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All About Container Water Gardening  

Explore the World of Water Gardening

Looking for a new and fascinating way to grow and enjoy plants? How about exploring the small world of container water gardening? The color and fragrance of container-grown aquatic plants can transform even the smallest space into a living work of art. Don't let lack of experience, space or time put a damper on this gardening project. All you need is an hour or two, a suitable container, some lovely aquatic plants, and a sunny place on your patio, deck or porch.

Getting Started

Choose a Container
- The first step in planning your water garden is to decide on a container. Just about anything that holds water qualifies. Container water gardens can range from a small ceramic bowl holding a few gallons of water to a much larger tub, pot, basin or wooden barrel.

As a general rule, the container should hold at least five gallons of water, be 18 inches wide at the top and 18" deep. When choosing your water container, consider size, weight, location, mobility, price and types of plants you want to grow. If you want to use a favorite vessel with drainage holes, just plug them up with an inexpensive cork or a piece of heavy plastic liner spread with caulk. Wooden containers can be lined with heavy duty plastic film or flexible pond liner.
Some good container choices are:

  • Terra cotta planters
  • Galvanized buckets or tubs
  • Oversize dishes and bowls
  • Livestock watering troughs
  • Half-whiskey barrels
  • Plastic planters

Keep It Simple

The most pleasing designs can be created with only a few plants. Start with a focus plant, such as a miniature water lily, water poppy, floating heart or water snowflake. Some other good focus plants include pigmy lilies, teacup lotus and dwarf lilies. You'll be surprised how many flowers you'll get from just one of these surface-blooming plants.

Next, consider a floating plant. Water lettuce, water chestnuts, fairy floating moss and water hyacinth are all good choices for containers because they help suppress algae and catch debris floating in the water. Be aware that most floaters reproduce rapidly and need to be culled from time to time.

Depending on the size of your container, you may want to include a vertical growing plant to show standing leaves above the water. A few favorites include water iris, horsetail grass, umbrella palm, cattail, cardinal lobelia, Japanese arrowhead and cotton grass. As you gain experience, you can experiment with greater numbers and varieties of plants.

Pick a Sunny Spot

Container water gardens permit you to get close enough to appreciate the spectacular flowers and vibrant scents of aquatic plants. Pick a sunny spot on your deck or patio, where you can keep an eye on the container and its contents. Tub-type containers can also be tucked into a bed of flowers, or placed on the porch near your front door.

Water gardens are healthier in sunny locations. Most aquatic plants require a good dose of sun, and should receive from four to six hours of full sun every day. Lilies, lotus and other blooming water plants prefer morning sun, as do plants growing in small or shallow containers. Although the best location for a water garden is in an open, sunny area, try to select a spot that's protected from wind.

Place your container on a level surface for both visual effect and to maintain proper water level. Use bricks or garden stones to provide a level, stable foundation for heavier containers. If you are planning to use moving water, make sure there is a convenient supply of electricity and fresh water close by.

Pot Some Plants

Although your water garden will have a few floaters, you will need to pot up other varieties of aquatic plants before sinking them in the water container. Use sturdy plastic or terra cotta pots. At the nursery we usually have those black plastic pots that our plants come in - these can also be used - and they're free! Water plants should be grown in a 50/50 mixture of bagged topsoil and clay soil. Don't use a light-weight commercial potting mixture.

To pot plants and sink them in the water:  
Lilies in a Pot
  • Remove the plant from its original container and rinse thoroughly to wash away any insects.
  • Partially fill the pot with soil mixture and gently position the plant.
    Fill in with additional soil mix, leaving about an inch below the rim.
  • Spread a layer of pea gravel or aquarium gravel on the top of each newly planted pot to keep soil from muddying the water.
  • Slowly lower the pot into the water at a slight angle, allowing time for air to escape without displacing dirt.
  • To position an aquatic at just the right depth in your container, simply set it on a brick or two. Keep the plant high enough so that its leaves sit above water.
  • Add free-floating plants such as water hyacinth, to the container after potting up and positioning other aquatics. Simply float them in the water - they don't need any soil. They have beautiful flowers and keep the water clear of algae and weeds by minimizing the amount of sunlight on the surface of your container garden. Remove excess floating plants by lifting them above the water and cutting off unwanted parts.


Water lilies are fragrant perennials or annuals with big, round leaves and showy flowers that float on still water. You don't have to invest in a pond or submerged water garden to enjoy their continuous color from late spring until frost. Just buy a pretty pot and plant one variety of small water lily.

