters or skimmers.

Marketing works, but nature works better.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Choosing a Backyard Pond Pump

So many backyard pond pumps to choose from: Which one is best for me?

Backyard Pond pumps do one thing: They move the water in your pond from where it is to somewhere else. Most of the time they pump it up and over a waterfall. Other times they pump water through a spitter, an ornament in or next to your pond, often a frog, dolphin, fish or piece of statuary. Sometimes they pump water up in the air like you see in huge commercial ponds near the mall or on the farm.

There are things you must know before choosing the right pump for your pond. Half of your pond water has to move through your pump every hour. So if your pond is 1000 gallons, your pump has to pump 500 gallons per hour or GPH. As this is a bare minimum requirement, you would be best to consider a larger pump. For example, if you are moving water over a wide or tall waterfall, you need more GPH. If you are pulling water through a filter, you must be sure you are pulling enough to make the filter work properly. So figure on buying a larger pump than the minimum size, so you have some wiggle room.

So now you have water moving around in your pond. It sure looks nice and sounds great going over that waterfall, but moving does more then just look nice. If you have fish in your pond and feed them, the pond will be out of balance ecologically. Feeding fish makes them grow too big for the available oxygen, so your water needs to have oxygen introduced. Your pump does that. If the pond water surface is moving oxygen is being absorbed by the pond water and then your fish can breathe easily.

If you do have fish, and most pond owners do, you probably have a filtration system. The pump also pulls water through that filter system, either mechanical or biological. That filter pulls suspended debris out of the water. Usually the debris is algae and when you get too much algae, your water will turn green. The proper filter can keep that from happening. So the pump must be big enough to meet the needs of your filter.

You have three choices of pump types: Submersible, external and solar. Submersible pumps cost less, but do not last as long. They are still the pump of choice with most pond owners. Because they are made of a resin material, they can be used underwater, but if the seal is broken, the pump must be thrown away. It cannot be fixed and returned to the pond safely. A submersible pump can easily last 5+ years if cleaned regularly. Cleaning is important to a pump's life. They often sit on the bottom of the pond and suck in all the rotted organic debris sitting in the bottom of your pond. If left uncleaned for any length of time, the pump impeller, a reverse propeller that sucks water in, can become damaged quickly.

In general, the more expensive the pump, the longer it lasts. Always check the warranty length of any pump.

External pumps last longer, pump more water, can be repaired and are more expensive. They also need to be hidden somehow. No one likes to look at a pump and filter set up right next to their waterfall. But if you have a large pond, you might be better served by a external pump. They are certainly more efficient than submersible ones, they cost less to operate and can pump more water. Because they are stronger, they can work with most biofilters and last longer because they do not have to work as hard. If I were to get an external pump, I would look for one that pumped as many gallons per hour as my pond held. If I had a 5000 gallon pond, I would want a 5000 gph external pump.

Solar pumps are starting to come into their own. We still have a long ways to go before they will perform as well as we want them to, but the technology is coming along. The biggest drawback of solar pumps is they will not pump if the sun is not shining, so your pump will be off during gray days and at night. As solar energy storage technology becomes more widely available, solar pumps will become the best buy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Fall Pond Care

Special fall pond care is necessary when our plants and fish begin going dormant in cooler weather. When temperatures start dropping and we know that Indian Summer is just around the corner, our pond requires that we slow down or stop many things we did daily or weekly in the hot summer.

Water lilies

Our water lilies pads are getting smaller and they are blooming less and less. Water lilies respond to temperatures and length of daylight. Stop feeding your lilies in the fall and allow them to go into dormancy. If you stimulate growth now, you could lose the lily when winter freezes hit your part of the country. Lower them to the bottom of the pond if they are not there already. They will over winter better there where the water is warmer. If they are hardy lilies, they will be fine in freezes. If they are tropical special care is needed to keep them through the winter.

Bog Plants

If your bog plants are tropical you can bring them in the house and hope they will survive. Many of them, like taro, callas and cyperus do not require being in water and will do well in soil or sand. Bring them in the house, keep them in medium light and they should do fine. If your plants are hardy, just cut them back to make sure none of the emergent vegetation freezes, dies and fouls the pond. The hardy bog plants will come back in the spring bigger and better.

Remove Japanese Iris and Lobelia cardinalis and plant it in the ground if it freezes where you live. Mulch it up good and they should survive nicely and be ready to put back in the pond in the spring. Remove canna rhizomes from their pots. Store them in a pot in peat in a basement. Keep the peat damp.

Submerged Plants

If your pond is below the freeze line in your part of the country, your submerged plants should do just fine. If not and your pond freezes solid, bring them in the house right before the freeze and keep them in an aquarium with aquarium lighting.

Fish Feeding

If you feed your fish, when the temperatures start to drop below 60 degrees F, ease up on the feeding. Feed no more than two or three times weekly. Fish are cold blooded animals whose body temperatures are the same as ambient temperatures, therefore their metabolisms are slowing down as temperatures drop. When metabolisms slow, digestion slows as well. If you feed the fish too much, they cannot digest it and may die. When the temperatures drop to 50 degrees F, stop feeding completely.


