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A Successful Spring Pond Cleanout

Does every pond need a spring cleanout?

Every pond is different. Some ponds do not require an annual cleanout. Ponds larger than 2,000 square feet might only need a cleanout every few years. Larger ponds may never need a complete cleanout because any impurities present are minimal compared to the volume of water in the pond. You can tell whether the pond needs a spring cleanout by simply looking at it. So if it looks the same in March as it did last June, it's probably good to go.

It all depends on the climate!

In a warm climate, your pond can go for many seasons without a full cleanout if your system is free of ice and is running year-round. There will be a period of time when your plants start to die back in the middle of winter, but depending on your southern or coastal coordinate, it won't be long until your pond plants bounce back. This means most of the bacteria and the ecological balance of your pond will stay strong the whole year. You will not get the same accumulation of muck in the pond because the bacteria will continue breaking down waste all the time. You are definitely ahead of the game if you water garden in the south.

For cold climates rolling with the seasonal changes just takes a little planning and a lot of patience! If your pond has been under a blanket of snow and ice all winter, spring is the most exciting time of the year! The air is full of endless possibilities for the season to come as your pond slowly awakens from its long winter slumber. The fish are becoming more and more active each day. If your pond is in need of a cleanout, spring is the time to do it in order to kick start your biological filtration. Does your pond need a full clean-out this season, or does it just need to be tidied up a little? There are a couple of things that you can look for to help you decide. First, if there is a layer of decomposing leaves, muck and other debris at the bottom of the pond causing the water to be dark and murky, almost like a cup of tea, or like the muddy Mississippi River, it is advised to do a full clean-out. On the other hand, if there is just a small amount of debris and your water is relatively clear, you may only need to stir everything up so you can capture the debris into a net and capture the smaller debris in your pond filtration system.

Before You Start - a checklist

  • Kiddy Pool (or smaller container to hold fish and frogs)
  • Clean-out pump
  • 25 feet of 1.5" to 2" discharge piping
  • A high-pressure nozzle for you garden hose or a pressure washer
  • Garden shears for trimming plants
  • A five gallon bucket or two to collect leaves and debris
  • Wading boots or old clothes you don't mind getting dirty
  • Rubber gloves
  • Beneficial bacteria treatment
  • Dechlorinator
  • Extra rocks/gravel
  • Black waterfall foam
  • New filter mats
  • Fish net
  • Aquatic plant fertilizer tabs

12 Steps for a Successful Spring Cleanout of Your Pond

1) Disconnect the Plumbing
Unplug the waterfall pump, and disconnect the check valve from the return line, allowing the pipe and waterfall filter box to drain. If you have an automatic water fill valve installed, it will need to be turned off during the cleanout.

2) Drain the Pond
We recommend using the Cleanout Pump Kit for draining large ponds. A smaller, screened pump is sufficient for small ponds. Don't forget to fill a separate container with pond water for the fish. The larger this temporary fish holding facility is the better. We suggest using something like an inflatable kiddy-pool. Make sure the fishes' temporary home is in a shady area to avoid excessive water temperature changes.

3) Catch the Fish
Drain the pond to roughly eight inches of water in order to catch fish easily and safely. Place the fish in a container you filled with pond water in step 2. Be sure to use water from the pond to avoid shock from rapid temperature change, and cover the container with a screen or net to prevent the fish from jumping out. Gold fish and Koi especially have a tendency to jump as water temperature fluctuates in the temporary holding tank. The most likely fish to jump are either the most expensive in your collection or the one your spouse loves the most. In any case, it doesn't make for a good pond day, so cover your holding container. We also recommend that you aerate the holding pen with either an air pump or a small fountain pump, otherwise, if the day is hot and it takes longer than you expected to clean your pond, the fish might run out of oxygen and perish.

4) Remove Debris
Now is a good time to trim plants and shrubs surrounding your pond that may drop debris into your water feature. All large debris, such as leaves and twigs, should be removed from the pond basin by hand. Take this time to trim those aquatic plants that have died back to encourage new growth. Also, the pond plants that have become over grown can be split and given to your friends or share them with other water gardeners at your local water gardening club. A shop vac or pond vacuum is very handy when you want to remove the sludge that has built up on the bottom of the pond.

