Understanding and Managing Pond Algae: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding and Managing Pond Algae: A Comprehensive Guide

When pondkeepers talk about algae, their tone is usually negative. We all admire aquatic plants, yet algae are often viewed as an unwelcome, almost alien form of pond life. However, the reality is that algae are simply tiny aquatic plants.

Algae thrive under the same conditions and need the same nutrients as the beautiful plants we prefer to see in our ponds. In healthy natural ponds, where the water seems clear, finding visible algae can be challenging. This observation leads us to wonder why our backyard ponds can’t be just as clear. 

The secret to having a clear ornamental fish pond or water garden lies in understanding the biology of algae. 


Key Differences Between Aquatic Plants and Algae

Aquatic plants and algae, while both essential to pond ecosystems, have some distinct differences. 

aquatic plants in a pond, water lillies

Plants such as water lilies anchor themselves with roots that spread in the soil, absorbing nutrients. These rooted plants boast leaves, and stems and often produce beautiful blooms. Floating plants such as water hyacinths also have roots, stems, and leaves.

However, unlike rooted plants, they float freely on the water’s surface and occasionally display stunning flowers. Rooted and floated plants use chlorophyll in their leaves to capture sunlight and produce energy through photosynthesis. 

Algae in a pond

Algae, in contrast, do not have roots, stems, and leaves typical of other aquatic plants. That said, they still require similar nutrients and sunlight. In essence, algae are simpler, smaller aquatic plants. 


Is Algae in Ponds a Problem or an Essential Element?

Most of us would prefer our ponds to have crystal-clear water without stringy green algae. In reality, even the clearest, most well-maintained ornamental ponds contain millions of tiny algae cells! These cells float in the water and coat pond liners and rock surfaces. 

Algae usually only become a nuisance when they undergo explosive growth. It is the excessive algae growth, rather than the algae themselves, that is typically the root of the problem. While many pondkeepers wish for an “algae-free” pond, completely eliminating algae is neither feasible nor desirable. Here is why!


The Vital Role of Algae in Pond Ecosystems

Algae play an important role in keeping the ecosystem healthy in both nature and in our backyard ponds. 

Oxygen Production

Through the process of photosynthesis, algae absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the water, which then diffuses into the atmosphere. Remarkably, algae are responsible for producing the majority of the oxygen we breathe! Algae also supply oxygen to aquatic creatures such as koi, goldfish, and the microbes that decompose fish waste and other pollutants in the pond. 

Water Purification 

Algae play an important role in water purification by absorbing excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These small aquatic plants even help remove heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, showcasing their purifying capabilities. 

Aquatic Food Webs 

Algae serves as a foundational element in aquatic food webs - they nourish small invertebrates, which are then consumed by larger creatures, including fish. 

When you observe pond fish grazing on the pond liner, rocks, and plants, they are likely eating these microorganisms. Some of these small invertebrates help regulate the algae population, maintaining a natural balance between predator and prey. 

Water Quality Indicators 

Algae can also indicate water quality. Specifically, uncontrolled algae blooms often signal an excess of one or more nutrients like phosphorus or nitrogen. The appearance of green water or stringy algae suggests that aquatic plants are not adequately removing these nutrients, allowing algae to thrive. 

It is normal to see a temporary increase in algae during spring when cooler water slows plant growth, and similarly, in autumn when plant growth diminishes. These seasonal blooms are part of the natural cycle of a pond, reflecting the change in the environment. 

 

algae in a pond

The Seasonal Algae Growth Cycle

We have established that algae will always be part of your pond’s ecosystem. 

If you observe closely, you will notice that algae growth follows a seasonal pattern. In spring, as aquatic plants have yet to start their growth, algae, which have been dormant throughout winter, begin to grow on the pond liner and rocks. The combination of longer days, warmer water, and the accumulation of nutrients will stimulate algae to become active. 

When this happens, you may notice:

  • Algae forming a green or brownish layer on the surface of the water
  • filamentous algae (green, stringy growth) floating around, or
  • The water itself appears with a green tint. 

However, this situation is temporary and resolves naturally as the pond plants begin to flourish, consuming nutrients from the water and thus limiting algae’s food source. 

During their vigorous growth, water lilies and other leafy aquatic plants compete with algae for essential nutrients like iron, nitrogen, and phosphorus. This competition for nutrients keeps algae growth under control. 

As summer fades, the shorter days lead to reduced plant growth. This may in turn result in an algae bloom due to the increased availability of nutrients in the pond water. This is again, a normal, natural cycle and is not a cause for alarm. 


Effective Strategies for Managing Algae in Ponds

Ideally, your pond should not have long-term algae problems. Sometimes, pondkeepers might overreact to an algae bloom by draining and refilling the pond, installing a larger filter, or using algacides. While these methods can be appropriate in certain situations, it is generally better to start with natural ways to control algae. Here are the most common algae problems in backyard ponds and their solutions. 

 

Over-feeding Pond Fish

It is a common sight: goldfish and koi appearing hungry and begging for more food. However, over-feeding is unhealthy for the fish themselves and also leads to unnecessary buildup of nutrients in the pond, which in turn fuels algae growth. 

Solutions

  • Establish a regular feeding schedule so that the fish are not fed more than what they can consume. 
  • Consider using an automatic fish feeder to regulate the amount of food dispensed. 
  • Use high-quality fish food to provide proper nutrition without excessive waste.

 

Too Many Fish in the Pond

Over-stocking the pond with fish can unbalance the ecosystem, tilting it in favor of algae growth. More fish mean more feeding, and consequently, more nutrients in the water than your plants can handle. This excess in nutrients can, again, stimulate algae growth. 

Solutions

  • If your pond is overpopulated, consider rehoming some fish to a suitable environment. 
  • Alternatively, upgrade to a larger pond that can accommodate the number of fish. 
  • When adding new fish, always ensure the pond size and filtration system can support the additional bioload.

too much fish in a pond and no plant coverage

Not Enough Plant Coverage

Aquatic plants are essential for removing excess nutrients from the pond water. Too few plants means these nutrients are not adequately controlled and can lead to excessive algae growth. 

Solutions: 

  • Introduce a variety of aquatic plants to cover approximately 70% of your pond’s surface. 
  • Include a mix of submerged (oxygenating plants), floating and marginal plants. This diversity provides shade, nutrients absorption and creates a more balanced pond environment. 
  • Regularly maintain and trim the plants to keep them healthy. 

Read more about how to maintain a balanced pond ecosystem here

 

Key Points: Understanding and Managing Algae in Pond Ecosystems

Here are the key points to remember about algae in ponds: 

  • Algae are tiny aquatic plants that require the same conditions and nutrients as other desirable aquatic plants in your pond.
  • Completely removing algae from your pond is not possible, nor is it beneficial. Algae play a crucial role in the pond’s ecosystem. 
  • Algae contribute significantly to oxygen production and water purification. They support aquatic food webs and are indicators of water quality. 
  • Algae naturally experience growth spurts, especially in spring and fall, due to changes in environmental conditions and nutrient availability. This is not a cause for concern. 
  • Excessive algae often result from over-feeding fish, having too many fish, or not having enough aquatic plants to control nutrient buildup. 
  • To control algae growth naturally, pondkeepers should ensure proper fish-feeding practices, maintain a balanced fish population, and grow a sufficient number of aquatic plants to regulate nutrients.
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