September 28, 2011

Growing Standard Water Lilies Successfully

'Red Flare'
a tropical night bloomer

 Water gardening has become very popular in many areas, and justly so; the availability of great aquatic plants has never been better. Years ago, water lilies were the domain of large gardens and large ponds. The availability of plants at retail garden centers was poor at best. In recent years, the production of water plants has increased, but the quality of plants at retail centers is still less than it could be. I wonder if the supply:demand curve may have something to do with the lack of education on the customer's side of economics. I believe the true reason is more subtle: people don't want to get wet ! Locally, people feel that water gardens are high-maintenance mosquito attractors. The mosquito problem can be solved easily and economically by adding a few surface-feeding fish like guppies, gouramis, paradise fish or mosquito fish.  There are wonderful ways to have a great water garden in a small space, but homeowners need to be educated on a few details.   

'Star of Zanzibar'
gorgeous flowers and beautiful foliage
 As with so many facets of gardening, research and education are key to success. There are lots of on-line, local water gardener, and university resources to use to find out which plants will grow well in your climate. All waterlilies are in the genus Nymphaea. Some of the hardy lilies need a cold rest to grow well, whereas some of the tropical types won't tolerate much cold at all. There are giant and miniature types in each group, and even some which will grow in a small water tub. Growing water lilies is actually pretty easy, but many people fail in the care of the pond and environment around the lily. The crown of the lily should be no more than 12 inches below the surface of the water, preferably 6 inches underwater. The lily pot should be big enough to allow for a year's growth, and some lilies can get BIG, well over 10 feet across. This means a serious tub of soil for the plant, not a 4 inch pot. Many large public gardens have lilies planted in shallow tubs as much as 6 feet across to allow the plants enough room to grow to maturity.     

professional water plant grower at
Missouri Botanical Garden
Australian species N. gigantea
 Small water tubs and ponds change water temperature very quickly. Large ponds change water temperature very slowly, which can be bad news when cold weather comes; the ponds will heat up very slowly. Solar-powered aerators can be a big boon in keeping water circulated throughout the pond. Potting soil can be used in a waterlily pot, but many growers prefer calcined clay mixtures, which look like clay-colored coffee grounds. These clay materials allow roots to penetrate the medium while still allowing oxygen into the root system. Fertilize your plants with slow-release fertilizer such as Dynamite or Pond Tabs 2 or 3 times in the growing season. Press the fertilizer into the mix near the stems and cover up the fertilizer with soil. Once exposed to abundant sunshine and in proper soil with fertilizer, water lilies can grow amazingly fast. The biggest problem people run into is that the water quickly turns green. This usually a short-term algae bloom, and will subside as the lily pads grow to cover the water surface. Water lilies thrive in sunshine, algae cannot grow in shade. As the leaves cover the water, the algae disappears.     

the very dwarf 'Helvola' hardy lily

the very giant 'Missouri' tropical lily,
with 10 inch blooms
with a plant easily growing to 12 feet across !

potting a waterlily
courtesy of GAP Photos

Try a few water lilies in an above-ground water pond to see if your conditions and your skills favor growing these aquatic beauties. A little success can go a long way to bolster your confidence. There is something magical about having a small water pond with fish in it, water lilies and other aquatic plants growing happily, and wildlife using the pond as an oasis.  

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


excellent for aquatic plants

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