Whenever I think about ponds or water gardens, I picture water lilies. Most varieties of water lilies (Nymphaea) are fast growers that need a "real" pond. But dwarf varieties do exist. To grow them, all you need is a sunny spot big enough for a water garden container.
I started browsing through descriptions and photos, trying to narrow down my choice. I was looking for a tropical water lily with a suggested container size of "7.5 qts or larger." My friend Karen told me to look for varieties with "viviparous" in their description, because they were easy to propagate from leaf cuttings. If we could get plantlets from our lilies, we could overwinter them in water glasses on our windowsills!
You may have to seek out a nursery specializing in lilies or pond plants to find the right lily for your water garden. I'm lucky enough to live near Lilipons, a large and well-stocked retail pond store. Although I might have been able to find the same plants more cheaply online, this time I wasn't bargain hunting. I wanted a big, beautiful, sturdy plant, and that's just what I got for my $$.
In the end, I couldn't choose just one. I picked out a pink one with lovely bronze-mottled leaves ('Madame Ganna Walska') and a purple one ('Panama Pacific'). Fortunately, I had a pair of large purple pots with no drainage holes that would be ideal homes for my jewel-toned treasures. Better yet, I'd bought the pots during an end-of-season sale for next to nothing, so I could further justify splurging on two lovely lilies!
I chose to get my water lilies professionally potted, because I didn't want to make a mistake with my new beauties. As I read up on them and talked to other water garden enthusiasts, I learned some surprising things. With most plants, the roots want as much depth to the container as they can get. But with water lilies, a broad and relatively shallow pot is the best container. The planting pot doesn't have to be pretty, since it will be submerged. If you don't have one that's wide and short, you can take a large nursery pot and cut it down.
Don't use potting soil or good garden soil when potting up water lilies. Rich, loose soil would just float right out of the pot and make a mucky mess. Instead, you want to use clay. You can dig a hunk of "pure" clay from the lower depths of your garden, if your soil is like mine. Or you can use cheap clay kitty litter, which packs down nicely when wet. For nutrition, special fertilizer tablets can be added to the pot. An inch of gravel on top of the clay will help anchor the lily in its pot.
The saleswoman I talked to at Lilypons told me that even the dwarf water lilies would like 8 to 12 inches of water over the top of their pots. Since the lily pot will be at least 8 inches tall, you'll need a fairly large water garden pot -- probably between 18 and 22 inches in diameter -- to have enough water depth. There were a few hot weeks during the summer when the water level in my containers dropped to more like 6 inches above the pot though, and my lilies still thrived. So you could possibly get by with a less deep container, but it's probably easier to grow them well in a bigger container.
I've also heard that de-chlorinated water is best for water lilies. Depending on your water source, you may prefer to let water stand overnight before use, use filtered water, or add de-chlorinating water conditioning drops (found in any aquarium supply store, including the pet section of your local big box store). When the pots just needed topping up by an inch or two, though, I just used my garden hose and didn't worry about it.
What about propagation? If you look closely at the leaf on a viviparous lily, you'll see a small bump at the end of the notch where the leaf meets the stem. As the leaf ages (or if you cut the stem and remove the leaf from the plant), this bump can sprout leaves and roots, developing into a tiny clone of the original plant. When it gets large enough, the baby plant can be potted up. In time, it will mature into a blooming-sized plant!
I have four plantlets growing now on my windowsill. I discovered that open dishes were drying up too quickly, so now I have them in a covered container, with just a couple inches of water. At the (slow) rate they're growing, I don't think they'll need to be potted up until early spring. Just like the mature plants, the baby water lilies will need to stay submerged while they grow. Once they've been moved to pots, I'll use a large plastic storage bin as a temporary growing tank for them. I'll put a couple into my water garden containers next summer, and I'll share the rest with friends.
I was initially planning to do as my friend Karen did, overwintering new plants on my windowsill rather than trying to lug the mother plants inside. But I procrastinated and barely had a couple of tiny plantlets started before frost. I decided to hedge my bet and bring my original plants inside also. My patient DH reached down into my chilly water garden containers and carried the heavy, waterlogged planting pots into the basement.
We emptied the water out of my big purple containers, carried them downstairs, and refilled them with fresh filtered water. The water lilies were so grateful to be saved from freezing that they both immediately bloomed, down there in the semi-dark. I am going to hang a couple of fluorescent shop lights over them and hope that will keep them going.
By continuing to take leaves from the original plants, I'm hoping to get a lot of little plants going this winter. I'm not sure if the basement plants are backups for the windowsill plantlets or vice versa. Either way, I'm looking forward to another summer of beautiful blooms!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for more information (let the cursor hover for a couple of seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear).
For additional information and inspiration, check out DG's Water Gardens discussion forum.