Wildlife Pond Maintenance (Clean Without Harming Eco-Systems)
With natural ponds disappearing worldwide by an average of 50%, having a garden pond can (and does!) provide a host of benefits for all kinds of wildlife. For example, waterfowl may use your pond as a critical, but brief (usually just a day or two) stopping point during their migration for the winter. During hot weather, your pond will provide an oasis to rehydrate and cool down. Other species, like newts, frogs, and salamanders, are completely dependent on water systems like ponds for breeding and raising young in the spring and summer while utilizing the protective, moist mud to burrow into to survive the winter.
Your pond will likely also have plants and flowers, which will attract insects and pollinators that are critical for overall ecosystem health. To illustrate the importance of this, about 50% of bee species in Europe have gone extinct, with another 25% in danger of doing so (these numbers are at about 40% and 30% for the United States). This poses a threat not only to all manner of ecosystems, but humanity as well. Your seemingly insignificant pond is far from actually being insignificant, and can really be a safe haven for all manner of wildlife.
Can You Have Fish In Wildlife Ponds?
Technically, yes, but many pond owners choose not to have fish and instead opt for a fully natural “hands-off” eco-system. This is because wildlife may damage or consume the fish, so it’s best to not have ornamental varieties like koi and goldfish when your pond is an attractive prospect for larger predators. In addition, the fish will eat some of the wildlife residents, like frog eggs and tadpoles. It’s best to either leave fish absent, or see if any native species wind up there naturally (sometimes birds inadvertently introduce fish to areas by eggs sticking onto their legs and feathers).
Because of the lack of fish, a garden wildlife pond won’t need as much filtration or equipment in general to keep it running. You’ll still certainly need to take care of it and monitor it, but one of the perks of having a wildlife pond is that you can take a step back now and then and allow nature to do its thing. Below we’ll cover some of the basics of taking care of your wildlife pond and really reaping the benefits of it.
How to Maintain, Improve, & Clean Natural Wildlife Ponds (All Season Tips)
1) Cut Back & Maintain Vegetation Each Season
While wildlife ponds to a certain extent are able to naturally regulate themselves, you’ll likely need to take measures to control vegetative overgrowth and cut some back. This will depend upon species as well as location and time of the year. You can check out our full guide to maintaining a wildlife pond here.
- In Spring You Should…
In the spring, you’ll want to plant whatever vegetation that you intend on adding to the pond, as this is the time when growth and establishment will be most pronounced. Plants devote a great deal of energy to growth during this time, so there’s greater likelihood that they’ll survive being planted and be able to really establish themselves. For existing marginal, floating, or submerged plants, you may need to cut them back. Try to make sure that you don’t remove more than approximately a quarter of the total plant cover, as wildlife depend on it and may move to a different area if yours lacks adequate vegetation.
During this time of year, everything is ramping up and coming to life – this means that you must be careful when planting and removing plants, taking care to disturb the pond as little as possible. Frogs, newts, toads, and some fish lay eggs during late winter/early spring, and some hatch during mid to late spring – too much disturbance could kill them. Insect larvae is also being laid and hatching during this time, and as insects are toward the bottom of the pond food chain, you’ll need these if you wish to support other wildlife.
- In Summer You Should…
During the summer, most amphibians, reptiles, and insects like dragonflies will have hatched. You may also have bats, owls, and other such critters hunting around your pond. Warmer weather means that your water level may decrease, but don’t use a hose to fill it back up; the cold water and different water chemistry could shock the pond inhabitants and potentially kill them. Instead, keep some large containers outside to collect rainwater and fill up the pond with that if levels drop. Continue cutting back vegetation as needed, making sure again to never remove more than 25% of the total cover.
For added wildlife benefit, you can pile the plants into a brush or compost heap – this pile will provide cover for critters like rabbits and pheasants for a time, and once it breaks down you can utilize it as natural fertilizer for your yard or garden, if you have one. Store bought fertilizers will run-off into your pond and add excess nutrients, completely altering the water chemistry and leading to potential algal blooms and organism deaths
- In Autumn You Should…
In autumn, many organisms may leave your pond, while things like frogs will burrow into the mud and overwinter. Most plants will start to die off, so you’ll need to clear them out so that their decomposition doesn’t use up precious oxygen during the winter. Now is also the best time to remove any invasive plant species, as they’ll be going dormant and are less likely to spread.
