Garden ponds in winter

dscf08561Take a break, it’s cold outside.

By early December there’s not much else left to do with your garden pond except wait for spring. If you didn’t cover your pond with a net to keep leaves out by early November then it’s too late now, and the leaves will have to overwinter in the pond. Perhaps the only decision to be made until March is whether you should keep the pump running or turn it off. First, a bit of background.

I have six ponds in my one+ acre garden in Warrenton Virginia, and I supervise the installation of more than a hundred ponds each year through Meadows Farms Landscape Department.  Please visit our website for much more pond and gardening information. 


I keep most of my ponds running through the winter because I like the way they look throughout the year, and running the waterfall insures that ice will not cover the pond, so I don’t have to worry about my fish. Customers seem most worried whether running the pond with freezing temperatures will harm their pump. In the mid Atlantic region this should never be a problem. All the plumbing in my ponds are flexible PVC which is more resistant to freezing than regular PVC pipe, but any pipe should be fine as long as water is moving. If the electricity goes out, all bets are off.

dscf08951For some people this potential problem might be enough of a reason to winterize the pond and turn the pump off, but I’ve had ponds for almost 20 years, and it’s never been a problem for me. If you decide to turn the pump off then it’s probably a good idea to pull submersible pumps out of the pond. It is possible that ice could form around the pump and potentially damage it. I’ve had times when I’ve turned pumps off for a period through the winter, and I’ve left the pumps in the pond, but I tend to do everything with the least amount of effort required. Anyway, I’ve never had a problem leaving the pump in the pond.  


 Surface ice and fish

 Just about the only reason to worry about ice forming on your pond is if you have fish. Everyone in the pond business has stories, or has heard stories, of fish surviving when they were frozen solid in the ice. I haven’t knowingly done this, but I’ve let the ice on a pond that was turned off linger longer than I should have, and fish have survived. And other times they’ve died.

It seems a shame to spend your hard earned money, and enjoy the experience of watching as your fish grow, only to wipe them out in a week or two. It’s quite simple, either keep the pump running, or take some other measure to keep to keep some small part of the surface of the pond free of ice. When I turn a pond off I put a thermostatically controlled “pond heater” in to keep a small hole open. The heater doesn’t heat the pond, except for an areas the size of a salad plate. 

It’s especially important to keep a surface hole open if you didn’t get your pond covered in November and the pond is half filled with leaves. This will be a mucky chore to clean in March, but the immediate concern is that if the pond becomes ice covered the nasty gases from the decaying leaves can’t escape and will harm your fish. So, keep a hole open, and all will be well until spring.  

 Waterfall ice dams

 About every two or three years we seem to have a cold stretch that lasts for a week or more. Even with moving water the open area in the pond will get smaller each day. The waterfall will begin to freeze after a couple days and, although water is flowing over it, the ice get thicker each day. At some point the ice may become thick enough that the water flowing over it flows right out over the edges of the pond. In particular, in areas with streams this can happen in just a couple days, and is hardly notiecable until the pump runs dry.  

waterfall4f52If this happens, you can turn the pump off and wait for it to thaw, but if you have fish you’d better make plans to prevent the pond from freezing completely over. I can tell you that ice that takes a couple days to form can takes weeks to melt. If you don’t have a pond heater I’d recommend ordering one just in case. I’ve been able to set the heater directly on top of ice, and it will thaw its way down through. Don’t bang on the ice to break a hole through! And if you make a hole with a hot pot or boiling water, how are you going to keep the hole open? I’m sure there are ingenius low-budget way of doing this, but I’ve found that the pond heater is a relatively low cost appliance that last year after year.



Forget about them. The only harm you can do to your fish is to feed them.

Once the water gets cold your fish are headed to the warmer bottom. Every once in a while we’ll get a warm spell and the fish will come up to sun-warmed surface looking to feed. Resist the temptation, and let them go hungry for another month or two. It’s much better to err on the side of feeding too late rather than too early. Too early and your fish die, too late and nothing happens.


Good grief, it’s not rocket surgery

“Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends – truly knows – that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there can be a garden so that all who see it say, “Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you.” Everything dies for everybody, too.

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.” Henry Mitchell The Essential Earthman

azalea-encore-autumn-twist3Working in the landscape business I hear countless times that clients, and friends and neighbors, have brown or black thumbs, but there’s no physical characteristic that determines that a person can’t keep plants alive. The process of successful gardening is fairly simple, though fraught with failures small and otherwise. Green thumbs are obtained with a bit of knowledge, preparation, and sweat of labor. This need not be so complex as it would seem.


While seemingly obvious, choosing the correct plant for a location is often undertaken without an inkling of an idea about whether the plant will survive the conditions in that spot (the sun, shade, heavy clay, or root competition), or whether it will grow to overwhelm neighboring plants or structures. Garden magazines and books are often chock full of spectacular photos of plants at their best, but the specific requirements of the plant chionanthus-virginicus-8are left to your imagination. And you imagine that yours will look like dead sticks by June.

Magazine and book articles devoted to specific plants will provide more information, but there is still no guarantee that the plants will work in your garden, or even your state.  Local landscape designers or gardeners can provide practical solutions, or you can look around and witness for yourself. There are a wealth of resources, from public gardens to our neighbor’s backyard, if you’ll pay attention and note what you see. I usually sift through the available information and then give a plant a try, and if it seems to be failing, move it.


The Washington DC area has generally lousy soils, with the areas in northern Virginia I live and work having mostly clay to almost shale. Everybody is certain to have a brown thumb if they don’t improve the soil around here. I understand from local garden writers that you must double dig, or rototill to a foot in depth to improve the garden’s soil, but that’s a heck of a lot of work (and many tillers won’t go that deep), and I don’t want to do it, and I don’t think that many customers want to pay for it.

I prefer to plant in raised beds, adding good topsoil over the lousy native ground. Even if you only add a couple of inches of good soil, doing this improves drainage, and I’ve found that plants thrive. Raised beds can dry out quicker, but this is a very small sacrifice to make .


I don’t like to, and as I get up in years I can’t do it like I used to. So, I don’t. Now, I have more garden than any handful of neighbors, but I’m not a slave to it. I’ve landscaped about half of my one and quarter property, and have six ponds, and I spend less time in maintenance than I do mowing.

dogwoodstellarpink1I don’t re-mulch. I use pine bark nugget mulch when I plant a bed initially because it lasts longer than shredded hardwood. It’s a bit of pain since it blows around and floats out of the bed areas, but I don’t have to replenish it before the plants get big enough to do without. I plant enough filler plants, perennials, annuals, and tropicals to fill the open areas until the larger plants grow. If there are plants growing then weeds won’t fill the open areas.

And there will always be weeds. The key to keeping them in check is not to let them get away from you. Once weeds go to seed you’re in big trouble. So, while I’m walking through the garden I’ll pull a few here and there, and it seems to work in keeping up. Every once in a while I get behind and have to pull out the heavy artillery, RoundUp. Glyphosphate kills just about everything , and makes it possible for me to keep up without an army of gardeners.

I don’t care about insects. If I didn’t have so darn many plants I might care if this one or that was nibbled a bit, but my garden has enough to share. I’ve had a few times that I needed to take care of aphids on the crape myrtle, or lace bug on the pieris and azaleas, but I don’t make a habit of it and rarely are any plants disfigured to any degree.

Except deer. I’m a little into the country, and we’ve always had some deer around, but they’ve discovered my garden in the past couple years. I have so many varieties of hostas that I lost track a long time ago, and of course the deer love them. The Wife is particularly aggravated by them, so she has been on a mission to spray to keep them away. This year she promises to be more vigilant.