5) Wash the Pond
A 1,500 psi pressure washer or a high pressure nozzle on a garden hose is good for pond cleaning. Do NOT over clean your pond. Some algae on the rocks will prove beneficial in developing your ecosystem. So avoid trying to scrub all the algae away. Do NOT use soaps or detergents of ANY KIND.

6) Rinse the Pond
Rinsing down and removing debris from the rocks and gravel will be the most time consuming part of the cleanout. Use the water coming directly out of the garden hose to wash the gravel. A power washer or high pressure nozzle is unnecessary and may actually be counterproductive at this point. The cleanout pump should still be running, and located at the lowest point of the pond so that the sediment trapped in the gravel will be channeled to the deepest point and removed by the pump. It may be beneficial to have a second person able to turn the pump on and off if the pump draws water out of the pond faster than you are replacing with the garden hose. Rinse the pond from top to bottom until the water begins to run clear.

7) Clean the Filters
Pump out the water in the skimmer and remove all lingering debris or sludge. Clean the waterfall filter box by hosing it out and letting the water flow into the skimmer. Then clean the skimmer box by hosing it out and pumping the water out. Also, make sure to clean out the net and hose down the filter mat. Clean the waterfall filter box filter mats, and bags of whatever biological filter media that is being used before re-installing them. Simply hose these down until the water from them runs clean. If you are using a natural media, like lava rock, it may need replaced. Lava rock is good for about two years before it needs to be replaced due to clogging. We recommend using Bio PinBalls or filling the box with Matala® filter mats for their light weight, long life span and super high surface area. It is advised to only replace about half of the biological media at any one time to prevent stripping the filter of all bacteria colonies. Clean the waterfall filter box no more than once a year. The waterfall filter box's filter mats as well as the biological media house beneficial bacteria as do the rocks and gravel. The debris and sediment that builds up in the waterfall filter box is natural, and washing it out too often during the warm season will greatly reduce the amount of bacteria in the ecosystem resulting in toxic ammonia and nitrite spikes.

8) Refill the Pond
Pull the cleanout pump out and begin refilling the pond. If you don't know how much water your pond holds, now is the time to figure out your pond's water volume. The simplest method is to attach a water meter to your garden hose and measure the volume of your pond with no calculations. Another is to use the water meter on your home. Ensure that water is not being used for any other purpose during the time you are filling the pond. Also, check your water bill to see if your meter is in gallons or cubic feet, or some other unit (one cubic foot of water is 7.48 gallons). If you don't want to spring for a water meter, though, there are several indirect ways to calculate pond volume.

9) De-Chlorinate the Water
Most city water contains chlorine and chloramines and should be treated with a dechlorinator before fish are added. Dechlorinator works almost instantaneously so you don't have to wait long before you can begin moving your pond inhabitants back into their nice clean home.

10) Acclimate the Fish
A spring cleanout can be stressful to fish. Proper acclimation is required to reduce stress which can lead to fish health problems or even fish death. Once the pond has 1" of water you can prepare to reintroduce the fish by transferring them to smaller buckets of old pond water and floating the buckets in the pond, allowing them to acclimate to the new pond water temperature for approximately 15 minutes. A great way to help reduce the stress on your fish is to add pond salt. This helps them build and maintain a slime-coat that gets damaged by repeat transfers of the fish between vessels. If you have city water, it's imperative that you add a dechlorinator to neutralize the chlorine in the water. Fish should not be left outside the pond in a holding container for more than a few hours, or in the full sun.

11) Add Beneficial Bacteria
It is very important that you return to an initial dosage schedule of beneficial bacteria in your pond because you just cleaned most of the bacterial colonies out. Follow the directions on the beneficial bacteria product for initial dosing information. It is also advisable to add other algae preventatives at this time such as barely straw or ClarityMax+®.

12) Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy
Finally, the moment you've been waiting for! Grab your favorite beverage, pull up a chair or comfortable rock and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Your pond is now off to a great start for the season.