How to Grow Colorful Water Lilies in a Pond or on Your Patio

These aquatic plants look beautiful in water gardens large and small. Here's what you need to know to care for them.

Including a decorative pool or small pond in your garden can instantly make your yard look more magical, and a few water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) floating on the surface look downright dreamy. In addition to their beauty, a few water lilies can also help keep a backyard pond healthy; the shade they provide helps shelter fish and keep the water looking crystal clear by preventing algae from growing. Water lilies aren't just for ponds, though. You can also grow these delicate-looking blooms in large containers on your porch and patio where they'll stand out from traditional container gardens. Hardy varieties will grow in most parts of the U.S., so almost anyone can add this enchanting perennial to their yard.

various water lilies
Jennifer L. Peterson

How to Grow Water Lilies

You don't necessarily need a pond for growing water lilies; they'll also thrive in a big tub like a stock tank on your patio. They grow from tubers planted in pots beneath the water and send up stems with rounded leaves and star-shaped blossoms that float on the surface. Water lilies bloom in a variety of colors including pink, white, yellow, and red.

A good choice for beginners, hardy lilies are dependable and easy to plant. They blossom in the morning and close after sunset, usually lasting three or four days before sinking back beneath the surface. The flowers appear from spring to fall, and go dormant in the winter (you can leave them in the water, or take them out and store them in a shed or garage). Tropical water lilies, which look even more captivating when in bloom, need more care but are well worth the effort. Their flowers are larger and more prolific, and some of the night-blooming varieties have vibrant, almost electric colors. Tropical water lilies need a water temperature above 70°F, and the tubers have to be taken out of the water in winter.

How to Plant Hardy Water Lilies

Whether you're interested in how to grow water lilies in a container water garden or pond, the steps for planting are the same. If you're new to water lilies or short on space, try growing them in a container (it'll feel more manageable than an entire pond of water lilies). Any variety can be grown in a pot because they will only grow to be the size of the container they are in.

Test Garden Tip: Keep aquatic plants contained in ponds and pots. In the wild, some can be invasive and compete with native plants.

Lining Container with Burlap
Peter Krumhardt

Step 1: Select a Container

Use a wide and shallow container. A good size is 18 inches wide by at least 10 inches deep. The tuber, which is similar to the rhizome of an iris, grows horizontally. You can use a container with or without drainage holes. If there are drainage holes, line the pot with burlap to keep the soil in the container. Soil that leaches out can cloud the water in your pond.

Inserting Fertilizer Tabs into Soil
Peter Krumhardt

Step 2: Fill Container With Soil

Use a heavy bagged soil ($4, The Home Depot) intended for use in the garden, not a fluffy potting soil that will float out of the container. Avoid soil mixes with peat, vermiculite, or perlite for the same reason. Enrich the soil with aquatic fertilizer pellets ($15, Walmart) made especially for the task. Push them into the soil before you plant.

Trimming Roots with Clippers
Peter Krumhardt

Step 3: Clean Up Plants

Before planting water lilies, check the tubers and remove old leaves and thick, fleshy old roots; then, more of the plant's energy can go toward growing new roots, leaves, stems, and blooms. Leave only emerging leaves and buds and the newer, hairlike roots.

Planting Lily Burlap Lined soil
Peter Krumhardt

Step 4: Plant Tubers

Plant the tuber against the side of the pot, with the growing tip pointing upward (about 45 degrees) and toward the center of the pot.

water lilies planter with pea gravel
Peter Krumhardt

Step 5: Add Gravel

Cover the soil with a layer of small rocks or pea gravel ($4, The Home Depot) to keep the soil in the pot.

Water lilies Plant In Planter with Pea Gravel
Peter Krumhardt

Step 6: Lower Plant into Water

The planted pot should be lowered into the pond at an angle to allow air to escape. Set the base of the pot 12 to 18 inches deep. The leaves will float to the surface. If the pond is deeper than 18 inches and doesn't have built-in planting ledges, support the pot with rocks to keep it at about that depth.

How to Winterize Hardy Water Lilies

Begin getting your hardy water lilies ready for winter by removing all dead and dying foliage. If your pond freezes solid or if you drain it for the winter, remove the lily, pot and all. Store the entire pot by keeping it cool and moist in a plastic bag. If you can't store the whole pot, remove and clean the growing tuber and store it in peat moss or sawdust at 40 to 50°F.

If the pond doesn't freeze solid, don't remove the pot. Just lower it to the deepest part of the pond, where the water won't freeze. In spring, bring the pot back to the proper growing level in the pond. If you've dug up and stored the tuber, repot as if it were a new plant.

Water lilies blooming in pond
Jennifer L. Peterson

Tips for Clear Pond Water

A pretty pond will make your water lilies look even more beautiful. Keep the water clear by following a few maintenance tips:

  • Don't overfertilize plants; you'll feed the algae that turn pond water green.
  • Don't overfeed the fish or have too many fish for the size of the pond.
  • Remove decaying vegetation.
  • Make sure 60% of the pond is shaded by lily pads or other plants.
  • Keep water well-oxygenated with aerators, fountains, or waterfalls.
  • Don't kill algae with chemical treatments; that will hurt plants, fish, and beneficial bacteria that live in the pond.
  • Pond dye that darkens the water can be used to prevent algae growth in water lily containers.
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