The Inherited Pond

The Inherited Pond
-or-“Darling, what’s that hole in the back yard?”

It happens. A lot. You gotta move. New job, new kid, new career, new town. You find it, the perfect house, great construction, man-cave, kitchen full of new appliances, close to transport, roomy garage and a big back yard with a-ulp-pond. With fish. Realtor says “Ain’t it great? So soothing!”
Only one problem. Your total prior ponding experience involved falling into one at age seven while visiting Old Uncle Joe on his farm. Your remaining memories of that experience, including as they did the Attack of the Million Enraged Feral Chickens, fifteen pounds of mixed mud and blanket weed and an unfortunately-placed cow pie are mercifully dim. Suddenly you are the person in charge of a whole new ecology, with lives on the line.  The movers have been and gone. You live here. Now what?
Given the popularity of this hobby, it’s not surprising to find a pond in the back yard of every other house you look at while hunting. What you will do with what will either be an absorbing avocation or a monumental headache needs to be part of the process of deciding before you put your money down.
Think. Do I want a new hobby? Given the complexity of successful water gardening (at the easy end) and koi keeping (at the hard end), are you willing to commit the time and money involved? As pretty as that water feature looks, there’s probably a considerable bunch of infrastructure hidden away somewhere on the property. The prettier the pond, the more complex the works. This hobby tends to eat all your other hobbies.
Do I have the resources to support this hobby? Water gardening is not cheap. It’s been said (by boaters) that a boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into. A pond is a hole in the back yard that you throw water and money into, and you probably have to pay for the water. The only advantage that ponding has over boating is that your risk of drowning is slightly lower. Electricity for the pumps and filters. Supplies for water testing. Fish. Food. Plants. Landscaping and re-digging when you find that the pond is just too small. New pumps. New filters. New pipe. Lights. Remember that the closest hobby to ponding in addiction and character is model railroading. Like a model railroad layout, a pond is never, ever actually finished.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it. It is not. This is one of the most absorbing and rewarding activities around, if you let yourself get involved, and your fellow enthusiasts are some of the nicest and most helpful folks you’ll find anywhere. This hobby will stretch your mind and you will never be bored.
So. Set the scene. You want this property. Pond and all. What do you need?

1.    You need some assurance that the pond is in current working order and has not been abandoned since the previous owners left town mysteriously three years ago closely followed by the FBI, NCIS, LSMFT and KGB. If what you see is a stagnant puddle that smells bad, a bulldozer may be your best option. If the pond is in operation and it smells like fresh cantaloupe (assuming that you are house-shopping in the summer), go to step 2. If it is deep winter, and all you can see is seven feet of snow, go to step 2, but with caution.
2.    Talk to the owners. It is still their pond and, most likely, they did most of the design and upkeep work. They know where all the tools, switches, valves and pipes are. They know what leaks and when and where the most common failure points are and what to do about them when they fail. Ask if they are members of a koi club or water gardening society. If they are, join before you move. Go to meetings and ask questions.
3.    Get an operating manual. If the previous owners have not written one, make it a condition of the sale.
4.    Before you move, and before the previous owners split for parts unknown, have them run through the daily, weekly and/or monthly maintenance rituals. Take notes and pictures. Record the conversation. Ask them about visitors to the pond. Not just the neighbors. Ask about the wildlife. Depending on where this pond is, you could be dealing with anything from raccoons to herons to mink to alligators. Or drunks.
5.    Inspect the infrastructure for age, condition and accessibility. Change is the ground state in ponding, but you need to know where you are starting from. A run-through by a competent electrician is a good idea too.
6.    If there are fish, look at them. Are they healthy, active critters or do they look damaged or sick? Are there too many of them in the pond? Does the water look clean? How does it smell?
7.    If you have a friend who is familiar with the hobby, make sure he or she looks at the pond with you. If you have hunted down a koi club before you moved, get one of the members to look things over. Many clubs have at least one or two members who have trained as Koi Health Advisors and can give you advice that is based on fact rather than opinion or hearsay.
8.    Read, read, read. This website has articles and FAQs that cover practically every aspect of the hobby. There are loads of other resources available on the Internet. Do not go into this hobby blind.
9.    No pond is perfect. There were probably design and construction errors made during building and peculiarities that have crept into the system over time. A clean, compact layout is the mark of a professional builder that has not been played with. A chaotically tangled mess of valves, pipes, tanks and motors is the sign of a pond that has been modified multiple times and has-adapted. Both systems probably work. Guess which one needs a Ouija board to operate?

