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Water Gardening


So, you have filled all of your flowerbeds, pruned and manicured your trees and shrubs beautifully, and have more beans and corn and tomatoes and berries than you can give away.  What’s next?  If you are itching for a new and rewarding gardening project, you should get out your shovel and try your hand at water gardening.

Once you’ve installed your pond or water feature, there are so many exotic and stunning plants and flowers you will be able to introduce to your landscape—water lilies are really just the tip of the iceberg.  With the addition of rocks, logs, and decorative fountains and accessories, your water garden will become the jewel of your landscape, attracting new garden residents and providing you will a relaxing place to read or rest all spring and summer long. 

A Note on Invasive Species

Though all of the plants discussed in this article are beautiful, please be aware that some of them are extremely invasive under the right conditions.  Before planting anything in your water garden, we recommend that you do some research to find out what is invasive or possibly banned in your area.  Take note of any natural water sources in your vicinity, as well as your neighbors’ ponds—what you plant in your water garden may affect them later (for example, cattail seeds spread in the wind).  Plant potentially invasive plants in containers to limit root spread, and do not put them in or around natural water. 

Lilies and Lotuses

Water lilies and lotuses are beloved the world over for their beauty, and have served as spiritual and mythological symbols to cultures all over the world.  They are found in ancient Egyptian tombs, Native American legend, and have been depicted in Buddhist and Hindu art for centuries.  Famous French Impressionist Claude Monet was so moved by the water lilies on his own property that he produced over two hundred paintings of them!

There is some confusion in art, myth, and with new aquatic gardeners with the water lily and the lotus.  These are, in fact, two completely different plants, although their blooms look similar.  The water lily comes from the family Nymphaeaceae, while the lotus from Nelumbonaceae.  They can be identified pretty easily despite their similarities.  The water lily’s leaves and flowers float on the water, and the lotus flower stands tall out of the water along with its leaves.  The lotus also has a unique seedpod that is commonly found dried in floral arrangements. 

Water lilies have both hardy and tropical varieties, making them suitable for a wide range of growing zones.  They can also be found in varying sizes to accommodate those with large or small ponds.  Lotuses are hardy between zones five to ten.

Flowering Plants

In your excitement to plant water lilies or lotus, you might miss all of the other flowers you could be growing in your pond.  Did you know that you can grow iris in your new water garden?  Hibiscus?  Canna?  Hyacinths?  Well, these aren’t the same as the ones you would grow in the ground, but their water versions look very much like them if you are already a fan.  There are many types and colors of flowering pond plants suitable for different zones and pond sizes.

Bogbean is what would be considered a marginal plant, or a plant that thrives in shallow water or wet soil.  Marginal plants are planted and submerged partially in the water, typically on ledges in the pond.  Bogbean produces a beautiful stalk of white, feathery flowers that, when kept properly contained, will be a joy in your pond.  It is an herbal remedy for arthritis and stomachaches, too.

Aquatic jenny is a creeping flowering plant with bright green foliage and sunny yellow flowers.  It is stunning in smaller patio or container ponds because of its ability to cascade over the rim of the container, and excellent for placing around fountains or waterfalls in a larger pond since it with float and crawl around rocks. 

Bog lilies have long narrow petals like their friends in the dirt, but they are extreme shaped, probably earning them the name string lily.  Leaves are long and narrow, flowers grow on long, thick stalks, and the flower petals are skinny and curl back like strings.  Bog lilies can be very fragrant, despite also being referred to as swamp lilies, and flowers are white to pinkish white.

Water Garden Foliage

To provide contrast with the bright colors of your water flowers, you might want to add some foliage.  These plants may not flower, but their leaves will add texture and interest to your water garden.  From tall stalks to creeping vines to floating leaves, these plants can bring drama, color, and texture to your pond.

Taking a trip to the local park or pond will probably mean seeing a ton of cattails.  With their super recognizable brown hotdog-on-a-skewer catkins, cattails are a pond staple in most of our minds.  Varieties of cattail can be found all over the world, and our native cattails have been used for weaving, food, and salves to treat burns and cuts. 

Red water dock has several names, including bloody dock, bloody sorrel, and red veined sorrel.  It features bright green leaves accented by striking dark red veins, similar to red chard.  Bloody dock is an edible, and many people find that its young leaves make an excellent salad.  It has also been used medicinally to treat blood and skin problems. 

