February 14, 2008

Getting Started With Water Lilies

By Michael Pettay
University of Florida/IFAS Extension Educator

For most water lilies to be happy your pond should be in an area where it will receive 5 to 6 hours of direct sunlight daily and where it doesn't have tree branches hanging over it. Also, if the pond is large enough, it's best if it has a shallow area, with a water depth of between 4" and 8", and a deep water area of at least 24". It's best to plant pond plants into pots, tubs or boxes rather than directly into the bottom of the pond. It makes it easier to keep the pond clean and individual containers can be moved around as needed or taken out for replanting, trimming or fertilizing.

Water lily pondWater lilies tend to grow horizontally, so larger containers are best. A single lily will easily take up a single 18” plastic basket or terra cotta pot, or containers can be made of non‑treated wood to hold several. A box 36" x 18" x 12" will hold two lilies relatively close together, if you have colors that you want to complement each other, and won't take up that much space in the pond.

Mix up a good, rich garden soil or topsoil with a well rotted or composted manure. If you're using packaged cow manure be sure to let it rot first. It's better to use a good soil without the manure than to use manure that is too fresh. Mix at the rate of four parts soil to one part manure. Fill the container about half way with this mixture, then add 1/8 cup ( 1 oz. ) of a packaged water lily fertilizer for each gallon of pot size or add one aquatic plant fertilizer tablet for every gallon of pot size. Mix the fertilizer well with the soil, then fill the remainder of the container with garden soil only to about 2" from the top.

How you actually plant the lily rhizomes depends on whether you are using tropical water lilies or hardy water lilies. (Actually the roots of hardy lilies are rhizomes and the roots of tropical water lilies are tubers) Tropical water lilies grow more symmetrically, so they would be planted upright in the center of the container. The flowers of most tropical water lilies tend to sit up out of the water on long stalks. Hardy water lilies tend to grow horizontally, out across the container, so it's even more important that you have a large container. Those you would plant with the end furthest from the point where the leaves are emerging against the side of the container so that the lily will grow across the container. The flowers of most hardy water lilies tend to float right on the surface of the water. Firm the soil around the roots, leaving the crown (where the roots and stem connect) just slightly above the soil line. Add about 1" of pea gravel or aquarium gravel over the top of the soil to prevent it from floating up.

Carefully lower the completed planting into the pond until the top is about 6" to 8" under the water. Water lilies start best in relatively shallow water and can be moved into deeper water once they are established. The ideal depth is between 12" and 18". If the pond is deeper than that you can rest the container on bricks or cinder block or, if you are building your own wooden containers, you can just add legs to bring the upper edge to the proper depth.

The most common causes of failure with new water lilies are planting too deeply or using too much fertilizer. The plants won't be able to utilize fertilizer until they are established and actively growing. Once they are established, lilies are heavy feeders, so they will be wanting fertilizer about every three months. This can be done without disturbing their roots by making little packets of 2 to 3 ounces of packaged water lily fertilizer wrapped in newspaper and gently pressing them into the soil, or by pushing 2 of the fertilizer tablets into the soil for each plant. Remember that some of the tropical water lilies will go dormant during the winter when the water temperature falls below 65 F.

For related fact sheets see:

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