Water Garden Plants: Best Choices for Small Ponds

  • 01 of 02

    Top 10 Water Garden Plants to Grow in Small Ponds

    Image of water-garden with water lily, pitcher plant.
    The highlights of this water garden are pitcher plants (the reddish-purple) and water lily (white), but they are complemented by water hyacinth (the floating, stubby, green leaves), Rodgers flower (light green leaves, top center), rush (the curly branches), and horsetail (the straight branches). David Beaulieu

    Why grow water garden plants? Well, to those who can't get enough of communing with Mother Nature in the yard, the answer is clear: doing so opens up another landscaping dimension for you. Establishing an aquatic and/or bog garden gives you a chance to create a mini-ecosystem entirely different from your existing garden beds. It's an opportunity to experiment with plants you otherwise might not be inspired to bring into your life.

    By all means incorporate water garden plants into a pond...MORE graced with a fountain if space permits. If, however, you have room for only a small pond (as was the case for me in the project featured in my picture above), you may have to choose between having a showy fountain or growing a full array of plants in the pond. Even in the latter situation, you'll want to follow the instructions for installing a small pond (a preformed liner 2 feet in diameter) in my article on cascading fountains, since the task of setting up the base for the pond is the same regardless of whether you're including a fountain. You'll also want to supply your pond with a pump even if you're going fountain-less, so that you can keep the water moving and avoid stagnation. Situate your pond so that it will receive at least 6 hours of sun daily, since aquatic plants generally flower better in full sun. 

    Categories of Water Garden Plants

    Water garden plants fall into a number of categories. A typical listing of categories runs something like this:

    1. Deep water plants (pot them up and sink the pot to the bottom)
    2. Submerged plants (the entire plant is submerged)
    3. Floating plants (they need no soil; roots obtain nutrients from the water)
    4. Marginal plants (their roots can be -- but don't have to be -- in water)
    5. Bog plants (they thrive in much wetter soil than do most plants)

    Don't feel obligated to grow plants from each of these categories, though. The pond in the photo above, for example, is so small that it would not make sense to incorporate both floating and submerged plants: the latter wouldn't even be visible, since the former would be blocking your view of them. The categories are merely meant to serve as guidelines for what to grow where. For example, if a plant is listed as marginal, you wouldn't want to install it too far out into the water -- you might drown it.

    Examples of Some of the Best Choices for Small Ponds

    The first six entries on this list are water garden plants found in the picture at the top of the page:

    1. Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), bog
    2. Water lily (Nuphar and Nymphaea spp.), deep water
    3. Corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus), bog
    4. Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), floating
    5. Rodgers flower (Rodgersia spp.), bog
    6. Horsetails (Equisetum hyemale), bog
    7. Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor), marginal
    8. Variegated Japanese sedge (Carex phyllocephala 'Spark Plug'), bog
    9. Papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), marginal
    10. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), marginal

    Some of you may be wondering why I didn't include lotus on my list. Lotus flower (Nelumbo spp.), which is similar to the water lily, is a big plant and best reserved for large ponds.

    One of the advantages in having a small pond is that, if you don't like the results of your first attempt at designing with water garden plants (or if you easily get sick of the same design and simply wish to change it for the sake of change), it's easy enough to rearrange the plants and/or make substitutions. I experimented with a number of designs for my own pond. I assembled the one pictured above in late spring. On the next page you can view a design in which I used papyrus as a focal point. I discuss a number of other considerations, as well, on Page 2....

    Continue to 2 of 2 below.
  • 02 of 02

    Water Garden Plants: Design, Planting Tips

    Water garden image with papyrus, marsh marigolds.
    Papyrus and marsh marigolds are the stars of this water garden design. David Beaulieu

    Those who enjoy the luxury of landscaping with large ponds may be able to use plants from all of the categories listed on Page 1. But for small ponds, it's unlikely that each of these categories will be represented in your planting. Take note, also, that some specimens straddle the line between the marginal and bog categories. I.e., some bog plants can stand in a bit of water; marginal plants often don't need to stand in water at all. One example is the papyrus plant, which is the large...MORE plant in the picture above. Papyrus can stand in a bit of water, but it can also be grown in the ground (or in a container) the way you would grow any other specimen, as long as you give it plenty of water.