Wildlife ponds don’t require as much worry or care as fish ponds in the winter, but you’ll still need to keep snow brushed off of the ice overtop to allow light to penetrate and facilitate oxygen production by the submerged plants that are able to overwinter. If the winter is particularly frigid or there’s ice more than an inch or two thick, you may want to utilize an aerator or fountain to keep water moving and allow for more oxygen – this will help sensitive fish and amphibians to survive over the next few months.
2) Plant A Variety of Plants for Different Wildlife
The greater diversity of plants that you have in and around your pond, the more different types of wildlife you will attract and be able to support. For example, large-leaved floating plants such as lilies enable frogs to lay their eggs beneath the leaves, while marginal plants along the edge of the pond such as sedges, hostas, and ferns, will attract frogs to ponds initially and provide hiding and breeding habitat for them.
As covered in our duck article, you can attract particular types of waterfowl based on the types of plants that you utilize. For example, some species like both blue-winged teals and green-winged teals prefer grasses and other low vegetation surrounding the pond for them to nest and hide in, while canvasbacks prefer floating vegetation that form mats that they can roost and nest on.
The shelter and cool shade provided by native cattails will bring in a large variety of songbirds and ecologically important predators like snakes, while flowering plants bring in pollinators, insects, and by extension all manner of birds, small mammals, and reptiles and amphibians to feed on those insects and keep their populations in check. Allowing a small amount of algae to exist in your pond will help fish and frogs to establish themselves, as many species feed on algae.
3) Control Algae Growth & Blooms
While having some algae is natural and healthy (actually, it’s often crucial for aquatic ecosystem health and proper functioning!), having too much is most certainly an issue. You can prevent overgrowth by planting trees near your pond (like those covered in our article on trees that are safe to plant near ponds) to provide shade, and thus deter algae growth. Algae generally love light and warmth, so limiting the amount of sunlight that hits the water will in turn limit the extent to which algae can grow.
You can also use a rake to scoop out or vacuum the algae if there are significant amounts of it, particularly if it has formed dense mats that are difficult to remove otherwise. Another option is to use natural products (remember, any chemical meant to kill one thing absolutely has the potential to cause harm to other life forms, like fish, birds, and any other pond visitors). Products considered safe for ponds include barley straw, ultraviolet clarifiers, and some algaecides (though these do come with potential drawbacks). For example, green clean is a natural algaecide, but reportedly can be toxic to bees and certain birds, so you would need to be careful depending on your native species.
4) Reduce Bottom Sediment (when critical)
This will take many years to occur (depending upon the size of the pond and the amount of plants and wildlife inhabiting it), but after a time sediment will begin to build up. This sediment will continue to build as more and more waste accumulates such as leaves and dead vegetation, dead fish or other small creatures, nutrients, and excrement. Eventually, this results in the pond becoming more and more shallow, and when left to nature ponds eventually cease to be ponds. This won’t be the case with yours, of course, as you’ll be maintaining it!
Make sure to scoop out the majority of dead/dying things at the bottom of the pond each fall/spring, and if needed scoop out a couple inches of sediment if your water is becoming more shallow. Too shallow of a pond (less than a foot, typically) will deter some organisms from remaining in your pond and lessen the ability of anything to survive in your pond during the winter. However, keep in mind that a fair amount of sediment is necessary in natural ponds, and the enzymes and anaerobic activities taking place in the sediment can help to deter some algae growth. You should try to avoid removing sediment for the first few years of your pond’s life, as having it will really help to build a healthy ecosystem that attracts a plethora of wildlife.
5) Create Additional Shade (in extreme weather)
Shading your pond should only be done under extreme circumstances, such as drought, to prevent water loss and protect the organisms within it. Otherwise, using a cover will block sunlight and could be a detriment to your pond and keep wildlife from getting to it. Only use one if you’re very certain that there will be little to no rain, and don’t leave it on any longer than necessary (using it during the heat of the day and removing it at night is a decent option if you feel you must use the topper for longer than a day, though this may still damage the pond and its residents).
