Pondering Profits

An often overlooked, yet lucrative service for landscapers to provide clients is maintaining their water gardens. Popping up everywhere in homeowners' landscapes, water gardens aren't necessarily difficult to maintain but, as with mowing the lawn, maintaining flowerbeds and servicing swimming pools, many two-career homeowners prefer coming home to a ready-to-enjoy landscape rather than a to-do list of chores that consumes much of their “down time.”

If you're already providing other lawn-maintenance services for a client, you can easily step into a service contract for the client's water garden, having earned their confidence through your previous work. In most cases, during the spring, summer and fall seasons, your only requirement for adding this service for an existing client is spending one more hour on the previously scheduled landscape-service appointment.

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In some areas, contractors are beginning to specialize in pond services, similar to the practice of specializing in pool services. The contractor removes spent blooms and foliage from the pond then fertilizes plants on a bimonthly or monthly schedule. He examines the fish for injuries and disease. After that, he cleans filters and pumps, checks the water's pH (monitoring the chemical balance of the water quality), adds bacteria, if needed, and removes any other floating debris.

Whether you are maintaining the water garden as a specialist or as part of an existing service contract, make it a priority to dictate the exact nature of work outlined in the contract. How often does the water garden need servicing? In a properly designed and well-maintained pond, the water stays clearer, the plants bloom more frequently and the fish stay healthier. Therefore, if you're already on the jobsite, determine the time it takes to service the pond and charge your normal hourly fee, plus materials, with a contractual understanding that there will be additional billing for any required work over that stipulated in the contract.

How do you turn this into revenue? Your crew performs the pond-maintenance job consecutively with their other lawn-maintenance work, but you bill the client for the extra man-hours required to complete the total job. Additionally, you should increase your profit margin by purchasing pond-maintenance materials in bulk at wholesale prices and bill the customer at retail price. This billing method is similar to that you use to bid irrigation or landscaping jobs.

A weekly or biweekly maintenance schedule keeps the water garden in tip-top shape and the client smiling, but remember that you'll be required to pay extra attention to ponds in the spring and fall. Just as irrigation requires spring startups and fall winterizations, water gardens call for more attention before Old Man Winter arrives and again after he takes his leave.

The good news is, like irrigation, if you follow fall winterization procedures properly, spring cleanup and startup are practically a breeze for the water garden.

Some pond owners will ask that you keep their pumps operating throughout the winter, even in colder climates. Leaving the pump running for ponds with waterfalls and streams will result in beautiful ice formations, but the pump must be rated at least 2,000 GPH to ensure continuous water flow for this to happen. The downfall is that the ice may re-direct water out of the pond. If your client is aware of the risk and still desires to keeps things running, he or she needs to be willing to either check the pond daily or arrange for you to conduct a daily 15-minute “drive-by,” especially during extremely cold periods, because it doesn't take long for redirected water to empty a pond.

UP AND RUNNING

To satisfy your client who wants to keep the pond pump operating through the winter, you should perform a “running” winterization process. First, disconnect water features, such as spitters and fountains, then blow out their pipes using a low amount of air pressure. Turn the concrete basins over to prevent cracking and place spitters in a cool, dry location until next spring. After that, disconnect the biological filtering system. Use only water to clean these parts thoroughly. If portable, store the filtering system also in a cool, dry location.

As long as the pump continues to operate, so should the mechanical filter to ensure that debris doesn't clog the pump. Clean the mechanical filter and then reconnect it. The fish are hibernating and don't require food, so you shouldn't need to clean the filter again until spring.

“You don't have to empty out the pond to winterize it,” explains Steve Springer, president of Oase Waterscapes. The pond's biological system must build back up each time a pond is emptied, so leaving the water in it ensures that the existing biological system remains intact.

Next, remove organic debris, such as leaves, from the bottom of the pond with a net. Decomposing material uses up the water's oxygen in the pond and could suffocate the fish.

