How to Grow Water Lilies

Hardy water lily (Nymphaea ‘Hollandia’)

The water lily (Nymphaea) has been casting its spell on humans for thousands of years, enchanting even the earliest civilizations. This mysterious beauty rises from the deep, leaves floating serenely on the surface, exquisite blossoms appearing as if by magic. Once the province of grand palaces and public gardens, the water lily is finding its way to the home garden.
Learn more about water lilies.

While water lilies appear delicate, don’t let their exotic aura fool you. These flowers are as tough as they are beautiful. Water lilies grow well in any USDA hardiness zone.

Water lilies can be grown in a tub on the patio or in ponds of any size. 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.

Hardy lilies are dependable and easy to plant — a good choice for the beginner. Daytime bloomers, they blossom in the morning and close after sunset, lasting three or four days before sinking beneath the surface. The flowers appear from spring to fall, blooming in all colors except blues and purples. Hardy water lilies go dormant in winter and may be left in the water or stored. Tropical water lilies, which bloom in more exotic colors, take a little more care but are well worth the effort. Their flowers are larger and more prolific. Night-blooming varieties have vibrant, almost electric colors. Tropical water lilies require a water temperature above 70 degrees F, and tubers must be removed from the pond in winter.

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How to Plant Hardy Water Lilies:

Step 1

1. Use a container that is wide and shallow. A good size is 12 x 18 inches wide by 6 x 10 inches deep. The tuber, which is similar to the rhizome of an iris, grows horizontally. Containers may or may not have 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.

Step 2

2. Use a heavy soil intended for use in the garden, not a fluffy potting soil that will float out of the container. Avoid soil mixes with perlite, vermiculite, or peat for the same reason. Enrich the soil with aquatic fertilizer pellets made especially for the task. Push them into the soil before you plant.

Step 3

3. Remove old leaves and thick, fleshy old roots. Leave only emerging leaves and buds and the newer, hairlike roots.

Step 4

4. 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.

Step 5

5. Cover the soil with a layer of rock or pea gravel to keep the soil in the pot.

Step 6

6. The planted pot should be lowered into the pond at an angle to allow air to escape. Set the the base of the pot 12 x 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.

How to Winterize Hardy Water Lilies:

Hardy miniature water lily
(Nymphaea tetragona ‘Helvola’)

Begin getting your hardy water lilies ready for winter by removing all dead and dying foliage. If the pond freezes solid in your climate or is drained 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 at 40 to 50 degrees F.

If the pond doesn’t freeze solid, don’t remove the pot. Simply lower it to the deepest part of the pond, where water will not 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.

Tips for Clear Pond Water

Keep your pond clean and beautiful like this one.

  • 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 percent 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.

Where to Get Water Lilies:

  • Local water-garden-society sales
  • Mail-order catalogs
  • Other gardeners; lilies are easy to divide and propagate for trading