It sounds complex, but if you are prepared for it you’ll never regret getting involved in this fascinating ecological exercise. It is addicting, absorbing and, at the end of a stinky, hot day at work, it is the best thing ever to sit by the pond, reveling in the knowledge that your huntin’, shootin’ and campin’ buddies have to travel 600 miles to find a spot by a body of water with no sanitation which they must share with the bears, cooties and blackflies. You have the falls, the stream and the fish right there. Need a beer? The fridge is just a few steps away. With Wi-Fi!

The Inherited Pond-Part Two

-or- “Wait, what? I didn’t know that was back here!”

Aaaaaand this is the second and way more common scenario. Great house, fantastic yard and nobody mentioned the pond. If they did, it was called a “low maintenance attractive water feature” in the realtor’s blurb. You move into the property in the middle of the worst winter since the IceMonster attack of ’08 and the icecap has receded enough to reveal…THE BLACK LAGOON! It might be inhabited…

The previous owners are long gone leaving no forwarding address and the realtor has either sold out or burned down. Now what?

The decision tree is pretty simple at this point. Do you want to be a ponder or not? Either way, you’ll need to know what’s in there and what’s available from a support standpoint. Are there resident livestock? Is there a pumping facility or perhaps filters hidden somewhere? Are there tools, nets, pumps or pipes? It’s time to look around.

Start with the pond itself. First off, how big is it? I had the privilege of talking to a new ponder this past weekend who had just moved into a rural property in the southern exurbs to find that he was now the proud owner of two 30,000 gallon ponds and several hundred koi (and God knows what else). His learning curve is gonna be really steep, but with those volumes, he’ll have time to get a grip on the problem. Ponds that size mostly run themselves. Most of what we run into is considerably smaller.

Now look around the pond perimeter. What is there in the way of infrastructure? Is this just a hole in the ground, or is there a waterfall and a skimmer? Can you identify pipe runs, and if you can, where do they go and what is on the other end? Is there a shed or a storage structure nearby? What treasure lies within? Maybe filters? Maybe an operating manual? Be careful. There might be a Grue.

Next, how does it smell? If what you get is a distinct aroma of rotten egg, you can be reasonably certain that there will be nothing living beneath the surface. The presence of hydrogen sulfide implies anaerobic breakdown of organic materials, and the dissolved gas is toxic to just about anything except bacteria from the abyssal trench. Water that has no bad odors suggests hope, regardless of how it looks.

In either case, you do not start by poking around with sticks or nets. At best, you’ll frighten or stress any inhabitants that have been lying low all winter. At worst, you’ll stir up whatever muck is lying on the bottom, deposited by winter storms, wind and whatever. Stirring it up releases whatever has been developing in the sludge, and it’ll be toxic. You need to drain that pond.

You’ll need a high-capacity submersible pump for the job, and a Home Despot-equivalent sump pump is a good choice. If you think that the pond harbors live denizens, you’ll need a net and someplace to put them, at least temporarily. A 100-250 gallon Rubbermaid horse trough from Farm ‘n Fleet works well here, especially if you are planning to continue in the hobby. It’ll end up as your isolation tank. Pump out and discard the water, you’ll be replacing it anyway. Or not.

As the water drains, living denizens, if any, will become visible and can be transferred to your holding facility. Anything left on the bottom of a mechanical nature (pumps, pipes, or if you are really lucky, a bottom drain) will begin to give you an idea of how the pond worked and how well it was designed. If you are having the usual Ponder’s Luck (a corollary of Murphy’s Law) what you’ll get is sludge and if you are REALLY unlucky (Murphy was an optimist), the bottom will be covered in gravel, and maybe Jimmy Hoffa. The fact that there was water in the hole suggests that the liner, whatever it is made of, was intact, at least to the top of the water level. Do your best not to damage it.

STOP. Decision time. DO YOU WANT TO BE A PONDER? Are you willing to subjugate yourself to the tyranny of the THREE LAWS of PONDING? If not, install the sump pump in your basement, use the horse trough as a patio water garden and call a landscaper in to remove the liner and fill in the hole. Plant flowers and veggies. Be happy. If you decide that the pond is your future, clean out the bottom, get rid of the mucky gravel, refill, dechlorinate, hook up whatever infrastructure you can find, transfer the livestock, if any, back to the pond and start studyin’ up. The rest of this website is a great place to start. The learning curve can be steep, but it’s worth it.


  • There is always a better fish.
  • There is always a better filter.
  • There is NEVER enough water.


Bob Passovoy
May, 2016