Fish Ponds: Spring Time Maintenance

Now is the time to start cleaning the koi, goldfish, and other ponds. Ponds need to be cleaned at least annually. If the pond has any debris on the bottom, the water in your pond will have trouble staying clear for your enjoyment. Algae feed on the organic decaying matter in the pond. As the weather and water warms up, the algae begin to feed on the organic  matter and a “bloom” will occur that will turn the water cloudy.

Another reason to clean the ponds is to get rid of disease carrying parasites that live in the decaying matter. These parasites seek out the koi and other fish and can cause them to become sick.

Several methods are available to clean your pond. If the pond isn’t too large and/or dirty, it can be cleaned using a net to muck the stuff on the bottom. I have my ponds cleaned by an IPPCA professional at least once every other year. My koi pond has three “waterfalls” and contains about 9800 gallons of water. (I would have added a photograph but my digital camera decided to die on me. Sorry!)

I recommend that you select pond professional that is a member of IPPCA (The International Professional Pond Contractors Association). It is the not-for-profit trade association whose goal is to ensure that high quality standards are met within the pond and waterscape industry.

For who like to go it alone, put on your boots and gather some old towels or rags, a garden hose, a water pump, a couple of 25 gallon tubs to hold the fish, an aeration pump for the tubs with fish (not necessary if you work quick), a wet-dry vacuum cleaner from the hubby’s workshop, some buckets, and at least one net.

You can use a garden hose to siphon the water out of the pond. I use one of my water pumps to get most of the water out of my three ponds. The nutrient rich water from my pump discharges into a future “bog garden.” (I plan to build it some day.) You can also use this water on the lawn and flowerbeds. As the water drains from the ponds, gather up the pond plants and set them in buckets, along with some pond water. Place them in a shady area. Some of the water from the pond also should be pumped into the holding tubs set aside for the fish.

When the water level in the pond drops to about 6 inches, put your boots on, climb in, and net out the fish. The first time I cleaned my pond, I tried to catch the koi using a cast net with a full pond. I wasn’t very successful but did manage to fall into the pond, which the neighborhood kids thought hilarious.

Gently put the fish in the holding tubs that are about ¾ full of pond water. I use 25-gallon plastic tubs with lips that can be used as handles. It is nice if you have an air pump available to provide some aeration for the fish in the tubs but it is not necessary. You can add a product called “stress coat” to the tub’s water to ease the stress on the koi. Stress Coat does remove the chlorine and it also removes hard metals and adds a protective coating to your fish. Every time you touch your fish, with your hand, net or anything else, the fish will loose it’s protective coating. The fish will then be very susceptible to different illnesses and diseases such as different bacterial infections such as fin rot. If you have koi,
put some kind of cover over the tubs since they have a tendency to “crawl” out of the tubs.

Finishes draining the pond after the koi and other fish have been removed. I use my Wet/Dry Shop-Vac at this point. The muck on the pond’s bottom is a good fertilizer for the garden.

Now is a good time to check the main water-circulating pump to make sure it is working properly. I have a skimmer system that acts as the filtration system. I clean the filtration members and flush out the line that circulates the water from the lower pond to the upper waterfalls.

Start refilling the pond with tap water by gently rinsing down the sides of the pond with a garden hose. What every you do, don’t try to scrub it clean. The material on the pond’s sides contains beneficial bacteria that aid in balancing the pH of the pond.

Tap water is chlorinated so be sure to use a product called “Pond Start” or something similar to rid the water of chlorine and chloramines that can be deadly to the fish. Check the pH and temperature of the fresh water to ensure that it is almost the same as the pond water in the holding tubs. If they are not the same, add a little of the fresh water to the water in the holding tubs. This will help acclimate the fish to the new water conditions.

The reason I use a pond professional is that they will check the fish for parasites and sores. If they find any that have parasites, they will quarantine them in a separate tank. The professional will treat the sick fish in the quarantine tank.

When a about a foot of fresh, de-chlorinated water in the pond, pour the fish and water from the holding tubs back into the pond. This water helps to inoculate your pond with beneficial bacteria. Return the fish back into their clean home as soon as possible to prevent over-stressing them.

