Make a backyard oasis
  Water gardens can be big or small and include many different plants

June 9, 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener

There are few things more tranquil and soothing than having a water garden with beautiful, exotic blooms floating on the water. A water garden can be as elaborate as a large pond with spills, streams and waterfalls or as simple as a watering trough, wooden half-barrel or large terra-cotta planter. Even an old bathtub or cast-iron kettle will do. If using terracotta or a wood barrel, be sure to line it with a flexible pond liner, which can be found at the pond supply section of a nursery or water gardening source.

When planning the location of your water garden take into consideration sun exposure. Most water plants require at least six hours of sunlight. It is also advisable to place your water feature as far away from trees as possible to avoid leaves in your water, creating more maintenance.

When a water feature is added to a garden, plant possibilities multiply greatly, from strikingly diverse lilies and symbolically rich lotuses to tall grasses and bog plants. Ideally, floating leafed plants should cover 75 percent of the surface area of the water. This limits the amount of light reaching the depths of the pond holding algae growth to a minimum. Thus, lotus (nelumbo) that hold their leaves above the surface of the water do not contribute to this maintenance tool and are considered bog or marginal plants.

Water lilies (nymphaea) are probably the most popular of water plants infusing a sense of grace and tranquility to any garden setting. They are available in two varieties, hardy and tropical. Both varieties require 6 to 18 inches of water. There are dwarf varieties for smaller container water gardens.

Hardy lilies boast gloriously colored blossoms of red, pink, white, peach and yellow. There also is a color called "changeables" that traverses the color wheel from tinges of yellow to red. Each blossom lasts three to four days, greeting you in mid-morning and closing in mid to late afternoon. Hardy lilies begin blooming in mid to late spring and continue to the first frost. They ask little for the return of their gift of beauty, just warm sunlight, still water and regular fertilization.

Tropical lilies come in all the colors of hardy lilies plus purples and blues. They bloom throughout the summer and flower twice as much as hardy lilies. The first buds appear in late spring, opening for 3-4 days each, and continue until repeated frost. There are also night bloomers in the tropical variety. With one-day bloomer and one night bloomer, you will have blooms both beneath the sun and under the moon.

Tropical water lilies make a statement. They give more blooms, more fragrance and more petals than other lilies. If you are looking for vibrant, spectacular blooms in the most beautiful array of colors, tropicals are for you.

Hardy lilies are considered the easiest to grow and are more cold-tolerant than tropical varieties; however, in this part of South Texas this is usually not a problem as it rarely gets cold enough long enough to affect your dormant lily on the bottom of your pond. Most of the time your tropical lily will come forth in spring right along with your hardy lily.

Tropical lilies are distinguishable from hardy lilies by their frilly or irregular leaf edge. Hardy lilies have a very smooth edge to their leaves. Some tropical lilies produce small new plants in the center of a mature leaf that can be used for propagation. Hardy lilies grow from rhizomes and tropical cultivars grow from tubers.

If you purchase water lilies from a water garden center, you will more than likely get them already potted and ready to be placed in the pond. If you purchase from another source or from mail order they will likely be bare root. Either way, come spring and they will need to be repotted. Water lily pots are made of plastic and have no holes. If you use plastic baskets you will need to line them with a flexible liner. Use top soil or preferably heavy clay loam. Do not use potting soil. Fill the pot 1/3 full with soil and use a granulated aquatic fertilizer or aquatic fertilizer tablets according to dosage rate. Fill another 1/3 full and plant your lily.

Hardy lilies have long rhizomes (a modified stem that acts as a root) that should be planted at a 45-degree angle with the butt or old end of the rhizome near the side of the pot. The crown or growing tip should be just at the surface of the soil. Tropical lilies are planted by making a cone of soil in the center of the pot and arranging the roots around the cone. Pound the soil firmly down with your fist. Cover the soil with 1 to 2 inches of pea gravel. This prevents soil lose and keeps fish from rooting around in the soil. Water before placing the plant in the pond.

Fertilize lilies every two weeks when temperatures reach 80 degrees and higher, using aquatic fertilizer tablets and pushing them deep into the soil and covering them up. If the fertilizer gets into the pond water, it encourages algae growth. Prune decaying leaves and spent blossoms every few days. As fall approaches there will be fewer water lily leaves produced, so prune as needed and cut back foliage killed by frost. As winter approaches move water lilies to a deeper section of pond if possible.

Bog plants usually require up to 6 inches of water. Bog plants can be placed on a shelf around the edge of a pond or on bricks to raise them up. Partitioning off an area of the pond using a stone or a brick dam can create a bog area. This area can then be filled with heavy soil or gravel and planted. One of the smaller containers mentioned at the beginning of this article can be used for a bog garden using a variety of bog plants such as Chinese water chestnut (eleocharis), horsetails (equisetum), water poppy (hydrocleys nymphoides), arrowhead (syngonium) or several varieties of iris, just to name a few. Do not be afraid to experiment.

There are underwater plants, floating plants and pond fringe area plants, too numerous to cover in one article. Many can be added to make an interesting and gorgeous water feature in your landscape. Be cautious and responsible, though, so as not to add or accidentally release any of these plants to our public streams, rivers and lakes as they could become uncontrollable pests.

For a look at a blooming water garden, there is a pond filled with beautiful water lilies and other water features at the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) located at the airport between the Officer's Club and the 4-H Activity Center. The pond, with its floral water fountain supplied from a run-off water system, was designed and is maintained by Victoria County Master Gardeners. The gardens are open for the public's enjoyment any time.