Preparing your fish ponds or water features for winter
I remember as a kid my Mom telling me to slow down. “Don’t always be in such a hurry, time goes by way too fast.” At the time I just thought, “What the heck does she know?” Turns out she knew a whole lot – and not just that time does go by fast, but about a lot of things. I guess it takes getting older, and hopefully wiser, to appreciate someone else’s wisdom.
If you think about it, I guess that’s why we buy books and magazines, not just for the pretty pictures but more for the knowledge and wisdom that is laid out between its pages. That and the really amazing ideas we get from seeing other people’s yards and gardens.
The following information is based on my 20-plus years in the landscaping and pond industry. As with any advice, take the parts that apply to your situation and try them. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s true. Every pond is different and techniques used don’t always give everyone the same results.
Nothing in gardening or ponding is an exact science. It’s a case of try, try and try again. See what works for you and go with that. These are some of the things I do to help winterize my fish ponds and water features and they have served my fish well. Hopefully you’ll get the same results.
Most of us have busy lives and things get overlooked. Unfortunately, the pond is one of those things that shouldn’t be left to the last minute. Ideally, you should be preparing your pond and fish for winter all summer.
Ideally, you should be preparing your pond and fish for winter all summer
Sounds strange I know, but it’s true. If your pond and fish had a great summer, it will most likely be easier to get everyone through the winter.
What does having a great summer actually mean?
To me it means having fish that were active and eating well all summer.
When they sit on the bottom of the pond, jump out of the water, rub up against the pond bottom or isolate themselves, this says they aren’t very happy. What that behavior is trying to say is something is wrong.
The problem can be as simple as a water quality issue. Maybe your water’s pH is off a bit, either high or low. Koi and goldfish like a higher alkaline water, somewhere in the pH range of 7-8.6 is normal. Slightly lower or higher is okay as well as long as your KH (carbonate hardness) is at an acceptable range of 80-300 GH stands for general hardness and its normal range is around 50-150. I think KH is more important than pH, but it is often overlooked in the testing process. KH is the buffering ability of your water. That means if your KH is low, below 100, your pH can swing widely up or down and that’s not good – especially if your pond is a little overstocked.
Don’t forget I gave you a “range” of normal. Some people get caught up in a single perfect number they believe their pH or KH should be, and they try everything they can to attain that number. Your pH, GH and KH is what it is, for the most part. Trying to get a perfect number will drive you crazy and stress the heck out of your fish as well.
Start by testing your tap water and then test your pond water. If both numbers are the same and are within the “normal range,” leave it at that. If they are drastically out one way or the other, then consult a pond professional. Please don’t put anything in your pond until you have a professional opinion.
Ammonia and nitrite are both very toxic to your fish and their levels should always be zero. If either one is elevated it means several things. The top causes are usually overfeeding your fish or having too many fish.
Not enough filtration for your fish load is also indicated by the presence of ammonia and nitrite. Small water changes, less food, lowering your fish levels, adding more water plants and improving your filtration are all things you must consider to improve this issue. Water quality plays a huge role in the success or failure of keeping fish in summer and during winter. If your fish are healthy going into the winter, then they will likely fare very well during the cold weather.
Late August or early September is a good time for most pond owners in North America to start readying their fish for winter. A good place to start is by inspecting your fish for possible health problems. If any of them have been scratching, jumping or are less active than usual, those are the fish you want to check out.
Start by catching them and taking visual note of any injuries on the mouth, body or fins. Fish should feel slippery but your hands shouldn’t feel like they have slime on them after handling them. If they do, the fish are producing excess slime as a protectant against something on them or in the water, such as parasites or bad water quality. You won’t harm your fish’s slime coat if you handle them with wet hands. In fact, touching your fish can let you know quickly if some-thing is wrong.
If they feel dry-ish, that would be an indication that parasites have been on them. Be gentle and give them a treat of freeze-dried shrimp after-wards to teach them that being handled is a good thing. My big fish are used to it. As a result, they are easier to net and aren’t afraid when I do check them over. It’s kind of like teaching your puppy to let you open its mouth to check its teeth. When the puppy grows up it’s easier to handle because you have conditioned it to your touch. To a lesser degree, it’s sort of the same thing with your fish. Teaching your fish to hand-feed is an-other great way to see them up close and inspect them.
Start feeding your fish a diet high in carbohydrates and wheat germ in the fall. Why is this you ask? Koi and gold fish don’t have stomachs like you and I and can’t digest high protein food when the water is cold. The carbohydrates are digested faster and help put on bulk so the fish can live off their body fat during winter.
Along with the wheat germ pellets you can feed them cooked brown rice, cooked brown pasta, a little brown bread and plain Cheerios … yes, the cereal. Feed smaller amounts more often, then stop feeding when your fish stop coming up to feed. That’s usually around 45°F (7°C) water temperature. Some instructions say to stop feeding at 55°F (l3°C) water temperature. In areas where the water stays at 50°F (10°C) for six months or more and doesn’t get much colder, that’s hard on your fish. I look at it this way, who’s telling the fish in the wild they can’t eat because the water is 55°F (13°C)? I think they know their needs better than we do. If they are looking for food, feed them. Just be sure it’s the food they should be getting. High protein food is for warm summer water only.
Remove. clean and put away your pond filtration only after the fish have stopped eating. Doing so beforehand can seriously degrade your water quality before winter.
When it comes to cleaning your pond in the fall (in late September or October), resist the urge to drain the whole thing and power-wash it out. I can’t think of a worse thing to do to your fish and to the pond’s whole ecosystem.
At the very most, you could consider removing up to 50 percent of the water and get in to clean out the pond bottom. You will want to remove any debris and leaves that are likely to decompose over the winter season. (Use a dechlorinator when refilling your pond.)
This would also be a great time to cut back your plants and drop your waterlilies to the bottom where they can’t freeze.
Bird netting over the pond keeps those falling leaves out. Some people advocate adding salt to the pond in the fall. I don’t do it as it actually lowers the freezing level of the water. Because of this, northern ponders might be well advised not to add salt for the winter.
Around September I start adding an enzyme to my water to help digest debris and fish waste over winter. Many good products are available but most only work well in warmer water. Microbe Lift has one that’s designed for colder water and is more concentrated. Aptly named Autumn Prep, it doesn’t take the place of cleaning your pond but it helps keep it that way.
Fall is a good time to repot your water plants. That way you’re not disturbing the new spring growth. Waterlilies, however, shouldn’t be divided after July as they need time to root into their new pots before winter. Dividing them too late can result in crown rot.
Fall is when you should pull out all your winterizing products and check them over to be sure they are working. Having a de-icer or winterizing pump stop working when you need it most can be disastrous.
I’m not an advocate of pond deicers for a few reasons. One is that water can’t de-gas unless it’s agitated. The reason you keep a hole open in your pond surface during winter isn’t so the fish have air. It’s so the gasses created by decaying debris and waste can get out of the water and don’t gas your fish.