While the pond is continuing to fill, clean up the plants and return them to the pond. I add “Aqua One” or “OneFix” once a year to the water (each cost about $40-50). These are all-natural microbial water treatment that digests suspended organic matter and prevents additional accumulation by removing the nutrients released from decaying algae. Basically, it helps keep the pond clear and free from all forms of algae. I have had little success with barley straw but you can give it a try.

Preserving Fall Leaves

The other day, Martha Stewart and I were chatting in the Master Gardener’s office when we were interrupted by a telephone call from a lady asking how to preserve fall leaves. Weren’t we lucky to have the queen of crafts, food and entertaining, weddings, pets, home and garden, and the latest in prison fashion? Here is what the queen bee teaches.

Glycerin Preservation:
By preserving autumn leaves with glycerin, you can create a wreath that will last for months without drying out. The method will also work with green spring and summer leaves. Some leaves don’t take well to the glycerin method, so experiment. For best results, always cut the branches in the cool of the evening and never use leaves that have been through a frost.

Tools and Materials:

  • Pruning clippers or handsaw
  • Hammer
  • Deep bucket
  • pH testing kit (lemons and powdered lime required)
  • Glycerin (available at drugstores, craft stores, and some hardware stores)
  • Surfactant, such as Spreader Sticker (found in garden centers)
  • Florist’s wire; wreath form

Preservation Method:
Select a dozen or so small but leaf-heavy branches from trees at their peak of color. For best results, cut branches at night. Use ones that have not weathered a frost this season; the process will not work on leaves that have seen a frost. Keep in mind that glycerin will change the leaves’ colors. Yellows respond best, becoming more intense; reds and oranges turn a ruddy brown; green magnolia leaves take on a chestnut color but retain their glossy veneer.

  1. Cut branches from trees with pruning clippers or a handsaw. Pound the end of each branch with a hammer to expose is vascular system.
  2. Fill a deep bucket with a half-gallon of boiling water (Glycerin, an oil, will dissolve in boiling water only). Test the water pH with a testing kit to make sure it has a pH between 3 and 4. (If pH is too high, add citric acid – lemon juice. If too low, add powdered lime.)
  3. Add 17 ounces (2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) of glycerin and 4 to 5 drops of surfactant to the water. (The surfactant breaks down the glycerin molecules into smaller ones, enabling the branches to absorb glycerin more easily.)
  4. Stand the branches in the bucket; place them out of sunlight while the branches and leaves draw up glycerin. After 3 to 5 days, leaves will feel supple. Magnolia branches may take 3 to 6 weeks to absorb glycerin.
  5. Pick leaves from branches and with florist’s wire bind into small bunches. Position a bunch on a wreath form and bind with wire to hold in place. Wire a second bunch so that leaves overlap wired stems. Continue until circle is complete.

Did I mess that up! So sorry! I mistook Kathy Parent for the queen bee, Martha Stewart.

Alternate Glycerin Method:
The glycerin and water method is generally used to preserve coarser leaves, such as magnolia, rhododendron, beech, holly, heather, or Japanese maple.

Pour the glycerin and water solution (one part glycerin and two parts water) into a flat pan. You will only need about a cup or enough to cover the leaves. Place the leaves in the pan and put a weight on the leaves to keep them submerged (place the leaves between two paper plates and submerge both; place weight on paper plates). Keep the leaves submerged in the solution for 2-6 days. Dry the leaves gently with a paper towel. They should feel soft and pliable.

Wax Paper Pressing Method:
Take the leaves and place them between two paper towels. Dry one side of the leaves by ironing them for 10 minutes on medium heat without steam (move iron continuously). Then turn the leaves over and using a fresh paper towel, repeat process for about 5 minutes.

Take the dried leaves and place them between two sheets of waxed paper, waxy side against the leaves. Add another sheet of waxed paper to protect the iron and press them again for a minute or so, until the leaves are coated with wax.

Peel off the waxed paper and see how well the leaves have become preserved.

Arrange the leaves on top of two paper towels. Lay another towel over the leaves to cover them. Microwave the leaves
for 30 to 180 seconds. Be very attentive and careful. Leaves that are cooked in the microwave too long can catch fire.

