As the Pond Service manager, I handle a large amount of maintenance-related questions from our customers, and one topic that pops up around this time of year has to do with the types of water treatments we use. You may have even heard us tout the fact that we install and maintain “natural ecosystem” water features yet, like many of our customers, don’t know what that actually means. When we refer to “natural” water treatments and maintenance methods, we are specifically referring to the processes we use to keep the water looking clean and clear. One water treatment is a key component of the natural ecosystem water feature – beneficial bacteria.
What is Beneficial Bacteria?
Simply put, beneficial bacteria are strains of bacteria that are beneficial to the upkeep and appearance of the pond (duh). These bacteria are the same ones that can be found in ponds and streams in nature across the world and they serve a very specific function. Beneficial bacteria feed on nutrients in the water such as phosphates, nitrates and nitrites, sulfates, and more. Many of these nutrients can be found in abundance in pond water and when there are too many they can actually make the water cloudy. These nutrients, coincidentally, are also many of the same nutrients that algae use to grow and multiply. At higher concentrations of beneficial bacteria present in a pond or water feature, fewer nutrients are available for algae and water clarity generally improves. At lower concentrations, however, nutrient buildup can occur, causing algae blooms and water cloudiness. However, before you go dumping a gallon of Aquascape’s Beneficial Bacteria into your pond, be warned – not all bacteria are created equal, and you might very well end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
Types of Beneficial Bacteria
Just as there are many different strains of algae in different forms, there are different types of bacteria that feed on different nutrients and in different locations. In order to utilize them effectively, it’s important to know the difference.
Generic Beneficial Bacteria
The most common strains of beneficial bacteria are free-floating, waterborne bacteria. These bacteria feed on particles and nutrients that are suspended in the water or found on the surfaces underneath the water. Generic beneficial bacteria are used primarily to combat water cloudiness and planktonic algae (when your pond water turns into pea soup). In order to maintain adequate beneficial bacteria levels, we recommend adding this treatment on a weekly basis (more on adding treatments later).
Anaerobic Beneficial Bacteria
When organic debris falls to the bottom of the feature, the forces of nature (bacteria included) act to break it down and decompose it. However, if lots of organic debris is constantly finding its way into the water then a buildup of muck or sludge can start to form underneath the rock at the bottom. This sludge is full of organic material and nutrients that algae of all forms love to feed on and acts like a time-release capsule, releasing a steady stream of nutrients into the water. To counteract this, anaerobic beneficial bacteria are used to break down the sludge and convert its nutrients into gas particles rather than suspended solid particles. These gasses include nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and compounds including these elements or more and can also be consumed by the free-floating bacteria in the water. The downside to anaerobic beneficial bacteria is that these bacteria generally have a much higher nutrient load to break down compared to free-floating bacteria. This is why an annual spring cleaning is so important – flushing out all the anaerobic sludge makes it a lot easier to keep your pond clean and clear!
Wetland Beneficial Bacteria
Wetland beneficial bacteria are regular bacteria on steroids. The concentrations of these bacteria are far higher and as a result they remove nutrients at a much quicker pace compared to the generic beneficial bacteria. These bacteria are also found in wetland bog filters in the layers of rock and plant roots, allowing them to feed on a larger amount of nutrients than those just floating in the water. Wetland bacteria are also highly effective at combating pea-soup algae, as they can quickly absorb the nutrients the planktonic algae is feeding on and (for some strains) feed on the dead planktonic algae itself!
Now, after knowing what kinds of bacteria you need, you’re probably tempted to go out, buy a bunch of bacteria products, and dump them all in your pond at once, right? Well, you might get a clean and clear pond for about four days, but then you’re going to see immediate cloudiness and algae buildup shortly afterwards. Why, you ask? Well, bacteria and algae all feed on the same nutrients, yet bacteria are smaller in size compared to algal cells. Because of this, individual bacterium require fewer nutrients to survive than an individual algae cell. This means that the amount of bacteria needed overall to combat algae growth is relatively lower than the amount of algae that will grow at a given nutrient level. Simply put, it only takes a little bit of added bacteria to have a noticeable impact. Additionally, there will be a point where the bacteria levels are such that the bacteria in the pond are able to be self-sustaining on the nutrients making their way into the water yet algae cannot absorb enough nutrients to grow. This is what we call the bacteria balance.
Referring back to the example in the last paragraph, say you decided to pour a gallon of wetland bacteria into your 1,000 gallon pond because your water clarity
was poor (for perspective, one gallon of wetland bacteria treats 512,000 gallons of water). The wetland bacteria would immediately go to work in consuming all of the free-floating and surface-level nutrients they could find, and they would do it so quick your pond would be crystal clear the next day. Problem solved, right? Well, you’ve solved the initial problem, but now all of the bacteria are dying off because there are no more nutrients to be found. After four or five days, the wetland bacteria will have almost completely died out. Unbeknownst to you, your pond has a two inch thick layer of organic sludge at the bottom that has been causing your water clarity issues, and now all of those nutrients are being added to the water with no bacteria to counter them. In these conditions, it only takes one sunny, warm day and a few algae cells finding their way into the pond for you to have string algae galore or pea soup water practically overnight.
The good thing is that Aquascape bacteria products come with a measuring scoop or cup and will tell you exactly how much bacteria you need to treat a given number of gallons of water, so you don’t have to guess about how much bacteria you’re adding. If you’d rather not deal with having to add bacteria or are worried about getting it wrong, there are a couple of different options for you. First, you can purchase an Automatic Dosing System and install it at the edge of your pond. This system automatically injects treatments twice daily into the water and can be adjusted to the size of your pond. The Automatic Dosing System uses treatment pouches that are stored inside the canister portion of the system, and these pouches can treat a 2,000 gallon pond for one month before needing to be replaced. Treatment pouches come in four different types depending on your ponds needs.
If you’d rather not deal with any of that, though, we have a second solution. BR&D has a full Pond Service division ready to aid in repair, maintenance, and general upkeep for your water feature. We also have a Regular Maintenance program which allows us to visit and maintain your water feature on a weekly or biweekly basis. During our Regular Maintenance visits, our technicians brush the feature down, add water treatments, clean any filtration, and address other issues as well so you don’t have to. Our technicians are trained to determine the right amount of water treatments to add and know what to look for to address the root of your water quality problems.
Beneficial bacteria are part of the lifeblood of natural ecosystem water features; when it comes to water quality, let them do the work for you!