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Pond Pros Sell Essentials During Dormant Season

Contractors and retailers provide overwintering products and services to keep water features functioning

By Ramona D. Marek

winter pond care

For weather-related businesses, winters can be long, brutal and difficult to survive. Some choose to close for winter while others stay open and provide overwintering products and services to their customers.

Pond professionals said a few basic over wintering products prove essential to maintain a balanced ecosystem and healthy fish over winter. The primary overwintering products cited include pond nets, aerators, deicers and bacteria formulated for cold weather.

Pond nets sound innocuous but experts, including David Cochran, aquatic biologist and owner of White Path Water Gardens in Ellijay, Ga., and Dave Ouwinga, vice president of EasyPro Pond Products in Grant, Mich., remain insistent about removing leaves from the pond. While owners can scoop leaves out, Cochran said it is easier to cover the pond with netting.

"Do not go through the entire winter with leaves and plant debris in the pond," Cochran said. "That turns the water brown, lowers the pH, adds tannic acid and is not healthy for the fish."

Aerators and deicers also are vital for colder areas. Cochran said for the average-size pond of up to 2,000 gallons, one good pump and air stone proves sufficient. In areas susceptible to freezing temperatures, however, most experts recommended using deicers. Deicers and heaters keep ponds from freezing over entirely.

"As long as you keep an air flow, [such as] a hole in the ice for proper gas exchange so you don't have a build up of CO2, and you're getting oxygen back in the water, that is really all you need to keep fish alive through the coldest part of the winter" Cochran said.

Because owners cannot remove all decaying matter from the pond bottom, water treatment professionals recommend adding beneficial bacteria with cold-water strains. Jeff Spillars, vice president of marketing for the Winston Co. in Tulsa, Okla., and Jack Colman, president of Clear Pond in Camarillo, Calif., said adding cold-weather formulated bacteria offsets the ammonia and fish waste and helps return the pond's balance.

Each overwintering product performs a specific function, but the order of importance varies by region. Sue Kershner, owner of Tender Top Water Garden and Nursery in West Burlington, Iowa, said she sells netting, aerating pumps and filter media but few deicers.

Kershner said owners in her area use the existing pump, a mesh bag of lava rocks, filter media and a 6- to 8-inch piece of PVC piping. "It pulls the toxic gas off the pond bottom without causing a lot of current, and it puts oxygen back in the pond," she said. "That works best for us in our area, and people are used to electric bills from running their pumps all summer."

In Birdsboro, Pa., however, Neil Grieves, president of AZ Ponds, said aerators and deicers are the two top sellers with the deicer ranking as No. 1. Although they sell nets he said they primarily are used for maintenance. Grieves reported that pre-made and custom-designed kits that contain all three products sell very well.

Overwintering is not an issue for pond owners in Florida, according to Rob Talton of Aquascapes of Florida in Wesley Chapel, Fla. He said they primarily sell cold-weather bacteria and some netting.

"We don't have to worry about the pond icing over or incredible amounts of leaf litter,"Talton said. "The big issue we run into here, especially in smaller-volume ponds, is the difficulty fish have transitioning down to 40- and 50-degree temperatures."

To reduce losses and minimize fish stress Talton recommended adding salt to owners' pond once plants go dormant. This stimulates the fish's protective slime coat, he said.

Located in the diverse geographical area of Lincoln, Calif., Gary Sanford, owner of Placer Pond & Water Garden, said all the overwintering products sell well. Winters in the Sacramento area get cold but not necessarily freezing, he said, so they do not use heaters.

Just a few miles away, however, his clients in the Sierra foothills do use heaters. The most popular overwintering product they reported selling is a combination enzyme and cold-water bacteria. Netting to protect against predators, such as raccoons and migrating egrets and herons, also sells well, Sanford said.

In addition to products, some retailers and contractors offer winterization services to maintain business during fall and winter months. ''I serve a senior Del Webb community and cater to that clientele," Sanford said. "Seventy percent of that specific property was built with a pond and waterfall, and I have done classes in their lodge."

Contractor Mark King of The Pond Doctor in Warrenton, Va., said he provides overwintering services and monthly service contracts. Overwintering in Virginia means different things to his clients and their ponds.

"We take down filtration systems, do fall cleanings, provide nets for covering the ponds against leaves, and we sell deicers and heaters," King said. "Half our customers shut down their ponds and half keep them running."

Similarly, Derk Hebdon, owner of Bratt Water Features Inc. in American Fork, Utah, said he only shuts down ponds and water features at the owner's request. They sell heaters called 'frothy fountains' that keep the water agitated to maintain a hole in the ice for the fish.

Hebdon said they make service calls to evaluate each client's water feature. Then "we provide some instruction, walk through the winterization process of their water feature so they can see how it's done and they can decide if they want to do the same the next or following years,” he said.

Sue Wiley of The Pond Girls in Flint, Mich., also reported overwintering services to her clients. "I close out the pond, trim the plants back and set them down in the bottom of the pond, power wash if the client wants me to do that, clean and store the media, take out the pumps out and winterize them," she said. "Then I put in the aerator and heater to maintain a hole in the ice."

Most retailers and contractors report selling the basic products, such as deicers, heaters, aerators, cold-weather bacteria and pond netting, and provide fall cleaning service. There is not much more to do, they reported.

Ramona D. Marek regularly contributes to Water Garden News. Her previous article, "Consumers Find Several Options When Shopping for Koi,” appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.