“You don't get much warning about that either,” says Gary Wittstock, president and CEO of Ponds Supplies of America. “As fish get bigger, they need more oxygen. Fish grow, filters don't, and the big ones go first.”

SHUTTING IT DOWN

“If there are no fish in the pond, there is nothing to worry about,” says Springer about shutting pond pumps off in winter. “To professionally shutdown a water garden for the winter, pull the pump, clean and store it in a cool, dry location. The skimmer needs to be drained and any product that acts as a filter needs to be pulled and cleaned.”

Some professionals recommend submersing the pump in a bucket of water to prevent the seal from drying and cracking. If this isn't possible, check this seal for dry rot in the spring during the startup.

Finally, follow the same steps for the fountains, waterfalls, spitters and biological filter as outlined above in the “Up and running” section.

OVER-WINTERING FISH

As long as the fish aren't tropical and the pond is deep enough that it won't freeze solid, the fish can remain in the pond. A 24-inch depth is adequate, according to Wittstock, at least through Zone 4.

Fish stay close to the bottom of ponds in hibernation most of the winter. Begin tapering food when water temperatures — not air temperatures — reach 60°F, and stop feeding altogether when water temperatures reach 50°F. Wittstock suggests dropping a thermostat with a long wire probe to the bottom of the pond to monitor the pond's bottom-water temperature. “When the water temperature drops to 35°F, turn off the circulating pumps and use only surface circulators.”

Both Springer and Wittstock recommend moving fish into the basement or garage if the pond is shallow enough to freeze solid, but be sure to adequately filter their indoor quarters.

Caution the client that on warm days, the fish will come to the surface. This is a trained reaction to people walking by the pond. To feed them will harm the fish, so advise clients to not give in to the temptation.

Springer explains that when there are fish in the pond, it's necessary to make sure there is a hole in the ice to allow ammonia gas to escape. You can use a floating cattle-trough heater for this, but even though they are inexpensive to purchase, they are costly to operate because the thermostat operates nearly continuously.

Some professionals recommend using a small submersible pump in conjunction with a floating heater. The pump keeps water circulating, and the water movement keeps a hole open until the temperature drops and the heater turns on. Place the pump away from the heater to avoid moving warmer water away from the heater.

Oase offers another option called a pond vent. The vent floats on Styrofoam while a small pump on the bottom of a tube draws a small amount of warmer water from the bottom of the pond to the surface, where it bubbles, creating an opening in the water.

Wittstock suggests mounting a small pump in a bucket filled with gravel and placing it on a pedestal 6 inches below the water's surface, allowing it to bubble up 1 inch above the surface. This creates a large enough hole to allow for the exchange of gases and keeps water circulating. If a pedestal mount isn't possible, place the pump in a basket on a shelf near the edge of the pond.

PRESERVING PLANTS

Hardy plants will survive winter in the pond with no problem. Even though they require a dormancy period, the important thing is to keep their roots from freezing. It's up to the client to decide about tropical plants. In cold zones, they won't survive outdoors. They can, however, overwinter successfully indoors, depending on the situation. They need light, warmth and circulating water. Most owners of water gardens in cold zones treat tropical plants as annuals, replacing them each spring.

To successfully overwinter hardy plants, remove all brown foliage, trim vegetation and sink pots to the bottom of the pond where the water doesn't freeze. Trim hardy lilies to approximately 2 inches. Trim all the dead leaves and plant material from marginal and hardy bog plants just below the water level. Check recommendations for other hardy plants.

WINTER WORK

Adding water-garden maintenance to your existing business could be a lucrative decision for off-season income. In many cases, it's a yearlong commitment, which translates into yearlong income. Clients who head south for the winter or who travel frequently may not have considered the need to have their pond bubbler checked to see if it's still bubbling or their pond heater examined while they're away and will appreciate your offering to “keep an eye on things.”

It's just another way to improve your off-season business.

Katherine Woodford is a Green Industry and business freelance writer in Moneta, Va., www.katherinesbylines.com.

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