Ask the WWM Crew
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No aquatic garden is maintenance "free"; though with proper design, construction and stocking, coupled with regular, conscientious checking, up-keep can be reduced to a minimum. The best advice I'm able to offer you in minimizing maintenance is to become aware of the rhythms of your water feature; the daily and seasonal changes in it's life, and chemistry.
Further, learn to look at working on your aquatic garden as a joy, not drudgery; this is your private time to be involved with the living world. Bodies of water are magical in their allure and changing. Embrace the times you have to become yourself with their interaction.
Let's use the space here to proffer a general list of what should be done on a routine basis for a typical system, and then in following Sections present in more detail critical winter maintenance, and other operations topics, including some of my better efforts on the easiest ways to keep your aquatic garden, clean and clear.
There are four basic elements to water feature maintenance: 1) Trash Removal, 2) Testing, 3) Treatment, and 4) Recording.
It is imminently important that you be diligent about removing excess "junk" that gets into your system, whether it originates from the inside or out. Leaves, branches, paper, excess feed, algae and plant matter... should be netted, vacuumed out on a regular basis; some daily, weekly, on a as needed basis.
Filters, checking, maintenance and back-wash come under this category too. If you employ a mechanical/physical type take a look at the pressure gauge, or non-pressurized media, and run the recharge cycle, whatever it is per your specifications. Dittos for intake skimmers and pump trap-kits. I can only dream of the money mis-spent/lost on the inefficiencies of having "junk" restricting the intakes of pumps from such simple oversight.
Trim back yellowing and over-growing plant material; this will lessen the consequences of decomposition, improve the looks of the effect, and promote blooming.
Testing the Water:
We will cover standard water chemistry and the nuts and bolts of testing in a later offering. Here let me emphasize which parameters to look for and their value.
Temperature is a key variable; all the chemical and physical reactions that are your pond are directly dependent on it's thermal content. By all means, keep a sturdy, unbreakable thermometer on a line and get in the habit of pulling it out every day for a look/see. You will find there are seasonal "stratifications" with a layering of much cooler and warmer water separated by a zone (the thermocline) of rapidly changing temperature.
Temperature measure is perhaps most useful as an indicator of when and how much to feed your fish(es) and plants. Be aware of daily changes; the less diurnal temperature shift the better. Five degrees F. is a safe maximum, more flux and you should be looking into shading.
The other "tests" we'll delve into later, should only be a concern when first setting the system up, or when something seems amiss. That "something" is determined by the most important test of all, and you are the test kit. It is close examination of your livestock.
"Constant vigilance" is not only the "price of democracy", it is also the "path or enlightenment" for aquatic gardeners. Look lovingly, but also critically at your livestock each time you're at the water's edge. Does anything seem odd? What could be the cause(s). This is really when you need to pull out those chemical assay kits. If you've kept up with routine cleaning and water changing, they are best kept in their boxes on the shelf otherwise.
Treating the Water:
Properly built and maintained systems require no purposeful addition of any chemical. How's that for a sweeping statement? What? What about water changes, algicides, fish disease treatments...? Ah yes...
If you're going to be replacing more than ten percent of water lost to spray/splash or water change, in a short while, you will need to add a product to counteract the tap-water sanitizer. On the other hand, for small changes, or moderate ones made up very slowly (dripping, over days) there is no need to do this.
Algicides, why? Please see the previous article on algae and their control, and avoid these materials if you can (you can). Look to the real causes of algal proliferation; excess light, nutrients, lack of predators... and correct them, not their effects.
pH, alkalinity/acidity problems: if pH is low, be conscientious re water changing, if too high, utilize biological amelioration (lots of plant growth, biological filtration) to keep it in check. More people do orders of magnitude more harm than good in trying to chemically manipulate the intensity and/or buffering capacity of their systems hydrogen ion concentration. Don't do it.
Fish diseases should be a rarity, if you utilize the quarantine and dip/bath procedures that I've set forth in previous chapters. By all means, be careful if you find yourself having to treat your main system; it's very easy to cause a "wipe-out" through over-medicating, or killing off your beneficial microbes.
All this being written, the pond chemical business in the pet trade is HUGE, and most people will, from time to time, get involved in chemical controls, especially in large "lake-size", or commercial settings. Algicides, defoamers, shading agents, bacteria cultures and chemical feeder stocks, and so much more are a legitimate part of the business of water feature management; but should and can be minimal for the hobbyist.
How does that old proverb go; "those who don't study history are compelled to repeat (it's mistakes)?". I do believe it's true. Please do develop a binder or log "book" dedicated to keeping track of your water effect; with areas for recording what and when livestock was added, warrantees, observations and such: and a chronological history of maintenance; what is to be done, was done, and consequences. You'll know what worked and didn't and be able to share with others so they don't have to learn troubles first hand.
