Water Gardening Basics

Water Gardening Basics

Ready to take the plunge into water gardening? At Groovy Plants Ranch, we love the added dimension water gardens bring to the landscape, especially with their reflecting pools, gurgling water, colorful fish, and of course a whole new palette of plants! We’re talking water lilies, carnivorous bog plants and showy tropicals. Not to mention, the dragonflies, songbirds and frogs they attract.

If you’re tempted, it’s easy to dip your toe in water gardening. Start simply with a patio container or dive deeper with an in-ground pond and a sea of options. If we haven’t lost you with our wet humor, read on for more water gardening tips.


First, decide which size is best for you. Patio containers are often best for beginners since they’re easy and affordable – the perfect way to learn the basics with minimal costs. When you’re ready for the next level, try the more challenging yet highly rewarding larger ponds.

    • Patio Containers – Select a watertight container at least 18 inches in diameter. Possibilities include a resin bowl-shaped container, a galvanized stock tank from a farm supply store or a lined whiskey barrel. Next, stack bricks along an inside edge of the container then fill it with water. Place a water lily (keep in its original basket) on the bottom, so its stems are submerged and leaves float. Use a brick to elevate the pot if the stem is short. Arrange companion plants like common rush or dwarf papyrus atop the brick stack, adjusting bricks so the pot tops are flush with water. Maintain the container by regularly removing dead leaves and floating algae. Refill it as water evaporates; and overfill monthly to refresh water. Add aquatic plant fertilizer tablets and mosquito dunks, which contain a bacteria toxic only to mosquito larvae and not pets or plants.
    • In-Ground Kit – Shop big box stores for DIY pond kits complete with liner, skimmer, filter and pump. Starter kits range from 4’ x 6’ to 8’ x 11’. There are multiple steps, so follow along with a comprehensive video tutorial like this one from Aquascape.  
  • Custom Pond – More complex water features involve streams, fountains, waterfalls, pools and fishponds. Many mimic nature and are accented with rocks, Japanese maples and cascading perennials. We recommend contacting a landscape contractor for these bigger projects. Invest in a quality pump skimmer, and be prepared to take on maintenance chores like daily fish feedings, weekly chemical applications to control algae, monthly fertilization of the plants and cleaning of the filter and skimmer basket. To prepare for winter, you must remove leaves, trim back plants and connect a bubbler to prevent the water from freezing. 
  • Location

    Water gardens perform best in a sunny spot with six or more hours of sunlight. The side of a sunny patio is ideal, so you can sit and enjoy its beauty.

    Aquatic Plants

    Like terrestrial plants that grow in soil, aquatic plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through pores called “stomata.” The stomata for aquatic plants have adapted so they are located on the upper sides of leaves exposed to the air. Here are four aquatic plant groups based on their location in the pond.

    • Floaters: Plants like water hyacinths and water lettuce float on water. They add oxygen to the water for fish, and their long root systems help filter the water. These are fast growers, so don't hesitate to thin them so they don’t cover more than 50 percent of the water surface. Compost them or share with others. 
    • Marginals: These plants thrive on the edges of ponds in 4” to 12” inches of water. They include arrowhead, rush, creeping Jenny, marsh marigold, papyrus, irises, dwarf cattails, cardinal flowers and sweet flag. Canna lilies (Tropicana, Cleopatra and Glauca) and colocasia can also be grown submerged in water along the edges. 
    • Bog plants: These plants grow on pond shores where water just barely covers the soil. Here, try our carnivorous (insect-eating) pitcher plants with their colorful tubular leaves.
    • Surface plants: Water lilies and lotus are the stars of the water garden with their iconic Monet-inspiring blooms. While most waterlilies’ leaves and flowers float on the surface, lotus leaves and their flowers rise above the water surface. We carry hardy water lily varieties like ‘White Albatross’ and salmon-colored ‘Colorado’ as well as lotus varieties like ‘Red Light’ and ‘White Cotton’.

    To preview several of these aquatic plants, see this video from Oklahoma State University extension.

    Adding Fish

    When customers are ready to add fish to their waterscapes, Jared refers them to Ohio Koi  -- just five minutes away. We think of Ohio Koi as the “Groovy Plants Ranch” of the fish world with rare Japanese koi and specialty goldfish plus a super-knowledgeable team. The place was founded by Todd Elliott in 2016 when he turned his hobby and passion into a full-time business. Today, Todd offers a large collection of fish in six mud ponds and 13 indoor tanks, demonstration waterscapes, pond equipment, water treatments, fish food and more.

    When Todd’s customers arrive requesting koi, he often walks them over to his large pool with 2’ and 3’ koi as he tactfully inquires about the size of their pond. He explains koi typically need 300 gallons of water and live 20-30 years on average (the record koi age is 200 years!). On top of that, koi are schooling fish, so that means they should be purchased in pairs now doubling the necessary water capacity to 600 gallons. As Todd spells out koi needs, he starts talking about specialty goldfish that only need 15 gallons per fish. He explains these are not your common pet-store variety. Rather, they feature beautiful patterns and colors and premium prices.

    In getting started with fish, Todd advises customers to start small and learn the basics with a small pond before investing in a larger custom-built waterscape. 

    “Water is the lifeblood of the pond for fish and plants,” he says, so you have to learn how to manage it correctly (using bio and mechanical filters). Once you have that mastered, you’re ready to tackle larger ponds and more exotic fish like koi and their 100 varieties with rare ones costing thousands of dollars.

    Insider Water Gardening Tips

    • Color water. Use pond dyes to enhance reflection, retain heat, mask debris on the bottom and discourage algae growth.
    • Pot water lilies. Any size water lily can grow in a pot since they’ll only grow to the size of the container.
    • Keep aquatic plants (and exotic fish) contained in ponds and pots. In the wild, some can be invasive and complete with natives.
    • Overwinter water lilies. In cold climates, hardy water lilies can survive in ponds. When grown in patio containers, lift water lilies, trim stems and store in a bucket with an inch of water in a protected garage (30° to 50° F) for the winter.
    • Recycle nutrient-rich pond water. Scoop buckets of pond water to feed bedding plants, hanging baskets and houseplants. The combo of aging plants, naturally present microbes and fish waste act as a natural fertilizer.


    Learn More

    Check out the International Waterlily & Water Gardening Society for helpful articles, a directory of local chapters and a list of public gardens with water features. Our favorites include Naples Botanical Garden, Denver Botanic Gardens, Missouri Botanical Garden and Longwood Gardens.

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