As a natural, long-term alternative, you could consider planting native species of trees around the pond to provide partial shade in summer, whilst also attracting more wildlife.
6) Ensure Pond Slopes Are Accessible
You should have at least one side of your pond that is sloped and shallow, to allow wildlife easy access in and out. As covered in one of our previous articles on frogs, an angle of 45° or less is best.
You can include logs and/or rocks to allow access (and roosting/sunbathing spots) for birds, turtles, and frogs, but make sure several feet of the slope is left open and clear to let in things like deer, large waterfowl that are trying to land, and so on. Shorebirds, raccoons, and foxes (among others) will utilize the shallow water to bathe, drink, and search for any invertebrates that are in the substrate. Insects, like dragonflies and damselflies, bees, and butterflies, will land on shallow water to grab a quick drink.
7) Clean & Maintain Any Active Equipment
As with any pond, keeping your equipment clean is essential. Regularly (about once a week) check and clean out aerators and pumps, and a bit less frequently clean out any waterfalls and fountains that are present. While wildlife ponds should have some degree of detritus, use a net or rake to remove any substantial amounts of leaves, sticks, or anything dead.
23 thoughts on “Wildlife Pond Maintenance Guide 2023 [Step-by-Step]”
Can you recommend on my natural pond, silting up and therefore in danger in hot summer of drying up……dredging is too drastic.
If the silt has built up to such a level that it’s causing the pond to completely dry out, vacuuming or manually removing a proportion of the muck would be advisable. Although this will inevitably also effect some wildlife (insects, critters, bacteria living there), it sounds like it’s still a better option than allowing the whole pond to dry, effectively damaging the entire eco-system. Depending on your pond size, you could simply rake/shovel the muck out or invest in an electric vacuum which can return water to the system after sieving out the muck through its discharge outlet.
If the pond is not drying out completely, but is close, you could try instead to install some additional shade (e.g., shade sails, covers etc.) over the pond during the hottest few hours of the day where the most evaporation occurs to try to reduce the amount of water lost.
I have a small pond that has been completely ignored for a year, and is quite murky and in need of cleaning out. There is a large bullfrog living in it, and I want to know how to clean it without hurting the frog. I also don’t have a rain barrel, so tap water is the only option, unless I wait and collect rainwater, which could take too long. Any suggestions would be appreciated!
The easiest solution here would actually be to temporarily remove (net) the bullfrog, clean the pond, re-fill, and then place him back. You’d want to leave a little sludge at the bottom as it’s full with nutrients and food for wildlife, but you can still remove some which could help improve water clarity. Excess muck can be raked out, or removed with a water vacuum, which can actually return water back to the pond for easier filling. In regards to using mains water, that should not be a problem, just be sure to decholinrate it first. Here are some more articles on these topics to help you get started:
What size is your pond? What state do you live in? I might have some ideas.
Hi such a helpful site, thank you. I have a semi-wildlife pond about 18 x 8 metres, depth average about 0.5 metres, probably 45-50,000 litres. Fish are rudd and tench plus one larger common carp about 4lbs weight. Lots of marginal plants, and water lillies covering about 30% surface which are mainly free-rooted. I net it from autumn to spring but the plants/fish create plenty of sediment, water used to be very unclear.
Have just installed a big koi type filter…it works superbly, water much clearer, BUT cleaning the filter is needed every couple of weeks as it catches so much gunk. I don’t fancy doing that throughout the winter but am told the filter should run 24/7/365. I have various questions, all to see if I can cut down on the gunk & need for so much filter-cleaning….
1.Would potting all the lillies cut down on gunk a lot?
2.Would getting rid of the big carp do the same (he roots around a lot)?
3.Would adding more bottom-feeding fish eg tench, gudgeon, help?
4. The big question – could I switch the filter off between October & April if I add in bacteria when I re-start it?
(If I do do that should I add an aereator to run during the winter months when filter is off?)
5.I have been cleaning the filter completely until water (tap water) runs clear through it– should I not clean it so thoroughly but leave some gunk in it?
6. Given that I’ve cleaned it thoroughly with tap water for a couple of months now should I introduce some bacteria (into pond or into filter)?
All answers very gratefully received – thank you very much!
