It doesn't happen every time. But as Mike Gannon reports here, new ponds will head in this disturbing direction often enough that he prepares all of his clients to deal with a distressing transformation that can occur within weeks after a pond has been filled with water for the very first time.
By Mike Gannon
It’s a rite of passage for almost all biological systems we install: New Pond Syndrome.
We don’t hear about it from every client, but we know how stressful it can be because we do hear from a great many of them about this affliction a few weeks after installation is complete. One day, he or she will go inside after putting a nice, clear pond to bed, then, overnight, the syndrome takes hold and by the next morning the water has gone completely green and slipped totally out of balance.
This turn of events often leads to quick calls to our offices, either with requests for service calls or with desperate pleas for guidance on how to correct the unfortunate situation. Will this harm the fish? Will the plants survive? How do we take care of the problem? How fast?
What these new pond owners don’t know is that the pond itself contains both the cause and the cure for this syndrome and that, left on its own, the water will soon be clear again. There’s no need for pills or potions to take care of it, we tell them: All that’s required is a bit of patience.
When we at Full Service Aquatics (Summit, N.J.) build ponds and watergardens for our clients, we follow a very specific process. It begins with an initial meeting and continues systematically until a final pond orientation we run through with each and every client once our work is complete and we’re ready to depart.
In general, however, I have to say that the pond-orientation meeting is both the most-important and probably the least-absorbed conversation we ever have with our clients. Many of them get lost in the excitement of exploring the newly completed project – or they’re simply so delighted that our crews are packing their tools, cleaning up the site and getting ready to leave that their ability to absorb information suffers a massive breakdown.
Often lost in this situation is a pile of information we offer on general fish and plant care and basic pond maintenance. This includes introductions to various pieces of equipment – pumps, skimmers, filters, aerators, lighting systems, valves, water-leveling devices – as well as briefings on what everything on the list does and what it requires by way of routine upkeep.
I guess it can be a bit overwhelming – and it likely gets even worse when you present them with a stack of manuals and warranty cards with suggestions about how thoroughly they should be read and how quickly the cards should go in the mail.
All of this is doubtless important for the well-being of the new pond, and it’s good customer service as well. But too often, it seems to go in one ear and out the other with not much rattling around in between. So try as we might in rolling through our scripted checklist – repeating key information and doing all we can to make certain they’re following along with what we have to say – there’s apparently not much we can do to make them retain what we’re saying.
Among all of these diverse points of discussion, there’s one we emphasize to the greatest extent possible under the general heading of “What to expect in your first 40 days with your new waterfeature.” I don’t know why this information in particular seems to be the hardest to retain, but time and time again we’ve found that many of our clients simply have not processed this part of the discussion, no matter how much we highlight it. It’s as though this particular information passes straight through from ear to ear, no rattling around at all!
I haven’t entirely figured out why they forget and end up calling me, but I definitely know when it’ll happen. Homeowners accept the pond from you on Day One with beautiful, gin-clear water, an utter lack of debris and no algae to be found anywhere. This is a key point at which expectations are set, no matter how carefully we let them know the pond will change during its critical first forty days.
And so, by Day 40, these folks have a real pond on their hands: Plants and fish have been introduced; the water is still quite clear, but maybe it’s no longer gin-clear; and it’s possible to spot some algae forming here and there on the rocks. It’s also more than likely that some leaves have become hung up and are decaying somewhere beyond reach of the skimmer.
New Pond Syndrome is real.
During the first eight weeks or so, ponds develop biologically with two strains of bacteria present. At three weeks or so, the first set of bacteria gets active and the side effect is a temporary greening of the water. At about six weeks, there’s a second period of greening when the next set of bacteria emerges.
Once the two sets of bacteria fully mature, they work together to break down nutrients that would otherwise give the water a permanent green color. Their collaboration allows nice, clear water to take over.
These greening cycles do not occur with every pond, but it happens with enough of them that we set expectations among all of our clients that this is something that will occur. If the pond stays clear, we look good; if it turns green, we seem experienced and wise.
At about this point, bang! The pond can become a green, unattractive mess overnight, apparently without warning although any pond expert could tell you what was coming from a mile away just by knowing how long the pond has been up and running.
For whatever reason, many new owners are caught entirely off guard by this turn of events – as though we hadn’t said a single word about what we knew was coming at just about exactly this point. Regardless of preparation, the greenish water sets them off in a panic – so wild that they forget in the blink of an eye all of the wisdom we imparted to them during orientation.
In this jangled condition, pond owners often seek comfort in chemicals and treatments they can pour into the water rather than stepping back, being patient and reviewing what we’d so carefully discussed.
And patience is indeed the key: We always tell our clients in orientation that they should expect some of this greenish glow after two or three weeks and then again at far greater levels at about six weeks – and that it will clear itself up in another two weeks or so, no chemicals or treatments required.
This is, we told them six weeks previously and must gently reinforce in the here and now, a normal, temporary condition that occurs so often that we in the pond business refer to it as New Pond Syndrome. If simple patience simply won’t do, we tell them to put down the algaecide and instead add a bit of beneficial bacteria. We also let them know that these water conditions are not harmful to fish, that normal feedings still need to happen – and that going beyond an easy, patient approach is the only real threat we see to the pond’s good health.
Pond orientations are a great way to ensure our clients are prepared for what to expect as their ponds settle in. Whether they remember our words of wisdom or not, we use this conversation to alert them about New Pond Syndrome and do what we can to help them avoid the panic that can set in when it strikes – even if they remember elements of our chat and are well prepared to cope with what’s happening.
When these calls come, we always respond with care and sympathy, knowing that new pond owners have a lot to take in and learn. With an orientation by a good pond professional, they’ll get a great start – and when the time comes, they might even remember that they knew the green tide was coming and would soon fade away, no more than a phase every pond endures.