The drier the leaves, the less time they will need. Leaves that curl after removal from the microwave have not been in
long enough. Leaves that are scorched have been in there too long. Only dry them for a few seconds at a time. Let the
leaves sit for a day or two and then finish by spraying an acrylic sealant on both sides of the leaves.

Feeding Birds In The Winter

I feed birds year round but I’m sure some “experts” will disagree with this practice. Providing food and water attracts a variety of birds that delight me with their presence, particularly in the winter. Remember that you will be taking on the
responsibility for feeding these birds throughout the winter and early spring. They will come to depend on you since their natural food supply is limited.

There are many different types of feeders on the market. Plastic, steel, or glass feeders are best since they are easy to clean. Feeders with porous surfaces, such as wood or clay, can be difficult to clean and can grow algae and fungi that may be harmful to some birds. Diseases such as salmonella can spread at feeders, especially where seeds and droppings mix. Ground-feeding birds, such as doves and finches, are especially vulnerable. To reduce the risk of disease, clean your  feeders at least once a year with a 10 percent bleach solution – one part bleach to nine parts water. Small feeders are
desirable since they empty out quickly and reduce the chance of wet, spoiled seeds.

Do not leave your cat outside even it has a bell on its collar. There are about 100 million domestic and feral cats in North America, and these kill about several hundred million birds each year. Cats kill about 30 percent of birds found dead at feeders. Cats are such stealthy hunters that they can stalk and pounce on prey without jingling the bell on their collar. By keeping your cat indoors, you’ll not only protect birds but also keep the cat safe from disease, traffic, and fights with neighborhood pets and wildlife.

Unless you love squirrels, avoid hanging feeders from trees and eaves. Place them on isolated poles at least five feet off the ground and as far as possible from your house and nearby trees and tall shrubs. Keep in mind that squirrels can leap as far as six feet. Attach to the feeder pole either an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or a PVC pipe or stovepipe that’s 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each

Water is also needed for drinking and bathing. I am fortunate in that I have both a pond and a creek that seldom freeze over. I do, however, have one birdbath and it is located away from the feeders to keep the water clean. Rinse the birdbath daily and clean it weekly with a 5-10% solution of chlorine bleach. In the winter, never add antifreeze or other chemicals to the water.

Feed the birds more often at times of high stress, such as during temperature extremes, nesting season, and migration. Definitely feed in late winter and early spring when natural seed sources are depleted.

Birds are attracted to feeders that they feel are safe. Make sure that there is cover nearby to which birds can escape from predators, like my neighbor’s cat. Place ground-level feeders in open areas so that predators cannot sneak up on  unsuspecting birds.

Different birds have preferences as to what level they like their food served. Mourning doves, sparrows, towhees, and juncos like to feed at ground level. Cardinals, finches, and jays prefer table level feeders; whereas titmice, goldfinches, and chickadees prefer hanging feeders. Of course, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens prefer tree trunk feeders.

Bird feeding does not necessarily give instant gratification so be patient. When a feeder is first placed outdoors, it may take several weeks before the birds discover it. Depending on the type of seeds you offer, the number of birds at the feeder may increase or decrease. To maximize the number of species that visit your feeders, offer a variety of food and offer it at different heights.

The following is a selection of seeds that attract a wide variety of birds. I store all my seeds in roof ratproof metal containers in the garage.

Black oil sunflower seeds: These seeds are the steak and potatoes of the bird world. Don’t get the grey-and-white sunflower seeds sold as people food. Black sunflower seeds are higher in oil content, softer shelled, and cheaper. These seeds attract cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, goldfinches, finches, chickadees, and titmice. Use very sturdy, hanging feeders. Squirrels and raccoons like to visit this type of feeder.

Niger: Niger (PC spelling: Nyger, Nijer, Nyjer) has replaced thistle as the most popular seeds to feed goldfinches. Niger is a black seed that is very tiny and light but very expensive. Buy a hanging tube with tiny holes especially designed for Niger (I found mine in Kroger’s). I hang mine where I can see it from inside my house.

Safflower seeds: Safflower is a white seed that is slightly smaller than the black sunflower seed. It is extremely bitter and squirrels don’t like it. Neither do grackles, blue jays, or starlings. Chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers eat it with abandon.