North Yorkshire, England.
I have a small 165 gallon pond which is approx 25 years old. We haven’t had any fish in for a number (15?) years, just keep it from getting over grown with weeds, clear surface leaves out etc. 2 years ago I was netting the leaves out and discovered 2 frogs so I left it, last year I discovered a 3″ newt (not the protected ones!) plus small leeches, so didn’t try to clean too deep, this year we have 3 or 4 newts 1″ long (parents gone). There is a 50 +Weeping Willow tree in the garden at the bottom of ours which sheds leaves into our pond and garden 12 months a year (not a healthy specimen), so how/when will I be able to clean the years of sludge from the bottom? Please help as the usual information never mentions these problems.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
The thing about natural ponds and wildlife ponds is that they rely on having all manner of organisms and layers to support wildlife, including this bottom sludge. We as humans tend to associate sludge and mud with being “bad,” but ponds in nature generally have this layer – if they don’t, there’s not much life in them (unless we manually add fish ourselves and feed them). Eventually, even the cleanest of ponds found in nature develop this layer, it’s just a part of ecological succession.
If you’d like to keep the wildlife around, the sludge should stay. You could try shoveling/raking some of it out to lessen it so the entire pond doesn’t eventually fill in, but newts, frogs, turtles, etc. all depend on that bottom layer of mud for everything from feeding on macroinvertebrates found in it to burrowing and overwintering in it, safe from cold and ice. I would recommend just removing some, but not all, of the sludge – ideally during early autumn; after this, and any mud-dwelling creatures will be settled into the mud for winter, and before you could risk disturbing any eggs and young developing safely in the mud. Try not to remove more than half of it, if you can, to minimize disturbance to wildlife.
In terms of keeping out willow leaves, you can try installing some pond netting that’s small enough to keep out most of the leaves but will still allow the newts and frogs to move through it to access the pond. If it’s really bothersome, you can cut the willow down.
I hope that this helps!
Hi. I built a 4 x 3 m wildlife pond 3 years ago. I regularly (more than once a week) remove algae and dead plants by hand and do my best to keep it clean, whilst being mindful that I need to let some bottom sediment build up so dont go overboard. However, this year a film of slimy sludge has developed on the surface, blocking light to the plants at the bottom. I keep trying to remove it with a net but it returns minutes later and looks awful. There are also clumps of sludge floating about at all levels in the pond, not just the bottom. I am using barley straw but it isn’t working. This problem started early this year and has been gradually getting worse. What can I do to? It looks disgusting and I’m worried it’s a sign of unhealthy water that will harm the newts and other wildlife that use the pond. I’ve noticed I dont get so many birds bathing in it as I used to. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks, Susan
Sludge formation is a fairly common occurrence in wildlife ponds as more leaves and other detritus gradually build up. One of the simplest and most natural ways to help control it, since it keeps coming back after manual removal, is to utilize a beneficial bacteria product. This will colonize the pond with good bacteria that will help to break down the sludge and other organic matter, and over time should help re-balance things. I would recommend vacuuming and/or skimming as much of the floating sludge out as you can first. Once you do this, you might also consider incorporating some native floating plants and marginal plants (if you don’t already have them) to help further filter and oxygenate the water so that sludge is less likely to colonize again in the future. If you think it’s possible to do this without harming any of the existing wildlife or plants in the pond, you can try changing out some of the water before incorporating bacteria and adding in fresh water of the same temperature and similar pH (so as to not shock any fish or other wildlife in the water).
We have a couple of different articles on beneficial bacteria that you can view here: https://pondinformer.com/best-beneficial-bacteria-ponds/
And here: https://pondinformer.com/how-to-grow-pond-bacteria/
You may notice some added cloudiness in the water for the first week or two as the bacteria grow and spread – don’t worry, as this is natural and should calm down before too long!
Thanks Beckie, that’s really helpful. I don’t have fish but I do have frogs and newts so I do have to be a bit careful about what I use. If this solution is safe for them I’ll definitely give it a go. Thanks again.
Apologies for the delay in responding. Beneficial bacteria is absolutely safe for the frogs and newts, and I’m really glad that you’re concerned for their wellbeing!
