Some of you may read the title and think “I don’t have a pond so this does not apply to me”. A water garden does not take a big pond. This past summer I had two water lilies in whiskey barrels with plastic liners on my driveway in full sun, and two lilies in whiskey barrels in my garden. The lilies bloomed most of the summer. This summer you can have a water garden in a container and then treat it as an annual or overwinter it in your heated garage, basement, or some other place that does not freeze. Before I had a pond I over wintered a lily in a 5 gallon bucket in my basement.

          To flower and flourish, a water lily needs care like any other perennial.  Proper sunlight, the right kind of soil, the right kind of fertilizer at the right time, proper water depth, and pruning will determine the success of the plant.

          Water lilies begin putting up their first floating leaves in late April. The first ones may be smaller or darker in color than later ones.  As the season unfolds, the leaves get larger. Each leaf lives three to four weeks then turns yellow and dies.  Prompt removal of yellowing leaves at the soil level encourages new leaves to appear and keeps your pond clean. In May, the first flowers reach the surface. Each bloom lasts for about four days, opening and closing daily. As a flower is spent, it will slowly sink into the pond and should be pinched out like the dead leaves, to promote more flowering and to keep your pond clean. Debris in the bottom of the pond from spent leaves and flowers encourages string algae.  Hardy water lilies flower from May until September with the peak season in June through August.

          When planting water lilies I use a ceramic material made from clay that has been heated to a very hot temperature. It is primarily used to break up clay soil and called Structure or Profile depending upon the brand. You can also use gummy clay soil from the garden that is free of clumps and organic matter that may float. Avoid any herbicide (weed killer) contaminated soil. Commercial potting soil should not be used because it contains vermiculite, perlite, and/or peat moss, which can float out of the pot and cloud the water.   

Hardy water lilies like a larger pot, rather than one that is too small. One source recommended using a planting container that is as large as your pond or container can accommodate.  Larger soil volume means bigger flowers and leaves. New lilies usually are sold in small containers and should be transplanted into a larger container. I use a round container that is about 16 inches in diameter and about 6 ˝ inches deep, and does not have drain holes. This size will fit into a whiskey barrel plastic liner and also is about right for my pond. With this size of container, I usually have to divide my lilies and hardy water lotus every other year. This is best done in the spring when the plant shows growth and has a few new leaves. I did mine this year the first week in June because of the cold.

          Hardy water lilies are grown from tubers that are typically 4 to 8 inches long and can have several growing points. Fill the pot one-quarter full with the planting medium. Holding the tuber in one hand, place the tuber along one edge of the container at a 45-degree angle with the root pointing downward toward the opposite side of the container. Fill the medium in around the tuber until the medium is about 2 inches away from the top of the pot with the crown sticking out of the medium approximately one-half to 1 inch. If you use garden soil it is very important to cover the top of each pot with at least a 1 inch layer of pea gravel or decorative gravel to avoid the soil floating away and to prevent cloudy water from exposed soil. Structure does not need the gravel as it does not float.

          Regular fertilization will keep your hardy water lily blooming and growing well.  Fertilizer tablets for water plants are the easiest to use. Push the tablets clear to the bottom of the pot at planting time in the spring and then at least once a month from June until the middle of August. I use three tablets in the spring in my 16 inch containers and then add two tablets each month away from the roots. Make the roots reach out to the food. If you have a very large plant you may want to fertilize more often. Do not fertilize after August 15th so the plant can begin to go dormant for the winter.

          Position the water lily so that it receives at least five or more hours of direct sunlight.  The afternoon sun is best. Some varieties will flower at a reduced rate in less sunlight.  More sun means more flowers. Also, locate the water lily so that the floating leaves are out of the turbulence of the waterfall or fountain spray.  Water splashing on the top of the leaves will discolor or destroy them.

          With the onset of fall, several things must be done to prepare the pond for winter. After a hard freeze or when plants die back, cut the spent foliage and place the plants in the deepest part of your pond where they will over winter until next spring. Lilies must be a minimum of 18 to 24 inches deep in a container that is in the ground for plants to survive over winter. My fiberglass pond is 24 inches deep and freezes over every winter. However, the bottom of the pond that contains the plants does not freeze and so they survive. If you have fish, a heater is mandatory, or a pump that keeps the water moving. A good option is to use a small floating stock tank heater. The hole in the ice lets gas escape and allows air to come in for the fish. Plants do not need the air hole.

          A container above ground will freeze solid unless you install a pond heater. If you don’t use a pond heater, these plants should be pulled and stored in a cool area that is between 35 and 50 degrees F. Do not let them dry out. One year I over wintered  my hardy water lilies by taking them out of the pot, removing all the soil, and storing the roots in a 5 gallon bucket of water in the basement.


“Introduction to Water Gardening” by Troy Pabst, Anne Streich, and Steven Rodie. Nebraska Cooperative Extension Publication EC02-1252, Published by University of Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: 2002.

Springdale Water Gardens Catalog-2004”. Published by Springdale Water Gardens, 340 Old Quarry Lane, PO Box 546, Greenville, Virginia 24440-0546.

“The American Horticultural Society Complete Guide to Water Gardening” by Peter Robinson. Published by DK Publishing, Inc., 95 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016:1997

“Ortho’s All About Water Gardening” by Greg and Sue Speichert. Published by Meredith Corporation, Ortho Books, 1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50309-3023:2001. (Good articles on propagation of water plants.)

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