White millet: Millet is the cheapest seed around and is available at many stores. Scatter it on the ground for sparrows, juncos, and mourning doves. This will also attract squirrels and raccoons.

Cracked corn: Place it in a feeder away from your regular birdfeeder. It will lure away squirrels, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, and doves. Placed on the ground, it will also attract deer, turkeys, and, if your lucky, a few reindeer at Christmas.

Good seed mix: In general, it will have a large amount of sunflower seed, cracked corn, white millet, and perhaps some  peanut hearts. Junk mixes contain wheat, red millet, dyed canary seed, and lots of filler. It is not a bargain. Buy seeds from  specialty bird stores or hardware/feed stores.

Suet: Birds love suet. It is solid fat rendered from beef or venison. Birds need this concentrated energy source in the  winter. Always hang suet cakes so as to not attract mammals. Although suet can be placed in plastic mesh bags that are used for onions, the method can be harmful to small birds if the mesh tears and they can become tangled in the mesh. There is no evidence that suet puddings are more attractive to birds than chunks of suet.

Homemade suet pudding: Making “suet pudding” can be an indoor project for all ages. When working with children, make sure an adult supervises the project so no one gets burnt. You will need the following supplies:

  • Small bowl
  • Selection of birdseed, nuts and fruit, bread
  • Bacon fat, lard or shortening
  • Small saucepan
  • Small plastic container (a sandwich container is ideal)

Fill a small bowl with birdseed, nuts, small chucks of apples, cranberries, bread and anything else you think birds might enjoy. Mix everything together. Transfer to a small plastic container. Here is where an adult comes in handy. Melt about ½ c. of fat or shortening in saucepan and pour over mixture in the small plastic container. Leave it in a cool place to set and hardened. When the fat has hardened, carefully pull it out of the plastic container. Your “suet pudding” is ready to sit in a suet basket, on a feeder tray or table.

Peanut butter blends: Combine a mixture of peanut butter and cornmeal. This not only stretches the expensive peanut butter but also makes this sticky treat easier for the birds to swallow. Pack peanut butter-cornmeal blends and/or suet puddings into the crevices of large pinecones or into one-inch-diameter holes drilled into logs. Hang the pinecones or logs from poles near other feeders, from trees, or from a wire stretched between trees. Avoid feeding suet pudding or peanut butter blends when temperatures climb into the 80-degree range; it turns rancid and drippy and may damage feathers.
Pine Cone/Sweet Gum Ball Bird Feeder: You’ll need wax paper, pinecone or sweet gum balls, wire, peanut butter, butter knife, and birdseed.

Spread the peanut butter inside the openings all around the center and bottom of the cone or ball and fill up the spaces. Spread birdseed of your choice on the wax paper. Take the cone or ball and roll it in the birdseed so that the seeds stick to the peanut butter all around the outside. You may also want to sprinkle seeds inside any openings.

Measure your wire to hang down from a branch of a tree or bush so that it is far enough from the branch to keep any squirrels from eating your feeder. Tie your wire to the top of the pinecone or sweet gum ball and then to the tree branch. Watch and record who comes to visit your cone feeder this winter.

Blackbirds, starlings Cracked corn, millet, wheat, table scraps, baked goods, suet Juncos, towhees Millet, sunflower, cracked corn, peanuts, baked goods, nutmeats
Blue jays Peanuts, sunflower seeds, suet, meat scraps, cracked corn, baked goods Mockingbirds, catbirds, Thrashers Apple halves, chopped fruits, baked goods, suet, nutmeats, millet, soaked raisins, sunflower hearts
Cardinals, grosbeaks Sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, fruit Nuthatches Suet, sunflower seed, peanut kernels, peanut butter
Cedar waxwings Berries, chopped fruits, canned peas, soaked raisins Robins, thrushes, bluebirds Suet, berries, baked goods, chopped fruits, soaked raisin, nutmeats, sunflower seeds
Chickadees, titmice Peanut kernels, sunflower, suet, peanut butter Sparrows Millet, sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, baked goods
Doves Millet, cracked corn, wheat, niger, sunflower, baked goods Woodpeckers Suet, meat scraps, sunflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, fruits
Finches Thistle, sunflower hearts, black oil sunflower seed, millet, canary seed, fruits, peanut kernels, suet Wrens Suet, peanut butter, peanut kernels, bread, fruit, millet

The Arthritic Gardener

For those of us with arthritic joints, gardening can be a challenge; however, it can be made enjoyable. Gardening helps maintain joint flexibility and improves your quality of life. Here are some tips, techniques, and tools that can help keep an arthritic gardener active and happy in the garden.

