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Preparing Your Water Gardens for Winter

Winter. It’s not here yet--not, at least, according to the calendar. But it’s coming. And you know what that means.

Unless you prepare your water gardens for winter now, you’re going to be chopping ice and shoveling snow just to reach the business end of your gardens. And how much fun is that!

No, take it from the guy who’s been there and done that, both the right and the wrong way. A little outdoor work now will save you a whole bunch of frustration later. And it may even save the lives of your fish and delicate water plants.

Here are some suggestions.

1. Clean the Filters. They tend to get pretty clogged up in fall, what with all those falling leaves and wind-blown debris. Remove the filters, take out the filter media, and rinse them well with a garden hose or in the utility sink. Don’t go overboard, though. If you get your filters too clean, you’re going to have to start re-colonizing the friendly bacteria that lives in the media come next spring.

2. Check the Pumps. Make sure that they’re running smoothly and quietly and that they’re putting out the amount of water they should. If the pumps have built-in strainers, remove them and clean out any trapped debris that could impede water flow. If you notice signs of wear or malfunction, buy a replacement pump and keep it on hand for when the old one quits entirely (a good idea, anyway--especially if you keep Koi or goldfish in your ponds).

3. Protect Delicate Water Plants. If you live in a cold climate, remove any tropical water plants you may have, such as warm-weather water lillies and lotuses, and bring them indoors or to another protected location to keep them from freezing. Keep the water around 60 degrees and circulating. A tub or a clean garbage can fitted with a small circulating pump should do the trick.

4. Mulch the Marginals. Apply mulch to your delicate marginal plants after they have died back in fall. You have a wide variety of mulches to choose from, depending upon where you live and what’s available to you. Mound up several inches of weed-free straw (never use weed-infested hay, or you’ll live to regret it come spring!), pine needles, deteriorating leaves, or compost. The key is to keep the mulch thick enough to protect the plants from a hard freeze but not so thick that it smothers the plants.

5. Stop Feeding the Fish. You can safely stop feeding when the water temperature fails to climb above 50 degrees F. during the warmest part of the day. Cutting off the food will send the fish into a state of semi-dormancy and eliminate all that waste that will only turn into toxic ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates and could result in winter die-off.

6. Add a Heater. If you live in a very cold climate, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, or North Dakota, and have a fish pond, you may want to consider buying a heater of the proper size to keep the surface of the water from freezing over. Otherwise, plan on using a hammer or an ax to chop a hole in the ice to prevent harmful gasses from building up in the water. Your fish will live to thank you!

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