Yes, we DO have a Fall season in Phoenix, albeit not very darn long. And there are some things you should and should not do to prepare your pond for the "winter" ahead.
Decaying leaves and foliage produce toxic gases that can harm your fish so you want to remove this debris before they can get saturated and sink to the bottom. If you have a skimmer on your pond, this helps tremendously. If you have any deciduous trees around, our Fall winds can blow them right into your pond. You don’t need to remove every single last leaf, but try to remove the majority. If you have a skimmer, check it weekly.
DO NOT Trim & Thin Your Plants Too Much
It's tempting to get everything "cleaned up" to prepare for winter. This is actually the worst thing you can do for your aquatic plants. We typically don't get any hard frosts in Phoenix; however, we can get a freeze or two. If you've trimmed and thin your aquatic plants too much, they will have no protection, and a frost could kill them. After the last danger of frost has passed (around the end of February), THEN you can go after any dead stuff and reveal the new lush growth getting ready to "spring" forward.
Aside from protecting the plant, if you have any amphibious life in your pond, they need the protection from the cold, too. They'll snuggle down into the heart of the plants and hibernate for the winter.
Use Cold Water-Formulated Bacteria
Add Cold Water Beneficial Bacteria to the pond once the temperature drops below 50 degrees, if you need to use any at all. You may not need it, especially if your pond is mature.
Stop Feeding Your Pond FIsh
Once temperatures drop to 50 degrees at night (remember, pond water more closely follows nighttime temps rather than daytime temps), stop feeding your fish. They need to get ready to hibernate and you’ll want to avoid any metabolic complications. You can feed them Cold Water Fish Food, or give them natural treats like melon, oranges, lettuce, and even Cheerios.
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My fish died overnight, and I don’t know why!
It’s absolutely heart-breaking to wake up in the morning and find your fish floating in the pond – especially when you don’t know why it happened. If they don’t have any visible wounds on them, and it’s mid-Summer in Phoenix, the cause is probably suffocation.
Several factors can contribute to this issue:
If any (or all) of these factors combine with the already low oxygen levels in warm water, the pond fish can suffocate. Here in Phoenix, during the summer, our nighttime lows can remain above 90 degrees! This sets up a very oxygen poor environment in our water to start with. Warmer water naturally holds much less oxygen than colder water.
What goes in must come out
An over-abundance of plant life provides plenty of oxygen in the daytime, but exhales carbon dioxide at night (photosynthesis). That’s right: too many plants allowed to grow out of control actually rob your pond of oxygen at night. Now, that’s not so bad in the wintertime, when cold water is oxygen-rich and the fish’s metabolism has slowed to a dormant rate, so they’re not in need of as much. But in the summer, the fish are more active, their metabolism is at full-throttle, and they need all the oxygen they can get.
Plants grow like wildfire in Phoenix from Spring through Fall, taking up the nutrients from the fish waste and adding shade and oxygen to the water all day long. Then nighttime comes along, and the plants reverse this process, stealing oxygen from the pond and releasing carbon dioxide, just like a human inhaling and exhaling. If you have a lot of fish (measured in inches) competing for that oxygen, someone’s going to lose -- and the plants can hold their breath longer than the fish.
Sun exposure, aeration, depth, plant varieties, etc. play a role in healthy pond-keeping practices. The following preventative measures are rules of thumb, and you need to remember that each pond is an individual and unique unto itself.
Pond Size & Fish Load
The first rule of ponding is to not over-fish your pond. Yep, there are a lot of really cool fish out there, and people are tempted to collect them all. If you want to do that, build a bigger pond with appropriate filtration for that goal. Otherwise, choose wisely.
Experts agree that you should keep your fish collecting to between ½” and 1” of fish per ten gallons of water. And if you have other aquatic life in the pond, such as a turtle, you need to take that into account, as well.
A well-maintained ecosystem pond really should only need a complete drain & clean every 3-5 years here in Phoenix. Preventative measures can extend that timeframe, or even eliminate it. That estimation changes depending on how many fish you have, other aquatic life in the pond, and how much food and waste accumulate.
