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Hardy Water Lilies Care: Planting, Fertilizing and Bloom

Hardy Water Lilies Care: Planting, Fertilizing and Bloom

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Of all the flowers that you can grow, water lilies are the most interesting and beautiful and will receive the most attention from family and friends. Water lilies are very easy to grow and take care of and will reward you with blooms all summer long.

Hardy water lilies are perennials and will come back year after year if the roots are protected from freezing.

Water lilies come in two types:

  1. Hardy water lilies
  2. Tropical water lilies

Only hardy water lilies are covered in this post.  Although I know a lot of people that grow tropical water lilies, they are not hardy in colder areas and have to be purchased every year.  To me, the hardy water lilies are just as attractive and a lot less trouble to deal with.  From now on when I refer to water lilies, it will be the hardy water lilies.  However, tropical water lilies can be grown using the same methods.

There are only four basic colors: red, white, yellow, and pink but there are different shades of these four colors and some are also solid color or mixed with white. 

Most of the common varieties of water lilies that you find for sale were developed by Latour-Marliac in France during the late 1800s.  If you buy a water lily, you will probably be getting one of his.  They are all good growers and bloom well.  There are also wild water lilies that you can dig up from ponds.  I have tried a few, but they didn’t produce very many flowers like the commercial varieties.  There are a lot of new varieties that keep being introduced.  However, they frequently look similar to the ones developed by Latour-Marliac. Some water lilies bloom much better than other varieties so try different ones.

I have four water lilies that I am more fond of than the others.  They boom earlier and produce more blooms.  These are Carnea, which is pink; Attraction, which is red; Chromatella, which is yellow;  Virginalis, which is white.  I have dozens of varieties, but they seem to do better than the others.  I can always depend on Carnea to bloom first in the spring.

Purchase Bare Root Water Lilies

Water lilies are easy to find bare rooted in the springtime in stores such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and similar stores. Sometimes you can find fully potted ones at nurseries. Water lilies are also available from water gardening business that you can order from online.

Now here is the bad news about these bare-rooted plants from stores. These plants are very small, so it will take longer for them to get established.  If you have a friend that will give you some of her larger water lily roots, these will be much larger and easier to get growing.

Planting Hardy Water Lilies

Pink Water Lily Flower
Pink Water Lily Flower

These plants come in a very small container with instructions to use it.  My advice is to throw the container away and use a large container.  What I use is 8-quart plastic dishwasher pans.  These pans sell for a dollar or two from dollar stores.  It is best to get colored pans rather than a while since the colored ones are not as obvious in the pond.

You are probably wondering why you can’t use regular flower pots.  There are a couple of disadvantages to these pots.  Water lilies are shallow rooted and tend to spread out so would have to be replanted frequently.  The flower pots are top-heavy so are easy for the fish to turn over.

Use as large a container as you can.  The problem is that the larger the container the more it weighs.  That is why I prefer using 8-quart dish washing pans.  They are light enough to pull out of the pond for maintenance or dividing. Now back to the bare-rooted water lily plant that you got.  As I said, throw the small plastic container away and use a larger container.  Water lilies are large plants and grow rapidly.  Fill the container with garden soil almost to the top of the pan.  Do not buy potting soils that will float to the surface.

Make a small trench in the middle of the container. Then take the plant out of the container and put it in the trench and cover with soil.  Make sure that the crown is not covered with soil though.  Usually, there will be a few leaves showing.  Next, put an inch of pea gravel over the soil.

Slowly lower the container into the pond, allowing the soil to get wet.  The ideal depth is about two feet down.  If the water is still cold, put the container closer to the surface such as about six inches and slowly lower it as the leaves come to the surface.

Keep your receipt and the container the plant came in. If the plant doesn’t grow, pull the plant out and return it for a refund.  These plants are easy to get started though and you will not have any problem unless the store has had the plants too long and it has dried out.

Now here is the bad news about these bare-rooted plants from stores. These plants are very small, so it will take longer for them to get established.  If you have a friend that will give you some of her larger water lily roots, these will be much larger and easier to get growing.

