A garden pond can be either a pestilential mess or the beating heart of a landscape, depending on how well it is designed, engineered and maintained.
My general advice is to avoid small, shallow ponds with inadequate pump and filtration devices. Think big. You need some fish to eat mosquito larvae, but not so many that their waste will overwhelm the filters. Let's not get bogged down by the logistics of the ornamental pond, though, because the point is, once you have one, you can join the world of the waterlily.
There is something magical about the way waterlilies have mastered two domains: the watery one from which they grow, and the sunny one, where they float and flower.
Thirty-five years after he came to the waterlily garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, as a student, Tim Jennings is still there, now a senior horticulturist and manager of a show that started in June and lasts until October.
The painter Claude Monet returned repeatedly to the waterlily as a subject. Jennings never left it. Who better to ask about this fabulous plant?
It is easy to see the enduring appeal of the waterlily in the display at Longwood, a courtyard with five rectilinear ponds and a central circular one, 50 feet across, together holding 160,000 gallons of water dyed a dramatic jet black. The dye helps to hide the plastic-lined, mud-filled crates that house each lily's crown and roots. I've grown them in broad aquatic-plant pots, though any wide, shallow container will work, Jennings says, including a dish pan.
Even on a recent weekday, dozens of visitors could be found wandering through the courtyard. After more than a year of pandemic confinement, the aquatic garden seems even more magical. The visitors are back, along with their questions: "How deep is the water?" "Do you have any fish?" "What about frogs?" Finally, they notice the waterlilies. "Are they real?"
Yes, folks, they are real.
And, like a Rubik's Cube, waterlilies align in so many ways. The most basic separation is between hardy and tropical lilies, or, more precisely, hybrids of both developed for superior ornamental traits, including repeat blooming.
If you are looking for the Monet effect of pastel pink, yellow and white lilies floating on the surface, the hardy lilies are for you. Their leaf growth is tighter than the tropical kind's growth, and they are thus better suited to smaller ponds.
Miniature hardy varieties can be grown in generous containers — a whiskey barrel, for example — but they also have a place in the pond proper. Helvola is a gorgeous clear yellow miniature, with a golden central boss of anthers. Jennings says it's probably the most floriferous of the miniatures. Nearby is the miniature Joanne Pring, which opens a rosy pink that fades to a shell pink.
I asked Jennings to show me some of his favorite hardies. One was Rose Arey, a free-blooming coral pink variety. Nearby was a golden yellow beauty named Texas Dawn. Both elevate their blooms above the water, a trait more associated with tropicals.
I was drawn also to one named Comanche, with its compact and luxuriant peachy bloom.
One disadvantage with the hardy waterlily is that its flowers open around 9 a.m. and close around 5 p.m. For those not at home during the day, this is a frustrating cycle. If you were working from home during the pandemic, perhaps you can justify continuing to do so on the basis of growing and enjoying hardy waterlilies. What employer would not understand this vital need?
If not, you can turn to tropical waterlilies, which come in day-blooming and night-blooming varieties. Even the day-bloomers remain open until after 7 p.m. The night-bloomers open in the late afternoon and close up around 11 a.m. the next day.
In the home garden, Jennings says, "I would always include at least one day-bloomer and one night-bloomer, so you can have blooms around-the-clock." That way, he says, you could greet a waterlily in the morning with your coffee and salute one in the evening with a glass of wine. He adds that a white-flowering night-bloomer will pierce the darkness without any need for illumination. What an enchanting sight beneath a full moon, methinks.
Tropical lilies tend to have large blooms with more pointed petals, larger leaves and a more sprawling habit. The pads radiate from a central crown, and one plant may span six feet or more across. The colors tend to be vibrant pinks and purples, as well as blues that just sizzle.
You can find leaf variegation in hardy lilies, but this decorative aspect is unsurpassed in some tropical lilies. A few varieties could be grown for their leaf beauty alone, though the flowers are the cherry on top. One of the most striking examples of this is a variety named Eve's Solitaire, whose pads are a lime green suffused with maroon-purple streaks. In Pink Sapphire, the effect is reversed, with a purple pad streaked green.
Jennings likes Foxfire, a day-bloomer sporting violet blooms with yellow centers and purple variegated foliage.
As we savor these, an intern gardener, Andrew Mell, wades into the pond to remove fading leaves and blooms.
Lily flowers last four days, and with each passing day, Jennings says, the flower is brought closer to the water level until the plant drags it under. New blooms grow from the crown of the plant, so the lily is in a constant state of renewal. But the submerged, spent flowers and aging, yellowing leaves need to be removed to keep the plants looking their best.
When I grew these, the in-pond grooming became a weekly ritual, an immensely enjoyable one for any adult wanting to relive childhood water play. The other benefit of working in the pond is in getting the full force of the blossom fragrance. The hardy lilies have a strong, citrusy scent, Jennings says; the tropicals are more perfumed, with a delicate floral fragrance.
The hardy lilies should be dug out and divided once the growing point strays outside its pot, every two or three years. (As a pro, Jennings does this every year.)
Tropicals are overwintered as a tuber in a cool, dark place indoors, but then must be started in spring in an aquarium. This was too fussy for me; I spent $100 or so every May on three fresh tropicals, and I enjoyed the flowers until the frosts of autumn. Paradise for about 60 cents a day.
Invasive vines such as porcelain berry, bittersweet and sweet autumn clematis should be removed now before they grow robust and set more seed. If you can't grub out the roots, keep cutting back the top growth to weaken the vine. Watch out for poison ivy.