The ABC’s of Water Gardens: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

Every spring when my water garden needs to be restocked, I head out to a Maryland property called Lilypons. Nestled amid rolling hills, the gardens are an oasis of natural ponds teeming with water lilies and other beautiful aquatic plants. It is one of my favorite places to visit. So I was thrilled when recently, a Lilypons expert came to speak to our garden club about to create water gardens of our very own.


Richard Koogle is Director of Operations at Lilypons and has been designing and lecturing on water gardens since the 1970s. Over the years, he’s taught thousands of people how to install, stock and manage their own backyard or courtyard ponds. A firm believer that water gardens offer maximum rewards with only minimal care, Koogle says recent developments, including flexible rubber liners, container gardening and tabletop water gardens, have made them easier than ever to install.


Among the many types of pond liners available today, Koogle tends towards the pre-cut, flexible rubber kind. He prefers them not only for the many options they provide but also for their long durability. Friendly to both the environment and fish, the liner’s thick membrane can last up to 20 years before breaking down from weathering and U.V. light. Moreover, flexible liners can be molded to fit the contours of any pond and their black color gives a natural look that blends well with plants and fish.

However, you don’t need a big backyard space to enjoy a water garden. Container gardens offer anyone with a sunny space the chance to experience water gardening on a smaller scale. According to Koogle, this option doesn’t even require pumps or filters if properly managed. And almost any container can be used to create a mini-aquatic garden.

“Now anyone with a balcony can have a water garden,” says Koogle.

Finally, tabletop gardens are the simplest way of all to enjoy a water garden.“You can grow a water lily in a bowl right on your table,” says Koogle. Low-maintenance and filter-free, these tiny gardens can be grown indoors where they will bloom all season long.


Aquatic plants thrive in heavy, clay based soil: the kind you would normally discard in the garden or amend. This type of soil helps keep aquatic plants anchored in place and obstructs moving water. Koogle plants hardy and tropical lilies in shallow containers filled with clay and a top layer of gravel. He sets the pots approximately 18” below the pond surface and makes sure they get plenty of sun.

photo 5 (5)

Giant water lily platters at Longwood Gardens

A ‘natural’ for the water garden, lilies are easy to grow and, with minimal care, they’ll flower reliably from spring until frost. Their spectacular blooms typically last for three to four days before sinking back down beneath the surface to decay.

There are two types of water lilies, hardy and tropical. Hardy lilies go dormant and need to be stored indoors in the winter. Conversely, tropical lilies must be replanted each year. Tropical lilies, however, offer a broader range of colors than hardy ones, including unique purples and blues.

Like all flowers, water lilies have specific periods of bloom depending on their species. Day bloomers open around 9 in the morning and close at 3 in the afternoon, while night bloomers open at dusk and close around 9 in the morning. It goes without saying that if you enjoy your garden most in the evening or early morning, night bloomers are for you. 

Due to their fast growth rate, water lilies will typically outgrow their container every 2 to 3 seasons. As a result, you’ll need to divide and replant them. According to Koogle, you can perform this task any time during the summer all the way up until August. Make sure to feed them with lily tabs (fertilizer) after replanting.




Many hardy water lily cultivars were developed in France at the turn of the 19th century. As a result, they have names of French origin. One spectacular variety is Arc-en Ciel (French for rainbow), which has unique olive green leaves, splashed with yellow, cream, pink and red. Its heavily fragrant flowers start out a shell pink and fade to nearly white at the end of its bloom period.

Among other cultivars, one of Koogle’s favorites is the deep pink Perry’s Fire Opal, which he describes as “a real eye-catcher.” It’s a reliable bloomer with flowers measuring 5 – 6” across. Often sending up several large blooms at once, it was hybridized in 1987 by Perry D. Slocum, a world-renowned hybridizer of water lilies and lotuses. It is considered one of his finest achievements.



If you’re looking for something different, Indiana is what is referred to as a changeable color lily. Also known as bi-colored, this variety goes through a range of color changes throughout its bloom period. Some may even go from yellow, to pink, to salmon or deep red during a single day.

However, if abundance of blooms is your thing, look no further than the salmon-orange variety called Colorado. Possibly one of the most profusely blooming medium-size water lilies on the market today, it is the first to open in the morning and the last to close in the afternoon. It is also one of the first to bloom in the early spring. It often has 110-140 blooms per season.


Green Smoke

Green Smoke

More finicky than hardy ones, tropical water lilies naturally require warmer water. As a result, they live for only one season. Any temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit will kill them. However, this is more than made up for by the fact that these heavy bloomers come in spectacular colors. In addition to yellows, pinks and reds, they can be found in vivid hues of purple and blue, which are rare (though being developed) in the hardy kinds. Their short lifespans also give you the ability to change up your water garden each year.

Another plus is that tropical lilies are much longer bloomers than hardy ones, which begin to fade near the end of the summer. “I’ve had tropical lilies blooming right up until Thanksgiving, “ says Koogle.

William McLane

William McLane

Among the tropical lily cultivars he likes are the striking deep-violet blue William McLane, which blooms over chocolate-colored pads with bright green streaks. Miami Rose, named for its vibrant red color, is another. Its flower is a full star with more than 50 petals when mature.

Victoria Platters, one of the biggest attractions at Longwood Gardens’ renowned water lily display, is a tropical lily known for its stunning white blooms and gigantic lily platters (pad), which can measure up to five and one half feet. (see above photo)

*A note on Lotuses: they start out like lilies, but eventually become upright plants. Koogle cautions that lotuses can be very invasive, and should never be planted in an earth-based pond or they will take over, choking out all other plants.



These flower in the early spring, as their land cousins do, ahead of the water lilies. Louisiana varieties work well in water too, though they’ll need to be propped up in an 18” pond since they only require 1-6” of water.

Yellow water irises


“Cattails make a pond look like a pond,” says Koogle. Moreover, there are now many smaller varieties, providing the homeowner with many more options. 


Other good water garden plants include pickerel rush, Arrowhead sagittarius, thalia (a water canna) and water four-leaf clover.

Koogle recommends covering 60-70% of the pond surface with plants to prevent algae from growing. In fact, submerged plants like anacharis are used specifically for this purpose. These bushy green plants are rooted in sand, so they naturally look elsewhere for nutrients. “Every pond should have anacharis, he says. “They compete with algae for light and food and starve it out.”


There are two types of fish that are suitable for ponds; koi (which are the same as carp) and goldfish. Koi are colorful and beautiful, but beware: they’ll eat your plants. Koogle recommends displaying koi in their own koi pond with maximum filtration and no plants.


Goldfish, on the other hand, offer many options to choose from that can add bright color to your pond. They won’t get at the plants and they’ll hide during the winter and multiply the next year. Like koi, they’ll also eat mosquitos.

In fact, if you stock your pond correctly, says Koogle, no matter what its size, it can operate without filtration or pumps. You can get the help you need to keep the water clean with proper plant selection, “ he said.

(As soon as you add fish, though, it’s a different story.)

For more on Lilypons Water Garden, click here.


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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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