The toxicity of the mulm building up on the floor of a pond depends on many factors: the types and size of your fish, the circulation system on the pond, the filtration system on the pond, etc. Preventative measures like netting the floor or adding sludge digesters to the pond regularly could actually keep you from ever having to worry about this issue.
If your pond wasn’t originally planned for abundant fish-keeping goals, you should err on the side of caution when adding fish and stick to the ½” of fish per 10 gallons of water recommendation.
If you’re just starting to think about a pond, you need to make sure you (or the professional you’re hiring) are clear on your goals of desired fish-keeping so that the design of the filtration system is appropriate.
Keep plants under control
This is a big part of maintaining an ecosystem pond. In the wintertime, it’s no big deal because the water is cold and both the fish and plants are fairly dormant. Plus, a bit of extra dormant plant material in the pond makes for great cover for over-wintering amphibious life.
But once Spring hits, those plants start growing like crazy! Just trimming off the dead leaves isn’t enough. You need to make sure you’re keeping the roots under control – which also has the added bonus of preventing water displacement leaks. A good rule of thumb is to keep your plants from covering over 50% of the pond’s surface area. If you have stellar aeration, you can have more; less aeration, less coverage. Sun exposure and depth play a role, as well.
Pond Maintenance Programs
Ponds need regular maintenance. Most well-built ecosystem ponds with appropriate filtration for their size need as little as 10 minutes a week, and provide hours of enjoyment. But it has to be done.
If you are unable, unwilling, or just plain too busy to do the maintenance, but still want a gorgeous living water feature, The Pond Gnome has maintenance programs for folks who want to do a little, a little more, or not a bloody thing!
How can we help?
My wINTER Pond Is Different
Yes, every pond is an individual when it comes to how it will act in the Winter, or any other time of year, for that matter. Differences include: age, size, depth, filtration, fish load, additional wildlife load, exposure to sun and wind, adjacent terrestrial plant life, amount and variety of the aquatic plant life, and a plethora of other micro-climate variations. Add to this how much fish food gets thrown in the water (any, a lot, none). It all goes together to make up the body of water that is your pond.
CYA Statement: Every article or blog that we write is based on the rules that we understand in average circumstances in the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan area. Your pond is an individual, with a unique set of circumstances, so please understand that what we discuss in any of these articles is the rule of thumb and may not be precisely descriptive of what you are experiencing today in your own personal backyard pond.
Fish and Water Temperatures in A Winter Pond
With winter temperatures, as the water dips down below 55 degrees (water temperature follows the nighttime temperatures, NOT the daytime highs), we recommend you stop feeding your fish. In colder water, the fish don’t metabolize high protein food like they do in the summer, and if it goes through their digestive system too slow, it could begin to rot inside them and result in a fish kill. We get a couple of calls a winter from people who have literally fed their babies to death. It's a very sad thing to have to tell people.
As always, natural treats like zucchini, melon, lettuce, oranges, and even Cheerios, can be given.
Algae Blooms in Winter Ponds
We don't freeze over here in Phoenix (typically, that is), so we tend to experience a big algae bloom in the Winter. We just had a caller this week tell us that we must be wrong about this because she had always heard that algae was more of a problem in the hot weather. She is not wrong, and neither are we. What’s the deal then? Our ponding system relies on a healthy ecosystem full of micro organisms and zoo plankton to keep the water healthy and clear. In a healthy ecosystem pond, zoo plankton are very active and do a great job in the warm weather, but they hibernate in the colder water temps. How much will YOU get? Well, that goes back to that ponds are individuals thing.
Using copious amounts of beneficial bacteria in the winter is a waste of money. It does nothing to combat the algae. Beneficial bacteria is for cloudy water, not algae blooms. You can use other water treatment products, but take care to use them during the day, and never in the later afternoon or evening, because they steal oxygen from the water at night, which could kill your fish.
The algae can also be hand-weeded out, and even used in composting operations or as mulch around plants because it's full of nutrients. But remember: aquatic life likes a little algae to snuggle up in during the winter.
Plants in a Winter Pond
DO NOT thin or trim back your aquatic plants too severely just yet. In Phoenix, we technically have a chance of frost through the end of February. Many years, that seems practically impossible, but we've been surprised from time to time, so better safe than sorry.
