The New Water Garden : Aquatic Plants Are Now Moving to the Great Indoors

Robert Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine

FOR ABOUT 10 YEARS, I have kept a flossy pink waterlily, a clump of bright blue azure pickerel, two perky goldfish and assorted water snails in half of an old whiskey barrel. It's without a doubt the easiest pot to care for in the garden. Initially, though, the barrel required a great deal of scrubbing and soaking to get rid of the whiskey aroma and the charred wood inside. But then, once the pond was in operation--with the plants cleaning and oxygenating the water and the fish and snails keeping up with the algae and mosquitoes--it was no problem at all, needing only to be topped off with a little water now and then. Every few years, I remove the plants, divide them and repot in fresh soil. This water garden in a container has even moved with me--twice. Only now is it beginning to leak and lean a bit, like an old water tank.

Aquatic gardening can be a lot more sophisticated, however. Don Hamburger, owner of Aquasphere in Los Angeles, for instance, has figured out how to grow all kinds of aquatic plants indoors--an amazing feat, considering that most of them, outdoors, need the sunniest spot in the garden. He has even learned how to grow his favorite--the tropical waterlilies--under lights. For his efforts, Hamburger has recently won two awards for "interiorscaping."

Hamburger has found larger, stronger containers (a great improvement over my half whiskey barrel) that allow him to grow a much greater variety of aquatic plants. These heavy-duty commercial containers are made of a space-age polymer that can hold a tremendous weight of water. Van Ness Water Gardens, in Upland, carries several, the most intriguing of which is a large galvanized trough for farm animals. It also sells handsome TerraCast containers that look like terra cotta. When you are looking for a pot, make sure it is sturdy and leak-proof (it will probably be expensive).

June is the best month to plant aquatic plants, especially the fragrant and exotic tropical lilies. You don't need good soil; in fact, you need the heaviest clay you can find in the garden (think of the pond-bottom muck that these plants grow in naturally). Don't add soil amendments, but do throw in some fertilizer (special tabs are available for waterlilies).

Each type of plant has its own requirements. Lilies need about six to eight inches of water over the top of the soil; my azure pickerel, a bog plant, needs only an inch or two. Plants are usually potted in their own containers, then submerged in the pond on top on other pots.

Fish are a necessity--to keep mosquitoes from breeding. I've had good luck with ordinary goldfish, but mosquito fish are the toughest. For plants and fish, visit Van Ness Water Gardens or write for a free catalogue (2460 N. Euclid Ave., Upland, Calif. 91786). Or Don Hamburger can do it all for you, even indoors.

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