discard and re-purchase their tropical lilies
each year. Nearly all have very large pads
and a big leaf spread, too. But what they lack
in convenience and cost, tropical lilies make
up for by being more profuse and fragrant
bloomers in a wider variety of colors than
hardies. Some varieties even open at night, so
you can enjoy them when you get home from
work (other hardies and tropicals close up at
about 4:00 p.m.).
Many water lilies are fickle plants and
nutrient pigs when it comes to flowering.
And it’s the flowers you want most.
Fertilizing every three to four weeks in
the summer is recommended for most, but
even then, some varieties will not start to
flower until their second year after planting
or re-planting (as Indianan Mike Schadle
taught me). This is especially the case for
water lilies planted in the summer from
dry tubers. The varieties I am outlining
in this column are more forgiving and
reliable, however, and can be enjoyed from
your first season onward.
The nutrient critical for water lily
flowering is phosphorus. Yep, that’s right—
the very nutrient that can really jump start
your algae growth. However, with the use
of a quality slow-dissolving fertilizer, and
companion planting with emergent species
(cattails, pickerels, Thalia, Hibiscus, Iris),
algae problems are mitigated. Last season
I employed one of the newer plant-safe
algaecides every week and encountered
little to no hair algae for the first time. You
get what you pay for in this respect. Don’t
skimp on cheap water conditioners or
fertilizers for your fish tubs and ponds.
Nymphaea sp. “aurora” is considered a changeable water lily since, in as little as three days, the color
of its leaves can change from yellow to peach to red.
Even when other tropicals are beginning to
fade, Nymphaea sp. “Queen of Siam” will still
bloom, and it overwinters well.
How to Plant a Water Lily
After years of working with water lilies,
I am still experimenting with the best way
to plant one. The ideal substrate would be
in loamy earth in the bottom of a natural
pond. However, in terms of container
planting, the debate rages on.
Most experts recommend heavy
topsoil or yard dirt in a solid plastic
pot or deep dishpan, as these are living
soils with natural nutrients. Over-the-counter pond plant mixes are also
available. Never use potting soil or
earthen compost, which is far too rich.
I have avoided the use of natural soils,
as my water gardens are smaller tubs
that serve a dual purpose: keeping a
healthy fish environment without the
need for mechanical filters, and growing
flowering plants. Yard dirt can be tricky,
thin layer of fine aquarium gravel on
top to keep the mix from dispersing.
I plant the growing tip of the lily out
of the substrate and pat down the soil
around it gently. I like to place the tuber
at a 45-degree angle so it will not pop
out of the pot. Gently run a hose spray
over and through the pot and then pat
down gently, removing air pockets that
can pop your water lily out of its pot.
Descend the planted lily in your pond
or tub slowly.
When I see leaf pads reach the
surface, I begin feeding with two high-quality specialty fertilizer tablets at
least once a month. Do not fertilize any
pond plants until they hit the surface,
to avoid algae problems.
in my opinion, as it can contain traces of
fertilizers, pesticides, and/or herbicides.
It also can leach out and quickly mess
up a small pond or tub. Heavy soils also
get anaerobic, resulting in bad smells
and bad water quality.
My current planting method is to use
perforated plastic pots sold in pond
supply departments. I line the bottom
and sides of the pot with landscape
fabric. This allows the pot to breathe, but
it also keeps the fine planting medium
inside. Clay soil is key to water lilies,
but solid clay can stagnate. “Dr. Ted’s
Econo-Mix” combines equal mixes of
swimming pool filter sand and natural
kitty litter, with a scoop of established
aquarium or pond plant substrate to
bring the substrate to life. I also like a
A Few of My Favorites
With the potpourri of water lilies on the
market, the selection can be daunting. This
is where a good book on water lilies comes
in handy (I recommend the late Perry D.
Slocum’s Waterlilies and Lotuses: Species,
Cultivars, and New Hybrids [Timber Press,
2005]), as well as mail-order catalogs,
for helping you make your choice. Also
invaluable is Kit and Ben Knott’s Water
Gardeners International (WGI) website
(see the Resources section below), which
provides visual galleries of many varieties.
They also have a list of participating
nurseries that will provide “Truly Named”
(WGI’s truth-in-labeling program) water
lily varieties. These are the only places
from which I now purchase water lilies,