Your annual cleaning should be done when the water is COLD. So, plan to do that before the end of March. We provide that service, or you can certainly do it yourself.
Before you know it (and for those of us getting older, it seems to be in the blink of an eye), the water will begin to warm, your fish will become more active, and your aquatic plants will burst forth with new life. Then, we can all start complaining about the heat again...
Have you ever noticed that your pond water is clearer in the Fall? This is typically due to cooler temperatures and full, lush plants. To keep your pond looking its best throughout the Fall season, follow our helpful, easy-to-follow pond maintenance tips.
Prune yellowing leaves off your plants. Your lilies, both tropical and hardy, should still be going strong, and some may even send up the occasional bloom all winter long here in the Sonoran Desert. Once the plants go into dormancy, leave them alone and don’t prune them back at all until after the last danger of frost has passed (late February, according to the Farmer’s Almanac).
Stop fertilizing plants, if you’re doing so, when the weather becomes cooler. This lets the plants know the season is coming to an end.
When the water temperature is around 50 degrees F, stop feeding your fish. If you continue to feed them commercial fish food, you might create health problems for your finned friends, since their digestive systems are beginning to slow down for the winter. Remember that the water temperature follows nighttime temps.
As leaves fall from nearby deciduous trees, you'll need to empty your skimmer’s debris net every day to keep up with the influx of leaves. Some leaves will undoubtedly sink to the bottom of the pond; try to remove as many as you can. However, a few left in the pond will give insects and frogs a place to over-winter. This is also true for the string algae that we get here in the desert instead of freezing over.
And speaking of string algae, this is something that you might experience during our “winter” months. If it becomes too unsightly, you can remove it by hand or use a product like Ecoblast. Personally, we prefer to leave some of it in our pond to act as a winter blanket for the aquatic life.
If you leave too much organic matter in your pond, the water may turn brown. If this happens, remove the excess debris and add activated carbon to clear the water.
The most important thing is to enjoy your water feature all year long. Keep some of these key maintenance issues in mind, and it will be smooth sailing. And, if you need any help or advice, we're as close as your phone or email!
My Water is Cloudy.
The most common causes of this situation in our neck of the woods are either genesis is occurring in a new pond or a storm (or other windy situation) has introduced dust into the water. If it's the genesis phase, add AquaClearer beneficial bacteria. Follow the instructions on the package, and back off gradually as long as the water remains clear. If it's dust, then simply wait until the biofilter has done it's work and cleared up the water.
My Water is Pea-Green.
Again, this could be due to Genesis occurring in a new pond. It can also be caused by adding fertilizer to plants, or simply over-feeding your fish. For most causes, adding AquaClearer beneficial bacteria, as described above, will take care of things. If this situation persists, your pond may need to be drained and checked for foreign material. This could mean anything from a dead plant or animal that's decaying somewhere within the pond, or simply that the lily you bought and planted came with too much fertilizer for the pond to filter out on its own.
My Water is Dark Brown or Tea-Colored.
This is most often caused by tannins in the water from the leaves or flowers of a near-by plant, or by the quality of the water filling the pond. Relax, it's an easy fix. This is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that is not hazardous to the health of either fish or plants. However, if this is unsightly for you, you can purchase activated charcoal and add it to the media net found in the Biofalls. This may need to be replenished occasionally to continue to clean the tannins out of the water.
I Have A LOT of String Algae
If the water is just warming up in the Spring, the beneficial bacteria is still in hibernation. It's also possible that you do not have enough diversity in plant life, are over-feeding the fish, or you are adding fertilizer to plants, etc. As you can see, several things can be at the root of this problem. You may hand-weed the algae out of the pond, using it as mulch for your land plants, or in your composting operation, as it's a very nutrient-rich material. Or you can use String Algae Buster (SAB) to help combat it. Remember to use POND water when mixing up the dry SAB, and NOT TAP WATER, as tap water contains chlorine, which will kill the beneficial bacterial content.
Need more help? We're at the end of your phone line at 623-572-5607, or write to us.