There are many plants in the rush family.  Rushes stand tall out of the water and make excellent additions to ponds on planting ledges.  Corkscrew rush is particularly interesting due to the shape of its long stems.  Instead of standing up straight, corkscrew rush stems spiral out like stretched springs.   When cut, the stems can add unique flair to a flower arrangement.

Planting Basics and Care

With the introduction of water, planting in a pond is a little different from planting in the soil, but if you’re already an experienced gardener, you won’t find it all that difficult.  Like any other plant, water garden plants will require a certain amount of sunlight, fertilization, moisture, and maintenance—just make sure that when you work on these plants, you wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet.

Marginal and emergent plants like lilies, lotuses, rushes, irises, and any other plant that sticks up out of the water will need to be planted in containers in soil.  The size of the container will vary depending on the plant and the size of your water garden, so pay particular attention to what your planting instructions tell you about finding an appropriate container.  For the most part, you should use a heavy soil of clay or loam in your container.  These soils will retain nutrients better than garden soils and won’t erode as quickly.  Don’t use garden or potting soils in your water garden.  When placing your plant in the soil, read your planting instructions carefully to be sure that you are doing so properly.  For example, tropical water lilies will grow straight up from the center of a container, but hardy water lilies will grow across it, so they need to be placed on a side of the container pointing forty-five degrees toward the center.  Review the plant’s moisture and light requirements, and place the container in the pond at the correct depth.  Water lilies and lotuses are deep water pond plants, and should be placed at a depth of around a foot, and marginal and bog plants like bogbean, bloody dock, and rushes should be placed on ledges in the pond such that the water can flow into the top of the container to keep the soil moist.  Putting gravel on the top of the soil will help keep soil from eroding into the water.

Floating plants sit on the surface of the water, growing and reproducing as all of the other pond plants do, but without anchoring into soil of any kind. Water lettuce, water hyacinth, parrot’s feather are all floating plants that will spread quickly and provide protection and shade for residents in the pond (unless those residents decide to start eating them).  Floating plants don’t require soil, and will take what they need directly from the water.  This will eliminate nutrients that can cause algae.  Planting these really couldn’t be easier—pick up the plant, place it on the surface of your pond, and then let go of it.  You’re done! 

Submerged plants prefer to grow completely underwater, and will keep all of their foliage beneath the surface of your pond.  While you might not be able to see them so well, adding submerged plants to your water garden could help keep your pond healthy.  Submerged plants are excellent oxygen producers, and will help you control nutrients in the water that might encourage algae growth.  This is particularly important should you have fish in the garden.  These plants may need to be rooted in soil, a mixture of soil and gravel, or just gravel—the important part of this material is that it provides an anchor for the plant.  It may be possible for you to put a weight on the plant.  You can purchase anchors for submerged plants, or fashion anchors of your own, and twist them around the plant stems to keep them underwater. 

Just as you would with your garden plants, you will need to maintain your aquatic plants with trimming and fertilizer.  Remove dead growth and repot or trim your plants as necessary to keep them healthy and under control.  Fertilizing your water garden is absolutely essential for your container plants.  You should use a fertilizer that is slow-released and specifically addresses the needs of water plants.  Fertilize them through the spring and summer months, and stop feeding them when they begin to die back in the fall.


Overwintering water plants can get a little complicated.  Some plants will be perfectly fine when left outside for the winter, and others should be taken inside if you want to keep them for the following year.  If you don’t have the space to overwinter plants indoors, you should plant hardy water plants in your pond.  Hardy plants will only need to be trimmed back to just above the soil and placed at the deepest point in your pond to help protect them when the weather gets harsh.  Submerged plants, already being at the bottom of your pond, can be left to overwinter, also.  When it comes to tropical or non-hardy water plants, you will need to bring them inside in an area where they can get light.  Bog and marginal plants can be placed in a bucket or pot with water, and don’t necessarily need to be soaked with water so long as the soil is kept very moist.  Tropical lilies don’t need to be completely submerged as they were in the pond, but the soil has to be underwater.  Place the plant in a very large container or aquarium filled with enough water that the soil is covered.  Allow tropical lilies to go dormant in a cool area in the house. Floating plants are best thrown out and replaced in the spring.

At MasterGardening.com, we offer a variety of tools for you to take care of your new water garden.  We invite you to take a look at our collection of water lilies, pond liners, pond pumps, water treatments, and filters to help you get started.