Few can resist the magical quality of these starry summer flowers floating on a pool of sparkling water. Whether your chosen design plan requires formal elegance or has a wild, natural look, whether you have a large lake or small barrel pool to plant, you can be sure to find a water lily to suit your purpose.
When selecting a water lily (Nymphaea species), first assess the size and depth of your pond or water feature. Large species lilies, such as N. alba, spread up to 6 feet (1.8 m) across the surface and require a minimum water depth of 3 feet (1 m), while tiny types, including N. tetragona, are happy in tubs or small pools.
As well as producing exquisite flowers, the majority of water lilies are
tough, functional plants. Their exotic-looking blooms belie their hardy
nature—most will survive the harshest winter unscathed—while the
platelike leaves inhibit the growth of algae. The exceptions are the
exotic blue- and purple-flowered water lilies, which are not hardy and
must be given winter protection.
For the best effects in large or medium-sized pools, ensure your water lilies are not crowded by too many other plants, or they will lose their impact. Plant a single lily in a raised pool for a sophisticated look in a formal garden. In an informal or wildlife garden design, build a pond with a pebble beach effect, and plant your water lilies in the deeper water at the other end.
Water lilies combine well with other aquatics, including irises, Pontederia cordata, and the arrow-shaped foliage of Sagittaria sagittifolia. For a patio display, plant a dwarf water lily in a glazed container or watertight tub, and pair it with one or two well-behaved marginal plants, such as the miniature reed, Typha minima, and the magenta blooms of Iris versicolor ‘Kermesina’.
Water lilies object to fast-moving water, so are not suitable for streams or areas close to waterfalls or fountains. They also prefer a sunny location to flower well and may not bloom in the shade. Plant them in aquatic baskets; when they outgrow their allotted space, divide them and repot the smaller plants. In frost-prone areas, grow tender varieties in a sunroom.