Water lilies may grace Japanese gardens and Monet paintings, but to the home gardener, a lily pond may appear to be as unattainable as it is beautiful.
Not so, according to Yorba Linda resident and water lily enthusiast Vergil Hettick. Founding members of the International Water Lily Society, Hettick and his wife, Marilyn, have grown their fragrant, eye-catching lilies for more than 30 years. The colorful water plants are simple to grow, and they can be accommodated in any garden size, from an apartment patio to a large back yard, the Hetticks said.
“Water lilies are very forgiving flowers,” explained Charles Thomas, a noted water lily expert and president of Lilypons, Md.-based Lilypons Water Gardens. “People who have not had experience with lilies are often fraught with trepidation. I like to tell people when working with water gardens you can be more successful by doing less.”
Although water lilies may seem an extravagance in drought-plagued Southern California, that is a misconception, according to Vergil Hettick. “Lilies are very economical. They help seal the surface of the water, exposing less water to the air. A lily pond requires less ‘makeup’ water than a lawn, and you never need to drain the water. You just add a little water every now and then to replace the water lost to evaporation.”
There are two types of water lilies for home water gardens--tropical and hardy. Holding their blossoms several inches above their floating foliage, tropical water lilies are generally larger than hardy lilies. During their first year in a water lily pond, tropical blooms yield six to eight times the number of blossoms of their hardy counterparts, Thomas said.
Tropical water lilies are divided into day- and night-blooming varieties. Blooming only when the sun goes down, tropical lilies are available in colors ranging from white to pink and red. Day-blooming tropicals offer more varied colors, including yellow, apricot, blue and purple.
The night-blooming, cerise “Emily Grant Hutchings” adorning the Hetticks’ Japanese-style garden is a good tropical selection, Thomas said. “It’s a profuse bloomer and often produces clusters of flowers.”
Tropical water lilies usually won’t last through a Southern California winter but can be stored above ground during cooler periods, Hettick noted. If not protected, tropical lilies will need to be replaced in the spring.
On the other hand, hardy water lilies are perennials. Resting their blossoms on the water surface, they bloom only during the day. Flowers are available in white, pink, yellow, red and apricot.
One of the most popular hardy lilies is the soft-pink “Fabiola,” Thomas said. “It’s very free-blooming and does well in a variety of locations, including a half-barrel.” Another top hardy is the white “Virginia,” he added.
For the beginner, the soft blue-colored “Dauben” is a good hardy choice, Thomas said. “It’s what I call an elastic lily. It grows quite well contained in an oak half-barrel or, if the plant is allowed to grow in a large pond, it can reach three to four feet across.”
Southern Californians can plant water lilies year-round, “but they won’t do well until the weather warms up,” Hettick advised. “Hardy lilies tend to bloom early in the spring, and we’ve even had them blooming through Christmas before.”
If you want to purchase water lilies locally, most suppliers such as Huntington Beach-based Pacific Goldfish Farm (a source for both tropical and hardy varieties) start selling the aquatic plants as soon as warm weather begins, usually in March or April, owner Joe Akiyama said.
Water gardens selling mail-order water lilies send the full plant, including the buds, blossoms and pads, during the blooming season, said Thomas. If orders are placed before the season, a sprouted lily is sent. Prices for a single water lily plant can vary from $15 to $50, with $20 to $25 being an average price.
To grow lilies, place them in a plastic tub or pot filled with heavy garden soil and position the plant so its crown barely shows. Add soil around the roots. Then wet the soil and cover it with a half-inch of pea gravel, keeping the crown clear.
The pot then needs to be lowered into the pond until the gravel surface is 6 to 8 inches underwater. (Use bricks below the pot to achieve the desired height.) As the plant grows, remove the bricks until the gravel surface is 10 inches below the water surface.
The Hetticks have a unique twist to their water lily planting procedure. “We have koi in our pond, and a lot of people say koi and water lilies are not compatible,” Hettick said.
The problem with the fish is that they dig into the soil and root up the water lilies, killing the plants, However, Hettick has developed a method to combat plant destruction. A quarter-inch plastic screen is placed over the top of the lily tub. This allows the plant to breathe, but keeps the fish from being able to reach the plant roots. As a result, koi and water lilies have co-existed in the Hetticks’ 4,000-gallon pond for 18 years with no ill effects.
Although the water lily bloom season is nearing its end, if you plan to build a pond, now is the time, according to Hettick. When choosing a location for a water lily pond, your first consideration should be adequate sunlight. “The one thing water lilies need to bloom is direct sunlight,” Hettick explained. (Most water plants require at least six hours of full sun daily.)
There are four basic types of water lily ponds: earth-bottom, concrete, preformed fiberglass and PVC. No matter what pond you build, remember to have the correct water depth. “A lot of people make a pond that’s too shallow,” Akiyama said. “The pond should be a minimum of 18 inches deep.”
Earth-bottom ponds are the simplest to build--dig a hole and fill it with water. However, most soils do not hold water well, resulting in a mud hole rather than a water garden. At the other extreme, concrete ponds provide strength, longevity and unlimited shape options. Since the Hetticks have koi in their lily pond, the 30-by-15-foot concrete pond was a necessity, said Hettick.
However, PVC liners are “the most popular in America today,” according to Thomas. “They’re especially good for the Southern California area. Unless there’s a very severe earthquake, they won’t crack.” The PVC liner is also the least expensive option, with a typical 10-by-16-foot liner retailing for $179, Thomas said. The liner is also very easy to set up, Hettick added. The liners can be purchased from mail-order water gardens, pet stores and garden supply centers.
Preformed fiberglass shells are another lily pond option. Less expensive than concrete, fiberglass shells “last a lifetime,” Thomas noted. “They can also withstand some stress in winter and during an earthquake.”
Local retailers, such as Pacific Goldfish Farm, offer preformed fiberglass shells retailing from $259 for a small shell to $879 for a large-size version, Akiyama said. Available from mail-order water garden companies, water garden specialists and some garden centers, fiberglass shells come in a number of shapes and sizes.
Condominium owners, apartment dwellers and other homeowners with limited space can also grow a lily pond in an oak half-barrel or tub. “You can easily have an attractive oak barrel arrangement with a lily, cattail and some aquatic plants,” Hettick said. “All you need do to clean out the barrel is siphon the water halfway down and change it.”
Be sure the barrel is well-weathered, Thomas advised. “If you can smell its former contents, then the barrel needs to be lined with a PVC liner. The alcohol can kill the plants and fish.”
Winter, spring, summer or fall, “it’s never too early or late to start a water garden,” according to Hettick. “You can go to a place that sells lilies, set up your pond today and have a lot of pleasure between now and Christmas.”