Waterlilies, hardy or tropical, can lend a touch of magic to ponds


Hardy waterlily Georgia Peach. (Adrian Higgins/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist June 29, 2011

If I bought a house that happened to have a swimming pool — not my favorite landscape element — I would hope that the feature would be geometric, at least. If it instead were kidney-shaped, I would fill it in with loads of sand and peat moss and turn it into a garden of the prettiest swamp flora, full of pitcher plants and Japanese and Louisiana irises.

If the pool were a much preferred circle, square or rectangle, I would make it uniformly 22 inches deep, grow lots of aquatic plants in containers, throw in a few small koi and spend the years watching them grow.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

I have no intention of doing this, by the way, because I already have a pond. My garden would seem lifeless without it, however, I would offer this general advice about decorative ponds, besides the shape. Make them bigger than you think you need. Small ponds are harder to keep clean and algae-free, and the water temperature fluctuates too much for the good of flora, fauna and owner. Another hard-earned lesson: Set it up so that the pump and the filtration box sit out of the water. This will reduce maintenance further and keep you out of the pond.

No ornamental pond is complete without waterliles. Part of the magic of a waterlily is that its flower inhabits two realms. It is born in the submerged crown and journeys upward to the dry world, where it opens to the delight of the aerial circus of pollinators and to the thrill of the gardener looking for beauty in the heat of summer. Some blooms have centers thick with nectar, like jam tarts, and some are cloyingly fragrant.

I used to grow hardy lilies, in standard shades of pink, yellow and white. After a while, I found them a bit ho-hum, but only because I was not discerning enough in my choices. There are some stunningly handsome hardy lily varieties out there in rich hues and color blends, with broad petals and large flowers. They have a lot of presence.

A variety named Joey Tomocik has a showy flower, borne a few inches above the waterline, with lots of petals that are brilliant and yellow.

Georgia Peach would also be welcomed in my pond, daintier than Joey with pink-peach petals that become increasingly suffused with yellow toward the center. Cynthia Ann provides the same show, with a bit more heft all around.

If you’re looking for the pinnacle of hardy lilies, visit the lily pond court at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. The gardeners there grow the most sublime varieties.

The rub for me is that I have room only for three lilies, max, in a pond that is a generous 170 square feet in area but already stuffed with other aquatics. Hardy lilies tend to stop flowering by midsummer, but tender tropical lilies bloom repeatedly into the fall. The flowers are perhaps not as well formed as the hardies, but they are borne aloft and in intense colors. And they keep coming.

Tropicals also have more interesting leaves; some have eye-catching green and plum-colored variegation. Each plant tends to spread more than a hardy lily, something to consider if you’re growing one in a lined whiskey barrel or some other large container. A small spreading hardy variety might be better in that setup (along with mosquito pellets).

The downside to tropicals is that unless you are into digging and storing tubers in a fish aquarium over the winter, you lose them to the cold. I’m more focused on planting bulbs and ordering vegetable seeds at that time of year.

Earlier this month, I stopped by Lilypons Water Gardens in Adamstown, Md., for my annual splurge. The display ponds are in unremitting sunlight (ponds belong in sunny gardens) on a day that reached 100 degrees. At least you don’t have to worry about watering these annuals.

I returned brain-baked but triumphant with my aquatic trio. Panama Pacific has flowers on the small side but held high and of a vibrant violet purple.

Madame Ganna Walska was not chosen for its name but its delicate violet petals, yellow centers and sweet, candylike fragrance. The leaves are seriously variegated.

William McLane, sounding so ordinary next to Ganna, makes up for that with blooms that are just an electric indigo color.

If you buy lilies bare root and pot them up yourself, you save a few dollars. I paid around $90 for the lot.

At home, in my fetching waders, I hauled out last year’s still-submerged pots, discarded the dead tubers, and set the new ones (in full growth) into the hole made with my hands. Lilies go in clay mud, not fancy potting soil, with a couple of fertilizer tablets and a good mulch of stones. I had blooms the very next day, viewed from the air-conditioned comfort of the kitchen.

The only upkeep is to get into the pond now and again to remove spent blooms and aged leaves. I keep an old pair of hand pruners just for pond work.

When I started doing this, I mulched the tubs with pea gravel. The pebbles, mysteriously, migrated to the floor of the pond. Then I saw one of the larger koi suck in a piece of gravel, swim backward and spit it out. The creature did this repeatedly. Was it looking for food, or building a nest, or simply bored? It can’t be easy being a big fish in a small pond.

The lilies, now mulched with heavy stones, will brighten the weeks ahead and lend an agreeably exotic air to those few weeks in Washington when we trade the temperate world for the steamy jungle.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for more gardening advice.

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