I’m glad that I was able to help – please don’t hesitate to reach out with any other questions or concerns, and thanks for visiting the site 🙂
Hello – Thanks for a really interesting site – My question is : We are just buying a house with some land – At one end of the field is what I thought was a clump of rushes but when you look into the clump there is definitely a natural pond there about 12ft x 8 ft but totally overgrown. We are thrilled to have a wild pond and clearing it back would be a priority. can I ask though – How much is too much when clearing the vegetation ? I want to do as little damage to the eco system as possible – Thanks
Thanks for reading, and for the compliment! We’re glad that you’re enjoying the site!
Rushes are actually incredibly beneficial plants, and are top performers at naturally filtering water, preventing erosion, and providing food and habitat for a plethora of wildlife! We’re so happy that you want to maintain the natural state of the pond as much as possible!
Outside of this, I actually studied for and work seasonally as a restoration ecologist/technician so this is a rather exciting question for me! It sounds to me like if it has that many rushes, the pond is in the process of filling in and converting to a different ecosystem type. This is totally natural, and after a while most ponds gradually turn into savanna/grassland areas, and then into some form of forest. Sometimes they remain somewhat damp but largely filled in, and function as a shallow wetland. Removing around 50% of the rushes (or less, if you remove some and feel it’s opened things up enough, or, conversely, more if needed) should help reverse this process and open up the water for greater access by wildlife like waterfowl, some mammals, and fish. Try to allow the rushes to remain around the edges, or most of the edges, to provide shelter and habitat for fish, macroinvertebrates, and birds, and to help hold the pond shore in place. Ideally, at least 25% of the pond should have fairly thick aquatic vegetation so that proper nutrient cycling continues to occur. The best time to cut any emergent vegetation, like rushes, back is during winter when any invertebrates are dormant so the risk of harming/stressing them is minimized. You may also consider spreading this process out over the span of a couple of years, or at least a few seasons, particularly if you have to remove silt/sediment. If you’re removing silt/sediment, try to remove it from only half of the pond at a time, ideally earlier in autumn before frogs, newts, etc. have burrowed into the mud for the winter (I’m not sure where you’re located or your climate, so right now might still work), and remove silt from the other half next autumn, again to minimize any damage to invertebrates and herpetofauna like newts or turtles.
I know that was a fair amount of info, but I hope it helps! Let us know if you have any other questions!
Thank you for the advice you gave me back in October about using beneficial bacteria to clear the excessive slime that was developing in my pond. It worked a treat! My pond looks great now. Thanks.
Good to hear from you again! I’m so glad that the beneficial bacteria worked for you! And thank you so much for updating us – we love hearing back from readers.
Hi Beckie I have read your comments with interest. I hope you can give some advice on my issue.
I have a 2.3m x 2m wildlife pond with no pumps or filtration which was put in 5 years ago. It has attracted frogs and newts as well as dragon flies and has given a lot of pleasure. However I do get algae in the spring, the water is very murky (although quite clear now) and there is quite a lot of sludge at the bottom of the pond. Bits even last to the surface every now and then. My question is: after 5 years should I empty the pond as people have suggested (keeping as much water as I can) to clear the sludge away or just scoop out a few bucket loads every autumn/ winter? If you are suggest a full drain and clean, how much of the sludge and water would you suggest I keep? Many thanks for any advice you can give. Tim
Apologies for such a delayed reply!
Whichever approach that you take is really up to you and whether or not you have a specific timeline in mind! Scooping out a few buckets seasonally will help but could take years to get to the desired sludge level. Speaking of which, do you know how thick the sludge layer is, and the level that you’d prefer it to be at? Draining part of the pond and removing however much sludge you desire all in one go is faster, but it does have the potential to harm any newts, frogs, plants, etc. if you’re really set on doing this in the autumn/winter. I would suggest manually raking/shoveling out some of the sludge as-needed each year, but do make sure to do so before autumn, or by early autumn at the latest. After this, newts, turtles, and so on will have already settled into the mud layer to overwinter, and disturbing the muck would also disturb or potentially harm them, as well as any of their eggs and/or young that are also dormant in the sludge layer. I’d also suggest utilizing a beneficial bacteria supplement, as this is absolutely harmless and risk-free for any wildlife and plants in the pond, and will help to keep the sludge and water in a balanced, healthy state long-term.