Seasonal System Maintenance:
As the water continues on a steady warming trend, especially if you have ice that has melted completely, a "spring cleaning" is in order. Carefully net and/or vacuum as much of the accumulated solids as practical out, trim excess dead grasses et al. from the pond edge, and slowly refill with treated water. Remove no more than twenty five percent, and "trickle" new water in over a period of days; yes, days.
Particularly in cold climates, where the "mechanicals and controllers", i.e. pumps, switches et al. have been turned off and the plumbing drained, you'll need to do a thorough inspection before firing it all over. Similarly, check the feature itself out entirely. Are their cracks in mortar, liners that require repair? One of my pet peeves is the encroachment of soil and surrounding landscape during the wet season. Check for drainage, and if need be, retrench around the systems perimeter.
While you're at it, this would be an ideal time to move plants back to the system if they've been taken out for the winter, place new ones, and change the potting and fertilization of all for the new growing season.
In later Spring when new plant growth is starting in earnest, it is a good idea to make a preventative pass at keeping aphids and cutworms at bay. Spray 5% Volck oil over and between the surface and edge plantings, and don't worry. The oil is not dangerous for your desired livestock.
As the water warms to consistency, a thorough check, cleaning and possible partial media change should be done. This is a tough job, but one that only need be done once a year, given that your filter and pumping is properly designed and built. As the weather improves, more frequent water changes and back-wash cleanings of the filter should serve to keep algae at bay and flush out the accumulating wastes of plants and fishes.
Keep your plants trimmed on a week to monthly basis, paying particular attention to maintaining a good fifty percent open surface area on the water surface for gas exchange.
As the water continues to cool, continue with periodic removal of solids through vacuuming and netting. Due to the enhanced falling of leaves, you might want to rig up a temporary small mesh net (like those used from nurseries to keep birds from fruiting trees) above the water's surface.
Another oil spraying may be called for to curtail aphid populations for the end of the season.
As autumn blend into the holiday season be careful about over-feeding; there should be no food at the surface for more than about a minute, and cease offering foods altogether below 50 degrees F.. Your fish(es) should either be moved to warmer quarters, or left to their fat reserves at this time to over-winter.
As the fish go into torpor, it is best to fool with the pond and it's water as little as possible. Below fifty degrees you should discontinue food and water changing altogether. The overwintering of water effects is so involved and important that we'll devote the entire next Section to it's elaboration.
Learning and doing what's necessary to keep your aquatic garden clean and healthy is not hard, nor need it be overly time-consuming. Make a form or checklist of what needs to be done in your Aquatic Garden Logbook, and keep track of you and your system's interactions.
Blasiola, George C. 1986. Spring koi pond maintenance. FAMA 3/86.
Meyer, Stephen. 1996. Seasons of the pond. AFM 2/96.
Stone, Helen M. 1993. Maintaining ponds and water features. Landscape Irrigation Magazine 5/93.
Stroup, Denyelle D. 1991. Pond care around the year. AFM 12/91.
Uber, William C. 1990. Water gardening; how to maintain a healthy fish pond. Pet Age 6/90.
If your system has been well designed and built, on-going operation will be a breeze. Typically these services can be divided into four (4) quick, simple components.
1) Trash removal: taking out garbage from pump traps, skimmers, leaf netting, vacuuming/venting "waste" water and solids, back-washing, otherwise cleaning filter media.
2) Testing water chemically and perhaps physically. Checking the system for nutrient or toxics buildup is actually rarely necessary if filtration/circulation/aeration is adequate. After a properly constructed system is operating for a few months, very little goes wrong quickly. With a regular routine of water change and trash removal, most people can dispense with water chemistry checking and adjusting, unless there are signs of a problem.
Daily observation of the pond water and mechanicals and scrutiny of behaviour of the life in the system are generally all that is required. Many more losses are attributable to overt attempts to alter the chemical/physical make-up of water than benign neglect.
Water temperature and pH are very useful parameters to monitor as the former correlates with feeding/fertilizing schedules and the latter provides a window for overall water quality changes.
3) Altering water makeup. As noted above, an often dangerous and unnecessary exercise. Make positive changes gradually. Frequent partial water changes should be all that are necessary to return your system somewhere back towards center. When all is right, no dechloraminator, bacteria culture or adjunct, algicide or algi-static or anything else other than new water to replace that from backwashing, flushing, vacuuming or venting should be necessary.
If possible, and it is, avoid using salts, dyes, shading agents, organo-phosphates, or anything other than "new" water.
4) Record keeping. Maintain a small log of dates, monies, amounts, opinions concerning your water effect. This is a very useful and enjoyable exercise.
There you have it, the major elements of maintenance. With the development of a working routine, upkeep on your effect can be minimized to a few minutes a week; pleasurable time sharing your aquatic garden.