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Before the chill: a survival guide for water garden

Help your water garden wake up fresh and full of life after its winter slumber.

by Cathy Wikinson Barash

  Move hardy aquatic plants to deep water to keep them from freezing. Some aquatic plants are fairly hardy but won't tolerate freezing solid.


   Long before water gardening gained its current level of popularity, I lived in an old house outside of New York City, surrounded by a pond, a stream that supported a thriving crop of watercress, and acres of rich, moist soil. The habitat functioned well without my assistance. The ecology of the pond remained balanced without filters or pumps, and year after year, the watercress flourished with no help from me.

   It wasn't until I started adding plants that I encountered problems. As a novice water gardener, I had wrongly assumed that everything I put in my water garden was perrenial and hardy. My introductions often did not survive the winter. I soon learned that a water garden, like any other garden, is easiest to maintain if you stock it with plants adapted to your climate.

   But reality must be reckoned with. Where winter temperatures dip below freezing, many water garden favorites will fail to survive winter's wrath. Success, therefore, depends on knowing your aquatic plants and their hardiness ranges.

   Heading into winter, plant hardiness may be top of mind; however, being familiar with the needs of your aquatic plants means more than just knowing their hardiness. Regardless of the Zone you live in or the plants you use, certain fall tasks are vital for a healthy, successful water garden.

   As with perennial or herb or any other type of garden, a fall maintenance checklist is helpful. Follow the checklist and plant recommendations here to maintain a thriving water garden. Investing in your water garden now will bring rich returns next spring and summer.

Cold-Climate Pond Checklist
(Zones 3-7)

Move hardy aquatic plants to deep water to keep them from freezing. Some aquatic plants are fairly hardy but won't tolerate freezing solid. Move these types (or example, hardy water lilies, native arrowheads, pickerelweed, and parrot feather) to a deeper area in the pond - at least 18 inches deep - where they'll remain submerged below the ice. If the pond freezes top to bottom, you'll need to remove these plants entirely. The freezing depth varies depending on your hardiness Zone and the size of the pond.

Clean submersible filters and either store them for winter or move them close to the water's surface. The bubbling action of a filter can prevent a pond from completely freezing over in all but the coldest regions.

Vacum the pond to clean out residual organic matter. This prevents the formation of toxic gases that can be lethal to fish.  

Reduce the amount of food you give fish as temperatures drop. When the temperature falls below 50F, stop feeding them. Ample nutrition exists in the pond for the fish, which are in semihibernation. If you continue to feed them, the fish will keep eating, creating more waste products than the oxygenating plants can handle. The toxic gases will eventually kill the fish.  

Remove tropical lilies from the pond and put them someplace they won't freeze, such as a heated garage or basement. If the lilies are in pots without drainage holes, submerge them in shallow water in a container such as that shown (above) or simply keep them well-watered. If they are in regular pots, it's time to transport them into ones without drainage holes. Check water levels weekly to ensure the lilies don't dry out.

Remove other tender plants from the pond, and store with tropical lilies. Loosely wrap each plant with moist newspaper and store in a large trash bag. Check the newspaper every few weeks to make sure it is still moist. Don't overwet it, or you risk rotting the plants.  

Place a screen over the pond, (left), to prevent leaves from dropping into water and changing its chemistry. This is much easier than trying to remove leaves as they fall, raking the pond weekly, or waiting until spring for a major cleanup. Netting, shade cloth, or landscape fabric works well if supported by a wood frame.

Drain a masonry or concrete pond in regions where ponds freeze solid to avoid cracking the sides and bottom. Use a siphon or a pump. Remove fish and keep them in indoor aquariums, or give them away and get new ones in the spring. Alternatively, you can avoid the hassle by installing an electric pond deicer. You don't have to run them 24/7; just turn the deicer on whenever ice begins to form.

Keep other kinds of ponds from freezing over. Ponds lined with plastic, PVC, rubber, or natural earth don't require draining. In regions where ice is unlikely to exceed 2 inches in thickness, you can keep the pond from freezing over by floating large rubber balls or a 2-inch-thick, 1-foot-square piece of plastic foam in the water. If you expect the ice to get much thicker than 2 inches, use a deicer.

Be sure to drain fountains.








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