Prepare your waterfall, fish pool, and water pumps for winter

It's time to winterize your water garden, waterfalls, bird baths, and water pumps.

Photo courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey.
Winter doesn't stop this water feature for the birds.

Unless you’re living in USDA Hardiness Zone 10 or warmer — in which case you might be firing up the patio heater for those cooler evenings — right now you’re getting ready for winter. The weather across the country has already thrown some unanticipated winter curve balls, so I’m a little late changing over my water features into frost mode.

To pump or not to pump
This is the question that rules all my winterizing decisions. Waterfalls must be shut off. In severe cold, the falls would freeze, and create ice dams. If water is still continually recirculating, it gets diverted away from the stream by the buildup of ice. This lowers the overall amount of water in the system.

Even with careful monitoring and breaking ice in the stream, as the water freezes, less is available for the whole pond, so additional water has to be added — problematic in freezing temperatures.

I did know one couple, Angie and Mike Dickinson in Redmond, Wash., who were so in love with the sight and sounds of their triple waterfalls and pool on the hillside behind their house — it could be seen from every window on that side of their home — they hauled five-gallon buckets of water out to meet the needs of the system during a prolonged cold snap.

Of course, that was in the Pacific Northwest, where it’s unusual to have temperatures in the 20s F. (-6 to 2 C) and for more than a week at a time.

In colder climes [pdf], if water and fish are to remain in the pool, the pump can be placed two feet down — there’s calm water below the circulating water where the fish will be hibernating. The action of the pump can keep an open hole in the ice.

If the hole does freeze over in very severe conditions, fish caretakers know the mantra — do not attempt to crack the ice. The concussion can kill the fish.

Instead fill a metal pan with hot water and place it on the ice until it melts through. There are also heater rings, specifically designed to keep a hole open.

Pumps out
At our garden we have a farm pump next to our water tank that supplies the drip system in summer. We have learned through sad experience that no amount of weather-proofing outdoors will keep that small amount of leftover water in the chamber from freezing and ruining the guts of the pump.

Although the pump is large, awkward and heavy, we unhook it and place it in our above-freezing garage until spring.

The smaller water features also have their pumps removed for winter. I clean them and store in the garage. I cut back the dying plant foliage in the containers and leave the plants in place. I don’t remove the water, but in colder zones that would be a good idea. The water in my pots only freezes a few inches, which doesn’t hurt the hardy plants’ roots that are submerged there.

Pumping through ice
However, there’s one pump I never remove. That one sits in the water feature for the birds. They depend on this water all winter. I know, because when the pump was out of order for two weeks, the bird populations at the feeders diminished remarkably.

This bird waterer consists of a sunken 100-gallon galvanized farm trough. Water recirculates from a pump on the bottom through a tube hidden inside the upright concrete pipe. That pipe holds a flat-topped tufa round wheel. A cast-concrete ball rests in the center of the circle, and the water emerges at the top of the ball, creating shallow streams that attract birds of all kinds, before spilling over the wheel’s edge and back into the tank below.

Because this one runs all winter, I occasionally must deal with ice accumulation. There are heater coils that can be placed in bird feeders, but that wouldn’t solve the freezing problem in my situation.

Sometimes the winter is cold enough that the water dripping over the edges of the tufa wheel freezes all the way down to the surface of the farm tank. But the water’s still pumping. Now it slides along the outside of the foot-thick ice stalactites and spills away from the tank.

I, too, have hauled my share of five-gallon buckets, topping up the system to keep the pump in the bottom covered with water. There’s no fish in there. I crack the ice dams with a hammer. It’s satisfying to knock the icicles back into the trough so the pump can deliver water to the birds all winter long.

Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She will be writing about water in the garden for Diggin’ It. 

Editor’s note: To read more by Mary-Kate, check our blog archive. Gardening articles on a variety of topics can be found at the Monitor’s main gardening page. Also see our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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