It seems you are suggesting that it is just as good to remove sludge from time time rather than wholesale removal that has been suggested to me given the pond has been in 5 years.
There is plenty of water in the pond it is just that the water does get very cloudy in the spring/ early summer as well as green from algae. While there is quite a bit of organic matter at the bottom of the pond. I tend to combat this by putting in some Water Lettuce during the summer that helps clear the water.
The beneficial bacteria may be a good addition, although I see from the information that it will not help with dirty water from sediments or green water caused by algae. I am also a bit concerned that apparently it shouldn’t be added to a pond with low aeration (I don’t have a pump) and high waste as the bacteria will just die off and contribute to the sludge. Any more thoughts?
We have a large natural pond at the bottom of our garden over the past few years one of the high banks has collapsed into the pond taking mature oaks, beech etc with it.
We have no way to get the trees out and the water quality seems to be steadily deteriorating.
The pond is home to carp and tench, last week I found a large carp dead on the edge of the pond.
The pond has several houses backing on to it, most have built down to it cutting down mature trees in the process.
Last summer the pond dropped several feet, all the water lilies died off and the water turned sludge coloured.
This summer it looks under great stress, some fish remain as well as mallard and moorhens.
What can we do?
Sorry about such a late response!
Unfortunately, it sounds like this pond has been rather forced into succession (essentially filling in and turning into a different type of system). As you noted, one of the primary things that would help would be getting the trees out of there, as the constant nutrients being added by the leaves, bark, etc. breaking down in the water are likely creating a nutrient overload. Combine that with others living nearby cutting down the vegetation, and that means there isn’t as much vegetation (the mature trees) helping to pull excess nutrients out of the water and soil. If you could clear even just the leaves from the pond, and perhaps on the downed trees cut and remove any of the branches with leaves that are in or above the water where they can fall in, that would help remove some of the nutrient overload. You could try adding some beneficial bacteria to help break all of these things down naturally over time. Consider adding some submerged and marginal plants, depending on the depth of the pond, to also help with soaking up excess nutrients and oxygenating the water. We have a couple of guides on this:
I’m really enjoying your site and I’m hoping you can help.
I live in the South West of England and have a pond which was put in about 25 years ago. It is about 3 metres across and has plenty of wildlife and a bog area for natural drainage.
Unfortunately the bog plants have spread in all directions to a considerable degree and are wicking water from the pond. The water level has dropped drastically to reveal a very large amount of sludge and decaying spiny leaves from a neighbours holly bush. The pond was full to overflowing before the plants started growing this spring.
The pond is a main attraction in my garden, and I would like to remedy the situation before it gets any worse. What can I do and how can I minimise the effect on the of wildlife in the pond? How can I prevent the problem recurring next year? I do have a pump. Could it be used somehow to direct the sludgy water to some sort of large filter and back into the pond? I’m happy with quite a bit of sludge, but not rotting leaves.
I put in my small wildlife pond in june of this year. It is in the corner of my yard with mulch all around it. The area is planted with herbs, fruit, and berries. I was excited that frogs started appearing in the pond about three weeks later (soon after I added a variety of plants) I counted nine frogs at a time on several occasions. I use barley straw to keep the pond algae down and no filtration / aeration as it is a pond I had hoped to attract frogs and to have plants.
Everything was going nicely and one of the water lilies actually bloomed! Now I have a problem. I noticed about a week ago I wasn’t seeing as many frogs and today I discovered why. I went out on lunch break (Work from home) and saw a big fast garter snake attacking one of the large frogs. I was able to get the frog free, netted the snake, and tossed him over the fence (neighbor likes the snakes) I went back out later and saw the snake swimming and stalking the same frog. I was able to get the frog away from the snake and chased the snake away.
How do I repel snakes without repelling or harming the frogs? I know sulfur will repel snakes – but will it repel frogs too? I guess it would be good to use it and get the snake(s) away and hope the frogs return. I was really upset to see the snake especially munching on one of the frogs. I don’t want to hurt the snake since they are good to keep the rodent population down (no rodent problem this year but last year was bad)
Please advise what I can use to repel the snakes.