Your swimming pool should be more than just a hole in the ground. It should serve as an oasis, a lush retreat for relaxation and fun. Unfortunately, many backyard pools are a tough environment for plants for a variety of reasons. Here are some things to consider when choosing plants for your pool area.
Reflected light and heat.
Many pool decks have a concrete or “cool deck” surface around them. These materials are usually light colored and therefore are prime sunlight bouncers. Couple that with the enormous amount of light being reflected off of the pool’s water surface and you’ve got a ton of rays.
Splashing of chemically-treated water.
If you’ve owned a pool for any amount of time, you’ve probably discovered that most pool sweeping devices are less than perfect. They frequently get stuck in corners, on the steps, etc. And when that happens, sometimes they can make a mess – water gets splashed up in large amounts onto the deck and possibly onto surrounding plants and soil. Our pool sweeper also has a “tail” feature which never fails to shoot me with water whenever I’m near it. The tail often whips to the water surface and splashes the backyard plants. However, unless you put an inordinate amount of chlorine and other chemicals in your pool, the amount of damage caused by treated water splashing on your plants will be minimal. Same goes for salt water system pools. Excessive, continuous runoff will cause problems, though. If you see evidence of leaves looking “bleached” or just outright dying right around the pool area, it’s time to investigate.
Russian sage is one of my favorite landscape plants. It flowers for ages, is a favorite of bees, and is one of the few plants that can stand up to Texas summers with minimal care. But guess what? Unless you’re willing to clean your skimmer basket every day, Russian sage is a terrible plant to have hanging over your pool due to its constant shedding of blossoms. Ditto for trees that drop a lot of leaves.
As mentioned previously, I like Russian sage for its bee-attracting qualities. However, this isn’t always ideal around a pool, especially if you have young children, curious pets and/or swimmers who are allergic to stings. It’s not especially good for the bees either. I often find myself rescuing wayward honeybees from my pool, fishing them out carefully with a stick.
Avoid overly thorny or otherwise dangerous plants around your pool for the sake of everyone’s safety and well-being. Take my word for it, climbing back behind a Spanish bayonet yucca to retrieve an errant volleyball is no fun.
Okay, so it’s time to find suitable plants for this somewhat hostile backyard environment. As we’ve assessed, swimming pool landscaping requires plants that can take excessive light and heat and will tolerate chlorinated or salty water splashed on them. Ideally, we’d also choose plants that won’t shed or attract lots of insects.
The first group of plants that comes to mind is, of course, tropicals. Many of these plants live naturally by the salty ocean in bright sunlight on highly reflective sandy beaches. Think of tall, swaying palms. And yes, there are many palms that will grow in colder regions of the U.S. Here are a few:
Some of these can grow quite tall, so make sure you stay within the scale of your landscape.
Other tropicals? Cannas are wonderful: they come in all different colors, add a vertical accent to the landscape and shed their flowers in a fairly neat manner. Elephant ears are also fabulous. (If you live in a colder climate, you’ll need to dig up and replant the bulbs of both of these plants each year.)
There are also a few types of banana trees which need only be cut to the ground in the fall after the first freeze, then covered with a thick layer of mulch to encourage regrowth the following summer. Musa basjoois the hardy banana of choice.
Of course, just about any tropical plant can be grown in a container and placed poolside, if you’re willing to either haul them into the garage every winter or just let them perish when cold weather comes. Think plumeria, hibiscus or bottlebrush.
The advantage to container plants is, of course, that you can move them around. If you’re saddled with ugly and/or loud pool equipment, a few well-placed large pots filled with tall tropicals can serve as a terrific screen or noise reducer.
But let’s face it: not everyone likes tropical plants, and not everyone wants to mess with moving big containers around. So let’s explore a few other plant options.
Ornamental grasses are among my favorite poolside perennials. They are extremely low maintenance, very tidy, and their arching, swaying motion is extremely attractive and relaxing. There are many sizes and types to choose from, as well. Unless you have a huge backyard, stay away from the larger clumps, like traditional pampas grass. Stick with varieties of Miscanthus like Zebra Grass or variegated Maiden Grass which will stay under 6 feet tall.
Small-scale ornamental grasses are wonderful too: dwarf Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina var. glauca) is a beautiful, small, rounded mound of needle-like, silver-gray foliage, while ‘Little Bunny’ fountain grass (Pennisetum) remains around 1 to 2 feet across and produces cottontail-like tufts in the fall. Other small grass varieties make excellent groundcover: liriope (or its cousin, the narrower-leafed monkey grass) is extremely low maintenance once established and isn’t bothered in the least by splashed pool water or high heat levels.
Why not plant some herbs around the pool? They are notoriously tough plants requiring only average soil, good drainage and occasional trimming. Try perennial herbs that don’t flower very often but are still fragrant when brushed against, such as rosemary, thyme, and artemisia. How about a big container spilling over with spearmint? (Promise me you won’t plant mint in the ground, unless you want it everywhere in a year or so.) Remember to always thoroughly wash your poolside culinary herbs before using them in the kitchen.
There are thousands of perennial and annual plants that will dress up your pool area without causing or requiring much fuss. As the years go by, I have actually been leaning toward annuals in my backyard, so I can change things up each year to complement my many potted tropicals. The new sun-loving coleus varieties are a great choice, for instance.
The perennials that do adorn my backyard are there for a reason: they are all noted for their toughness. Coneflower, salvia, agastache, lamb’s ear, yarrow…the list goes on. Alternating different leaf shapes, textures and colors creates an even more pleasing effect.
One thing about poolside gardening is for certain: you will spend a lot of time surveying your work as you lounge on the deck or swim in the pool, so make sure the landscaping choices you make will meet your needs and enhance your private backyard oasis.
The photos shown are from my backyard
About Tamara Galbraith
I am an avid organic gardener and certified Master Gardener for Collin County, Texas (that's North Dallas). However, I don't take being an MG too seriously, as I still manage to kill plants on a regular basis.
I enjoy growing nearly everything: vegetables, herbs, tropicals, roses...the only plants I'm really bad with are orchids and houseplants. I am also a fierce defender of spiders.
When not gardening I can be found cooking, birdwatching or hugging on either my sweet English hubby or my two wonderful doggies, Ray and Bailey.