Your floating plants are getting smaller and smaller, so cruising herons and egrets can see your fish more easily. To protect your fish make places for them to hide. You can buy "castles" commercially or you can turn some clay ponds on their sides. Another good hiding place is a large flat rock placed on top of a couple of chunky rocks makes a great spot for fish to get away from hungry birds.

Leaf netting will keep the predators away as well as keep debris out of the pond.


It's time to get all the falling leaves, debris, sticks, dead and decomposing organic material and fish poop off the bottom, in the waterfall cracks and sides. You can do a total cleanout, use a pond vac or a siphon if you can. No matter how you do it, the pond has to be clean and it sure is easier to do it now than the night before a hard freeze.

If you have a skimmer, it will not remove the leaves. It is made to remove the occasional leaf, not a tree full. You can cover your pond with leaf netting. You can buy it at most nurseries or make it from nylon net available in most big box stores.

I have known some folks to pound stakes around their ponds and cover the entire pond with visqueen, making a pond greenhouse. This will add at least 10 degrees to the temperature inside your greenhouse. Putting lights under there will add even more heat and keep leaves and other debris out of the water. Just make sure air can get in and out.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Pond Troubleshooting - a Case Study

Pond troubleshooting is something all pondkeepers must do. Things can go wrong in our ponds and we must know what to look for, so we can keep the problem from becoming a disaster.

Several years ago, I was called to care for a pond that filled my customer's front yard. He had built it with concrete, making any pond difficult to keep balanced. Concrete can leach lime if not sealed properly. He could not keep water lilies or fish alive. What was wrong? I could see the pond was about a foot deep. Problem number one was found. A pond must be at least 18" deep to keep both water lilies and fish happy. The water was getting too hot for fish to survive, so problem number two was found.

My customer built a second pond attached to the first one. It was 18" deep, and still concrete. The ponds were connected, so the fish and the water lilies could both live in the deeper part of the pond. We planted parrots' feather in the shallow pond to keep the water shaded and cooler. Over the years the parrots' feather grew so large, it took two men to drag it out and cut it back when the pond got its annual cleanout.

We thought we had the problems solved, but we were wrong. I had a motivated client. He loved his pond and did much research on pondkeeping, so we could try to figure out the problems together.

Within a year, the fish began to get sick, the submerged vegetation started to turn yellow and lose all its leaves. Now what was wrong. My first instinct was to check the pH. It's easy, but rarely the problem. pH usually fixes itself in a balanced pond and this one was balanced. My client did not feed his fish, so we did not have excess fish food or organic waste to deal with. Most people, if they feed their fish, feed them too much and much of it falls to the bottom of the pond, where it decomposes and fouls the water. Even if the fish do eat the food, they produce so much waste, that it fouls the water. You can always tell if people feed their fish even if they say they don't. If you walk to the edge of the pond, the fish come to the top, racing toward you smacking their little mouths waiting for their treats. All the while, the pondkeeper is protesting, saying he does not feed his fish. Then he gets busted by his own fish.

But that was not a problem with this pond.

Neither was pH. Excess ammonia was not a problem, nor were nitrates or nitrates. All of these things must be dealt with if fish are fed.

So why was the submerged vegetation dying, the water clouding up and the fish dying, but not all at once. My first hunch is always that chemicals from somewhere are getting into the water. Check to make sure water is not running off from surrounding streets, insecticides or pesticides being sprayed by the gardener, the neighbors' gardener or the city. Make sure there is no rain running off the roof into the pond. Nope, not at this house. Check with the neighbors to see if anyone is scraping paint off their houses and microscopic particles are drifting into the pond.

By this time, I have been working on this pond for several weeks being a real pond detective.

As a last resort, I pumped all the water out of the pond and started over. Within a week the pond was cloudy and foul again. What was the problem?

The client had household staff. He also had an entry just outside the front door. It was about 8 feet wide and 40 feet long. It was the only way people used to enter and exit the house. I asked all the staff about their shoes. Did they have new ones? Did someone drop something in the pond? Did the nanny let the kids put things in the pond? No to all questions.

Finally, I asked the right question. I found that one of the staff members had decided the patio entry needed to be cleaned at least twice weekly. She sprayed it with floor cleaner, scrubbed it and then hosed it off.....right into the pond.

After being assured she was not going to be fired, I asked the staff member if it was OK to leave the patio a bit on the dirty side. She agreed. The pond recovered. The anacharis was replaced as were the fish. The crisis was over. It took about 2 months and 10 visits to find the problem and fix it.

There is always a reason that ponds get foul and fish and plants die. Most of the time the reason is relatively easy to find and fix. Occasionally we must play detective and take much longer to find out what is happening. Keep on looking for your pond problem. You will find it. After that, fixing the problem is easy.