  • Use almost any large glazed or ceramic container to make a beautiful home for miniature water lilies. It's best to select a pot that is at least 18 inches high, 18 inches wide and without drain holes.
  • If you want to use a favorite vessel with drainage holes, just plug them up with an inexpensive cork or a piece of heavy plastic liner spread with caulk.
  • Place the container in a sunny spot on your deck or patio.
    Fill with water and wait two days before planting to make sure it is waterproof.
    Put each lily in a plastic-mesh planting box and gently submerge into the clean, watertight container. You may also plant the water lily in a small container using a 50/50 topsoil/clay mixture.
  • Use a brick or a small inverted clay pot to raise the lily high enough so that all leaves will sit above water level, then sit back and enjoy the show!

Care For Your Water Garden

Taking care of your container water garden is usually a simple matter. There's no need to change the water, but do top it off every few days to replace liquid that has evaporated. Check to make sure the plants are thriving every time you add water. If you see a wilted or dying plant, it's likely the garden isn't getting enough light and should be repositioned.

Because water plants grow quickly, use fertilizing tablets sparingly - if at all. TIP: Never fertilize new plants until they show signs of growth.

Carefully cut off spent flowers to promote continued blooming and to keep your water garden tidy. Dip out any debris or fallen leaves and thin by removing overgrowth every few weeks.

TIP: Before subnersing your water plants, plant them in small pots to limit growth and trim off any dead or diseased areas.

Favorite Aquatic Plants

No matter the size, any container water garden will look best when a variety of plants are brought together. You can use a tall plant for drama, a flowering plant for color, a cascading plant to extend blooms outside the container, and a floating plant to top off your creation.

Vertical Foliage Plants:
SWEET FLAG - a grassy plant with fruity fragrance that grows 2 or 3 feet tall.
DWARF PAPYRUS - bell shaped flower clusters atop 18 to 24 inch stems.
CATTAIL - 4-foot spires of foliage topped by brown flowers that look like sausage.

Fantastic Floaters:
WATER LETTUCE - palm-sized plant with soft, wrinkled leaves with a velvety texture.
WATER HYACINTH - lilac-blue flowers bloom about 6 inches above the surface.
FLOATING MOSS - tiny floater that's ideal for small container water gardens.

Cascading Plants:
WATER MINT - fast-growing with fuzzy, round leaves and tiny, powder blue flowers.
PARROT FEATHER - soft, feathery tufts of foliage trail over the edge of the container.

Magical Marginals:
VARIEGATED SPIDER LILY - green and white leaves with fragrant, white blooms.
CHAMELEON PLANT - a spreading, delightful mound of red, green and cream leaves.
YELLOW PITCHER PLANT - trumpet shaped leaves with white and red veins.
WATER CELERY - provides fragrance and delightful, green and pink foliage.

Adding Fish

Add a few fish to your water garden for extra appeal. Guppies, mollies, swordtails, mosquito fish and small gold fish are commonly available and live happily in a small container. These little fish not only add interest, they help keep plants healthy by eating aphids, mosquitoes, and other insect pests.

Wait one or two weeks after planting the container to add fish. During this time, your water garden will grow enough beneficial algae to provide a healthy environment for a few fish.

Limit the number of fish you select. The larger the container, the better it is for even the smallest fish specimen. For example, a whiskey barrel half is adequate for only four or five tiny fish.

To reduce stress caused by the variation in water temperature, float the bag you bring the fish home in on the surface of the container for about 30 minutes. Before releasing them, add small amounts of container water to the bag to acclimate your fish to their new home.

It's likely there will be enough food in the container water garden, including wayward insects, to support a few fish. But if you need to add supplemental food, watch to see if the fish are actively swimming before feeding them for the first time.

Other than replacing water that evaporates, and fertilizing and trimming your plants, there is little maintenance involved.

Unless you live in an area where the winter temperatures do not drop below freezing you will need to dismantle your tub garden or take it inside for the winter.


Swamp in a Pot

Do you know you can grow water plants in a containerized miniature swamp? It's true and it's the simplest form of water gardening you can think of. All you need is a traditional terra-cotta pot, pea gravel, potting mix and a couple of water plants. If the pot has a drain hole(s) line it with heavy duty plastic film or a piece of pond liner.

For best results, treat the pot as if it were a miniature swamp.

Fill the container at least two-thirds full of 50/50 potting mix/clay soil mixture, add the plants, top them off with pea gravel, and then add water. Make sure the plants stand in 6 inches of water or less.

You can find many moisture-loving perennials available at the nursery suitable for 'swamp container gardening'.

NOTE: If your little swamp attracts mosquitoes, add a drop of cooking oil to the water every couple of weeks. It creates a film over the water surface that is harmless to plants but prevents mosquito larvae from coming up for air.



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