Within a few days of putting the container in the water, you should see signs of growth, depending on the warmth of the water.  Soon there will be water lily leaves on the surface.  At first, the leaves will be purple but will turn to green after a few days.  Leaves will keep coming on all summer.

It is best to plant only one plant in each container since these plants get very large.  It is best not to plant bog garden plants with water lilies.

When Do Water Lilies Bloom?

White Water Lily Flower
White Water Lily Flower

Bloom buds come up from the crown of the plant and in a few days will be on the surface.  The blooms will be closed at first and then will open in the morning.  Then later in the afternoon will close again.  After 3 or 4 days, the blooms will dip below the surface.

Usually, there will be 1 to 6 blooms at a time, depending on the variety.  As I mentioned before, some varieties are better bloomers than others.

Water lilies are sun lovers so the more sun the better.  Although the plants will survive in shade and put on leaves, they will not bloom well.  So pick a sunny place for your pond.

Pond Lily Fertilizer Tablets

It is best to fertilize the water lily with a water lily fertilizer.  This fertilizer comes in tablet form so make a hole a couple of inches from the plant and push a sharp stick into the soil and insert the fertilizer tablet.  Then push the dirt back over the opening.

When Should I Fertilize My Water Lily?

Some people fertilize the plant when it is planted.  However, usually, there are enough nutrients in the soil to get it started.  Then I fertilize it when it is growing well.  I fertilize each plant monthly during the summer.  However, stop fertilizing in early fall so the plant can get ready for winter.

So what happens if you forget to t fertilize the water lily?  It will still grow and bloom but will not produce as much growth.  If your pond is small, it might be a good idea to not fertilize as often so the plants stay smaller.

While you are fertilizing the plants you are also fertilizing the algae.  So don’t over-fertilize or you will have problems with green water.

When I was younger I always fertilized the plants faithfully.  However, since I have gotten older, I have stopped fertilizing them.  They still bloom well though.  So I have some mixed feelings about whether it is worthwhile to fertilize them regularly.

Hardy Water Lily Temperature

Your water lilies are hardy as long as the crown is below the freezing level.  So even if the pond freezes over, the water lilies will not freeze.  I live in Colorado where the temperatures fall below zero during the winter.  My ponds are metal stock tanks that are 2 feet deep and sunk in the ground.  The ice gets 6 inches deep in the colder months, but I have never lost a water lily to freezing.

If the pond is too shallow to keep the water lily from freezing, you can take the water lily container out and store it in a cool place in the garage.  Some people also bury it in the ground below the frost line and dig it up again in the spring.  The ponds in the Botanical Gardens in Denver, Colorado are shallow so the water lilies are dug up in the fall and stored inside for the winter.  When I was a member of the water gardening club in Denver I helped them do this one year.

We have a park about half a mile from our house which has a shallow dirt bottom pond.  The water lilies are left in the pond all summer and then the pond is drained in the fall.  The next spring, the pond is filled and the water lilies come to the surface and start growing.

That may seem strange to you, but water lilies have evolved to handle dry conditions where ponds dry up.  They can go dormant until the rains return.

Growing Water Lilies in a Container

Water lilies can be grown in large containers such as plastic tubs.  Some people fill the tub part way with dirt and then plant directly in the soil.  I prefer to plant the water lily in a dish pan so it can be moved later.  There are special containers that can be bought for growing water lilies too.  I have grown them in old bathtubs which looks rather interesting.  An old fashion way to grow water lilies was to bury a galvanized tub in the garden and fill it about half full of garden soil.  Then you will have water lilies blooming in your flower or vegetable garden.  My observation having done container gardening is that the water lily will not bloom as well as in a pond.  I think it is due to the reduction in temperature at night.  It may not be a problem though for you, depending on your climate. Make sure you remove the water lily and put it somewhere to protect it from freezing temperatures during the winter.

Water Lilies and Koi Fish

So what about keeping fish with water lilies? You don’t actually need fish in your pond since you can use mosquito dunks to control the mosquito larvae.  Mosquito dunks can be bought at Wal-Mart and other stores since it is a common way to control mosquitos.

