The ABC’s of Water Gardens: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

Every spring when my ornamental pond needs to be restocked, I head out to a Maryland property called Lilypons. Nestled amid rolling hills, the gardens are an oasis of natural pools teeming with water lilies and other beautiful aquatic plants. It is one of my favorite places to visit. So I was thrilled when recently, a Lilypons expert came to speak to our garden club about the newest innovations in water gardens.


Richard Koogle is Director of Operations at Lilypons and has been designing and lecturing on water gardens since the 1970s. Over the years, he’s taught thousands of people how to install, stock and manage their own backyard or courtyard ponds. A firm believer that water gardens offer maximum rewards with only minimal care, Koogle says recent developments, including flexible rubber liners, container gardening and tabletop water gardens, have made them easier than ever to install.


Why does Koogle like flexible rubber liners? He prefers them not only for the many options they provide but also for their long durability. Friendly to both the environment and fish, the liner’s thick membrane can last up to 20 years before breaking down. Moreover, flexible liners can be molded to fit the contours of any pond and their black color gives a natural look that blends well with plants and fish.

But, you don’t need a big backyard space to enjoy a water garden. Container gardens also offer anyone with a sunny space the chance to experience water gardening on a smaller scale. According to Koogle, this option doesn’t even require pumps or filters if properly managed. And almost any container can be used to create a mini-aquatic garden.

“Now anyone with a balcony can have a water garden,” says Koogle.

No space for a container garden? Tabletop gardens are the simplest way of all to enjoy a water garden. “You can grow a water lily in a bowl right on your table,” says Koogle. 


Aquatic plants thrive in heavy, clay based soil: the kind you would normally discard in the garden or amend. This type of soil helps keep aquatic plants anchored in place and obstructs moving water. For maximum impact, Koogle plants hardy and tropical water lilies in shallow containers filled with clay and a top layer of gravel. He sets the pots approximately 18” below the pond surface and makes sure they get plenty of sun.

water lilies

Water lilies are a ‘natural’ for the water garden. They’re easy to grow and with minimal care, they’ll flower reliably from spring until frost. Their spectacular blooms typically last for three to four days before sinking back down beneath the surface to decay.

However, due to their fast growth rate, water lilies will typically outgrow their container every 2 to 3 seasons. As a result, you’ll need to divide and replant them. Koogle says you can perform this task any time during the summer all the way up until August. Make sure to feed them with lily tabs (fertilizer) after replanting.


There are two types of water lilies, hardy and tropical. Hardy lilies go dormant and need to be stored indoors in the winter. 

Many hardy water lily cultivars were developed in France at the turn of the 19th century. As a result, they have names of French origin. One spectacular variety is Arc-en Ciel (French for rainbow), which has unique olive green leaves, splashed with yellow, cream, pink and red. Its heavily fragrant flowers start out a shell pink and fade to nearly white at the end of its bloom period.

Hardy water lily ‘Peach Glow’/Photo: Lerner Vadim for

Another of Koogle’s favorites is the deep pink Perry’s Fire Opal, which he describes as ‘a real eye-catcher.’ Its flowers measure a whopping 5 – 6” across. Often sending up several blooms at once, it was hybridized in 1987 by Perry D. Slocum, a world-renowned hybridizer of water lilies and lotuses. It is considered one of his finest achievements.

If you’re looking for something different, Indiana is what is referred to as a changeable color lily. Also known as bi-colored, this variety goes through a range of color changes throughout its bloom period. Some may even go from yellow, to pink, to salmon or deep red during a single day.

Indiana changeable water lily

‘Indiana’ hard water lily available through

However, if abundance of blooms is your thing, look no further than the salmon-orange variety called Colorado. Possibly one of the most profusely blooming medium-size water lilies on the market today, it is the first to open in the morning and the last to close in the afternoon. It is also one of the first to bloom in the early spring. It often has 110-140 blooms per season.


Tropical lilies, on the other hand, must be replanted each year. However, they offer a broader range of colors than hardy lilies, including unique purples and blues. They are also much longer bloomers than hardy ones, which begin to fade near the end of the summer. “I’ve had tropical lilies blooming right up until Thanksgiving, “ says Koogle.

Among the tropical lily cultivars he likes are the striking deep-violet blue William McLane, which blooms over chocolate-colored pads with bright green streaks. Miami Rose, named for its vibrant red color, is another. Its flower is a full star with more than 50 petals when mature.

tropical water lily William McLane

Tropical water lily ‘William McLane’ available through

If you have the room, check out Victoria Platters, one of the biggest attractions at Longwood Gardens’ renowned water lily display It’s a tropical lily known for its stunning white blooms and gigantic lily platters (pad), which can measure up to five and one half feet wide. 

Longwood Gardens lily platters

Giant lily platters at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

*A note on Lotuses: they start out like lilies, but eventually become upright plants. Koogle cautions that lotuses can be very invasive, and should never be planted in an earth-based pond or they will take over, choking out all other plants.



Water irises flower in the early spring, as their land cousins do, ahead of the water lilies. 

Yellow water irises


“Cattails make a pond look like a pond,” says Koogle. Moreover, there are now many smaller varieties, providing the homeowner with many more options. 



A North American native, pickerel rush bears blue spiked flowers from early summer well into fall. 

pickerel rush


Commonly known as water canna, thalia dealbata features canna-like foliage and violet blue flowers. Like canna, it grows tall, from 6 to 10′.


Other good water garden plants include Arrowhead sagittarius, water four-leaf clover and anacharis. Anacheris is especially good at preventing algae from growing. “Every pond should have anacharis, he says. “They compete with algae for light and food and starve it out.”

Anacharis available from

Koogle recommends covering 60-70% of the pond surface with plants to keep algae under control. 


There are two types of fish that are suitable for ponds; koi (which are the same as carp) and goldfish. Koi are colorful and beautiful, but beware: they’ll eat your plants. Koogle recommends displaying koi in their own koi pond with maximum filtration and no plants.


Goldfish, on the other hand, offer many options to choose from that can add bright color to your pond. They won’t get at the plants and they’ll hide during the winter and multiply the next year. Like koi, they’ll also eat mosquitos.

In fact, if you stock your pond correctly, says Koogle, no matter what its size, it can operate without filtration or pumps. You can get the help you need to keep the water clean with proper plant selection, “ he said.

(As soon as you add fish, though, it’s a different story.)

For more on Lilypons Water Garden, click here.


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