Maybe you’ve had this experience: you are having a lovely picnic at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. Or, you are visiting one of the world-class botanic gardens around the country or the world. You stop by the pond to admire the lovely water lilies, the turtles that have crawled out to sun themselves on the shore, and the colorful koi moving in lazy patterns underwater. It all seems far away and idyllic, but what would it be like to get closer?
One way to do that (short of wading in and upsetting all of the creatures in the pond) is to grow a water lily (or two) in a smaller, above-ground container. In a container garden, the intricate and beautiful, even sometimes-fragrant flowers are within nose reach. You may not want to try turtles or koi, but aquatic plants, including water lilies, are very well suited to such confined quarters.
Water lilies are unique plants and quite ancient in origin. Their showy flowers come in many colors and float on the surface of the water along with glossy orbicular leaves. There are hardy water lilies that go dormant in winter in temperate zones and tropicals that prefer to grow year-round in warmer climes. The tropical water lilies will perform wonderfully in cooler climates, but may have to be treated as annuals there.
Water lilies do grow in soil, so planting one in a container requires that a durable pot be prepared for them. The first rule of growing aquatic plants is to provide a growing medium free of organic material. I know that seems to go against all of our gardening instincts, but the root zone of aquatic plants is quite anaerobic, meaning that the bacteria (and other microorganisms living there) use other pathways in the decomposition of organics that can result in smelly and even toxic conditions. Nice clay soil, even sand, will support their roots and not contribute to other noxious problems.
Most water lilies require about 10 to 12 inches of soil in their growing pot and another 10 to 20 inches of water over the surface of the soil, although there are a few dwarf varieties that will bloom in far less space. Shop for them online and read the descriptions of their size and growth pattern to determine what size container will be best. The decorative outer planter will need to be water tight, of course, and many will be fired with an impervious glaze. Other choices are porous clay or concrete pots, which can be sealed. If the container already has drainage holes, they can be plugged to provide the perfect mini-water garden. Be sure to add a few mosquito-eating fish to complete your mini-ecosystem.