The simplest way to control mosquito larvae in your pond is to have a few fish.  The fish will eat the mosquito larva and even grab the mosquitos when they are laying their eggs on the surface of the water.

Most people keep goldfish in their ponds since they are colorful and add interest.  The goldfish will not harm the water lilies or eat other plants you have in your pond.

However, some people also keep Koi in their pond.  Koi are not a problem when they are small.  However, they don’t stay small very long.  These fish get 2 to 3 feet long and eat plants.  The worse problem they cause is that they root around in the soil and uproot the plant which is soon floating on the surface. Then they scatter mud all over the pond, so the pond water gets cloudy.

I knew an older man and his wife that belonged to the Colorado Water Garden Society in Denver, Colorado.  He invited my wife and me to his house to see his ponds.  At that time, I was considering getting some Koi since it seems all the rage.  So I asked him why he didn’t have any.  All he had was goldfish. 

He looked at me like I was crazy and told me that he would never put Koi in his ponds since they were too destructive to his water lilies.

Of course, I was young and ignored his advice so I went and got some young Koi and put them in my pond.  At first, they were well behaved then as they got bigger started eating my bog plants and even started digging up my water lilies. I decided to catch them and pitch them out on the ground and solve my problem.  However, by then, my young son and my wife had given them all names, so they considered them family members.

Since I had no choice but to live with them, I tried some things.  The most successful thing to keep Koi from digging in the dirt containers was to replace the pea gravel with lava gravel.  Koi love to pick up pea gravel in their mouths and spit it out on the bottom of the pond. 

After a while, the soil is bare on the surface of the container, so they can start rooting in the soil, looking for tasty things to eat.  My problem was solved when I started using lava rock gravel instead of pea gravel.  The lava gravel is rough and sharp, so the Koi don’t like to pick it up so leave the water lilies alone.

So you can have Koi with your water lilies, but it is best if you don’t.  Goldfish are a much better fish to keep with water lilies.

Water Lily Pests

If you have grown a vegetable garden or a flower garden, you realize quickly that you will be bothered by insect pests.  Water lilies aren’t bothered by many insects.  The biggest pests are aphids that tend to get on them in the spring and fall.  I just ignore the aphids since during the summer; the fish eat most of them.  I have never noticed any damage from the aphids though and don’t appear to damage the plants.

Mosquitoes in Pond Water

Although mosquitos won’t harm water lilies, they will breed in your pond and turn into adults which will feed off of you.  If you have fish, they will eat the mosquito larva.  If you don’t have fish, you can use mosquito dunks which are a biological control that you can buy from Wal-Mart and nurseries that will control the mosquito larva.

Mosquito Dunks look like a small donut with a hole in the middle.  You can tie a string to the Mosquito dunk and attached it to the side of the pond.  Usually, one dunk is adequate and should last a month.  Normally I don’t use them in my pond since my fish control the mosquito larva. However, I use them in my bog gardens where they work very well. Mosquito Dunks can be used in all types of standing water sites where mosquito larvae grow before becoming adults.

Dragonflies and Water Lilies

Dragonflies and damselflies are attracted to your pond and will lay eggs on the surface of the water.  Most people can’t tell the difference so consider both of them to be dragonflies.  The nymphs are very ugly and look dangerous but are actually beneficial since they eat mosquito larvae and other bugs in the pond.  They are also harmless to the water lilies.

Animals

There are some animals that will harm water lilies.  Ducks are very destructive and will eat the pads.  So having ducks with water lilies is not a good idea.  Raccoons visit the ponds sometimes and can be very destructive and will tear up plants and overturn containers.  There are a lot of devices that are made to control raccoons and drive them away.  However, I have never been bothered by raccoons since I have always had dogs that spent time outside at night.  Raccoons will look elsewhere for food if a noisy dog is around.

Dogs can also be destructive to water lilies if they are allowed to swim in your pond. Some dogs love to get in the water and others don’t.  I have never had any problems keeping them out since I just scold them and tell them to stay out of the water.