Work only during the time of day you feel your best. If you are stiff in the cool of the morning, conduct garden tasks during the warmer afternoons. Before starting, warm up your muscles and flex your joints with some gentle stretching exercises. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to recommend some warm-up and stretching exercises. I usually start each day with about 20 minutes of Tai Chi since it puts very little stress on my joints and increases my flexibility.

Since I take arthritis medication, I usually protect my skin with sunscreen and wear a hat to make me less susceptible to sunburn. I always wear gloves not only to protect hands but also to cushion the joints in my hands, elbows, and shoulders.

“Less is more” is my best advice for gardening with arthritis. Pace yourself. I look forward to my hourly breaks. I frequently need “sit-down” breaks to take the load off my joints. I have a bench strategically located near a water feature that is soothing for the mind and old joints.

Switch the tasks and positions every 30 minutes or so. I like to sit a spell on one of my many outdoor benches or chairs that are scattered throughout my garden. Weed a little, water a little, plant a little, walk a little, and, if possible, chat or visit with your neighbor. The key is to garden more frequently in smaller blocks of time. And if it hurts, stop! That’s your body telling you it has had enough.

Watch out for twisting motions that can stress muscles and joints. If you need to plant or weed at ground level, use a stool or kneeling bench. Good posture and careful movements make a big difference in how long and how comfortably you can garden.

Let your larger, stronger joints and muscles do the work. The back may seem strong, but do not lift by bending over stiff-legged and using the back. Always lift by bending at the knees. Use the palms of your hands instead of your fingers to lift and carry flats of plants. If possible, carry the flats on your forearms.

If at all possible, build an outside storage shed for tools and supplies. Locate it close to your garden to reduce the number of trips to get that tool. Weed after it rains so you can pull the nasty buggers out with less stress on the body. If at all possible, get yourself a garden buddy to share tasks that are difficult or stressful.

Use the right tool for the task and keep all tools clean and sharp. Try to find tool handles with wide grips. You can build up existing handles with foam pipe insulation

that can be found in hardware stores. Use awheelbarrow or cart to haul tools and supplies around the garden. Consider some of the new  ergonomic tools designed to reduce stress. Long or extendable handles limit bending or stooping. The right tools can make gardening less stressful and more enjoyable.

Keep your water sources close so you don’t need to lug hoses and watering cans around the yard. I have laid several soaker hose throughout my garden. They all emanate from a central location so hooking up the water hose to each is an easy task. I also cover the soaker hoses with mulch to conserve moisture and reduce the number of times I need to water the garden. You can also install a drip irrigation system.

Think outside the box to make gardening with arthritis less challenging. Look for low-maintenance plants to place in hard-to-reach areas of the garden. Raised container gardens reduce bending and are limited only by your imagination. Tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, perennials, grasses and long-blooming annuals do well in raised containers. The raised beds drain well; the soil warms up quicker, and usually results in earlier crops. It also allows the use of special soil mixtures and lets you work at a convenient height. The latter takes the stress off your joints. Walter Reeves constructed a raised container garden using a series of old bathtubs for his arthritic mother. If you can afford it, terraced banks also act as raised beds for gardening.

Vertical gardening is another option. Grow plants on or over fences, walls, trellises, or arbors. This makes for easy access to vegetables and flowers. It sure cuts down on the amount of bending that must be done.

By planning ahead and making some simple changes, you can still enjoy gardening. Don’t let arthritis make you miss out on the beauty and satisfaction of being outdoors in your garden.

(Ed. Note: After writing this article, the 2009 Fall Edition of The Georgia Scoop arrived at my home. UGA’s AgrAbility program and the Arthritis Foundation are offering workshops for arthritic gardeners in Athens on August 5, Tifton on November 5, and Macon on December 9. To register, visit or call 706-542-0304 (877-524-6264 toll free). The cost is $15.)