    The design in the photo above was one I tried earlier in the year (prior to the arrangement shown on Page 1), in mid-spring. It was inspired by the fact that the marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris, the yellow flowers in the photo) were blooming at this particular time of the year. Marsh marigolds work wonderfully as marginal plants for water gardens in May in New England, where they are native perennials for sunny areas. May is too early in New England, however, to keep papyrus outside permanently (it's a tropical plant). Since I kept my papyrus in a pot, that was not a problem: I simply took it inside on cold nights. During the summer, I divided this hefty specimen, thereby procuring a smaller papyrus plant that wouldn't take up so much room, while still affording enough visual interest to serve as a focal point of my water feature.

    Incidentally, the plant on the right side of the image is interrupted fern. We usually associate ferns with shade, yet the site I selected for my water garden was in full sun. So how did I get away with growing interrupted fern there? Well, this is a good example of how it's tricky to make hard-and-fast rules for landscaping. Being part of a water garden, the fern in the photo receives ample irrigation, which is why it can withstand 6+ hours of sunshine in this location. The soil is kept moist all around my water garden, not only because I go out of my way to water it, but also because the pond frequently fills up and spills over.

    How to Install Water Garden Plants

    Don't be scared off by the "deep" in "deep water plants." My small pond offered a depth of only 7 inches. Yet even in such a small pond, I was still able to grow a water lily. But there's a trick to growing deep water, submerged, and marginal plants (i.e., any water garden plant that needs to grow in soil but will have its roots underwater) that beginners need to learn. Do not pour soil into the preformed liner to try to form an actual pond bottom; it's much easier to grow these water garden plants in pots. Here's how:

    Common sense indicates what your main challenge is here: if you put dirt in a container and sink that container into water, you're going to muddy the water, right? But there are steps you can take to alleviate the problem. First of all, don't use a potting mix, because it's too light and fluffy and won't want to remain submerged. Instead, opt for a soil that is a mix of sand and clay. After installing your plant in the pot, mulch with gravel or small crushed stones before placing the pots in the water. 

    For marginal plants, you'll have to adjust the depths at which their pots stand in the water, so that you don't drown them. In large ponds, shelves are built right into the pond to house marginals. But you can easily accomplish the same thing in a small pond by resting the potted plants on bricks.

    Floating plants are the easiest to incorporate. If, after installing all your other plants, there's room left on the surface of your pond, you can fill in that empty space with floating plants (if only everything were that simple!). Finally, you'll install bog plants in the same way that you would install any other plant (since, by definition, they are grown in the ground surrounding the pond).

    Design Tips 

    If your pond, like mine, is situated up against a house wall, providing a more suitable backdrop may increase your viewing pleasure of the water garden. This is why, in the design pictured on Page 1, I planted Rodgers flower at the back of my pond. Rodgers flower is a good-sized perennial valued for its attractive, big, abundant leaves. Such a bog plant makes for a background that is far superior to a house wall, in most cases.

    Mix things up in terms of plant texture and plant form. Coarse-textured Rodgersia contrasts sharply with papyrus. Meanwhile, corkscrew rush and horsetail -- along with papyrus --have highly architectural forms.

    Notice my emphasis, in the foregoing, on vegetation, rather than on flowers. Although it's possible to calculate sequence of bloom in such a way as to have one plant come into bloom at more or less the same time that another has just finished flowering, you'll find that it is much easier to achieve continuous visual interest by selecting water garden plants with foliage pleasing to the eye (foliage lasts longer).

    Final Thoughts

    If possible, acquire some water from a natural pond (one that is not a source of drinking water for your town) with which to fill your small pond. Water garden plants usually grow better without the chlorine found in tap water. If you can't acquire pond water, rain water is fine.

    An easy way to fertilize aquatic plants is with a relatively new product called PondCare® Plant Nutrient Spray. As its name suggests, you spray this fertilizer directly onto your aquatic plants.

    Homeowners fortunate enough to have large ponds can establish permanent plantings in their water features. You will not, however, be able to overwinter aquatic plants in a pond as small as the one I used for my project (there's simply no place for the plants to "hide" from the ice). So enjoy your water garden plant design during the warm-weather months, then plan on disassembling your work in fall. But the bog plants can be left in place, as you would any other perennial.

    Did this project inspire you? Then you may also be interested in my tutorial on erecting a granite fountain.