Birds will sometimes fly in an attempt to sit on the water lily pads.  Unless the bird is very small, the pad will sink and the bird will scramble to get out.  Frogs are smaller so don’t have any trouble sitting on a pad.  However, large bullfrogs will sink the pad sometimes and will just cling to the side of the pad.  It is not unusual for snails to lay eggs on the underside of the pads.  I have never noticed any damage to the plant though.

How to Propagate Water Lilies?

Water lilies grow very fast and get large.  So they need to be divided every couple of years.  Otherwise, they outgrow the containers and hang over the side.

If you watch a video about dividing water lilies or read about it in a book with pictures, the plant is taken out of the container and then carefully washed off.  That is not practical if the plant has grown large.  So what I do is pull the dishpan out of the pond.  Then turn it upside down and lay it on a heavy plastic sheet or tarp.  Then I use a hacksaw and saw it into four parts.  I also saw some of the dead roots off of the bottom.  Then I place one of the pieces into a fresh inexpensive dish pan and fill it in with dirt around the sides.  Then I cover the top with gravel and put it back into the pond.

You can plant the other three parts into separate containers, throw them away, give them to friends, or sell them.  When I lived in Colorado Springs, I divided my water lilies, everyone, a couple of years and potted them up and sold them.  Some summers I made some nice money from my back yard ponds.

Now the bad news, your hands will stink after dividing the water lilies.  Not only will they stink but it is difficult to get rid of the smell with soap and water.  The best thing that I have used is an ordinary dish washing soap.  I put some of that on my hands and wash my hands with it, and it gets rid of the smell.

Getting into your pond

I usually don’t need to get into my ponds since I use stock tanks that are only 10 feet across.  So if I need to move the pans around, I used a rack and push or pull them.  The pans are flat so move easily.  However, in a liner pond, it is not as easy.  In that case, the people usually have to get in the pond to fertilize the water lilies and do maintenance.  Here is some advice.  Put on some old jeans and some tennis shoes to wade in. This will protect your skin in case you rub up against something sharp. 

My wife and I knew a woman that got into her large pond barefooted with shorts.  She cut her foot on a cinder block.  The foot got infected and she ended up in the hospital for a month.  So no matter how clean the water looks, it is not like taking a bath inside.  So be careful if you have to get into your pond.  You can wear tennis shoes and long pants which will protect you.

Hailstones

You were very proud of your pond and your water lilies so signed up for the pond tour.  A week before the tour, there was a terrible hailstorm that tore your water lily pads to pieces.  So what can you do, except cry?  Cut the stems off to the crown of the plant.  The crown will send up new pads within a day or two to replace those that were destroyed.  If you don’t have a tour and don’t want to go to that much work, you can leave the damaged leaves.  The plant will replace them so after a couple of weeks, they will look normal.

Along with the front range of Colorado from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border is prime hailstorm territory.  So if you live in an area like this, expect some hailstorm damage.  At least the damage is only temporary and new water lily pads will arrive from the bottom.

Hardy Water Lily and Green Water

Water lilies are sometimes grown to help reduce algae growth.  Usually, the recommended water lily coverage is at least half.  It does work but isn’t fast.  So it will be the middle of the summer before the water is clear.  If you have expensive fish that you would like to see then you might want to consider some other way to reduce your algae such as a biological filter.

Water Lilies Like Still Calm Water

So if you have a waterfall, move the water lily container away from the moving and splashing water.  In the wild, water lilies are found in ponds and lakes, but not in moving water such as rivers.

Summary

Hardy water lilies are a fun plant to grow.  These plants are easy to grow and will bloom well if the right conditions such as plenty of sunshine are provided.  Fish are optional in the water lily pond; however, some fish such as Koi can be destructive to the plants. 

Goldfish will not harm the plants so they are a good choice.  If the water lily does not bloom, it is usually due to low light conditions.  However, some of the fancier varieties just don’t bloom as well. Water lily varieties also vary in size so it is helpful to know what the spread is before selecting the plant.

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