What you wish you'd known about installing a water garden

Experience is the best teacher in the garden. As we make mistakes - and learn from them - we become better gardeners.

But there are times when the lessons that come through trial and error can be costly, and we find ourselves muttering: Why didn't somebody tell me?

Many of these I-wish-I'd-known moments may occur when installing a water garden and stocking it with plants.

After all, you can't pick up a pond and move it if you later decide you don't like the location. And one waterlily typically costs three times the price of an entire flat of annuals.

So if you're thinking of making a splash in your backyard, here's some of my hard-won water-garden know-how, in hope that it will make your project turn out better.

First, think about location. You'll enjoy your water garden more if you can see (and hear) it from inside the house.

A babbling brook beneath a tree presents an appealing picture - until autumn arrives and you spend hours removing fallen leaves from your pond.

Another problem with shade is that waterlilies don't like it. Most prefer six or more hours of direct sun in order to bloom well. Water-garden retailers usually carry a few that can manage with only three to four hours of sunlight, but the selection of these partial-shade-tolerant cultivars won't be large.

Waterlilies also prefer tranquil surroundings. Since the hottest trend in ponds is fountains, streams, and waterfalls, you'll need to pick a calm spot away from swirling water for the lilies.

There are two type of waterlilies - hardy and tropical - and if you live where winter temperatures dip way below freezing, you might decide that replacing tropicals yearly (or trying to overwinter them in the basement) is a good reason to stick with hardy ones.

But you may want to think again. Tropical waterlilies offer extra benefits that you really shouldn't miss.

They're much more spectacular than hardy waterlilies: They're taller, wider, and come in a greater array of colors. They also hold their luxurious blooms high above the surface of the water. In addition, tropicals may bloom one to 1-1/2 months longer than hardy waterlilies, says Randall Tate of the Water Garden (www.watergarden.com).

In his Zone 7 garden, "I often have [tropical waterlily] plants blooming at Thanksgiving," he says. It takes repeated frosts to kill a tropical lily. But, he adds, "hardy waterlilies usually stop blooming in late September or early October." (This varies by geography.)

One of the nicest attributes of tropical waterlilies is that they bloom at convenient times for people who are at work all day.

Hardy waterlilies close their flowers about 3 p.m., Mr. Tate says. If you have a 9-to-5 job, you may not see them blooming except on weekends.

Tropicals are of two types: Day bloomers - which have a delightful perfume - generally stay open till 6:30 p.m. Night-blooming tropicals "start opening when the sun goes down and stay open till 10 or later the next day, depending on the sun," he says. "If it's overcast, it may be noon."

Finally, don't be so beguiled by waterlilies that you overlook submerged, or oxygenating, plants. They're plain green and live underwater, but their contribution to keeping your pond's water clear and algae-free is invaluable. Buy one bunch for each square foot of water surface.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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