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Water gardening is still a very worthwhile effort
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

July 9, 2017

Above, two shots of our first in-ground pond on Hopedale Avenue in Toronto, note one white and four red hardy lilies out in bloom. Below, two shots of the Nesbitt Drive pond in Toronto, note the yellow iris in bloom near front and several water lily blooms about half way back in the shot. Author photos.




Even though water lilies in a garden pool may still conjure up thoughts of tropical gardens in southern climes for some new to gardening, water gardens are becoming increasingly popular all over Ontario and all of Canada. It's even possible to have a tub water garden on a sunny apartment or condominium balcony. In fact, that's how I whetted my own interest in the subject--early in 1982. I used a half-barrel and had a single water lily and some other aquatic plants, together with two gold fish.

Following on my success of 1982, in 1983, I decided I wanted a much larger water feature. In a back garden just 8 x 23 m (25 x 75'), I installed a rigid Fiberglas pool of irregular shape about 210 x 150 cm (7 x 5'). These are relatively easy to install, and need no draining for winter. Cost of such pools vary from about $170 to over $500. Fiberglas pools are about 45 cm (18 inches) deep in the centre, but most have shelves of only about half that depth around the outside. That's because while water lilies generally like to have between 15 to 30 cm of water over the top of their pots, other accompanying aquatic plants such as arrowhead, papyrus and arum prefer to be at or just below the water's surface.

In 1986, when I moved to a new home, I decided I wanted an even larger water garden. That meant a choice between either a concrete pool, or one with a flexible PVC liner. While concrete is excellent, it's costly. Thick (40 mil) black or dark grey/green PVC liners are the perfect answer. They're available from most good garden centres. You simply dig your pool to the size and shape you desire, and then purchase a liner to fit. Or, you can have one custom made. My larger water garden, I decided, was to be a formal rectangular pool about one by five metres (4 x 17'). A MacMillan Bloedel product called Pyroc which is 70% concrete mixed with wood fibre supported the 50 cm (20 inch) deep sides. It resembled grey plywood. This is covered with the 40 mil plastic liner. Costs for the liners vary from about $60 to $700--considerably less than poured concrete. The liner is installed over a layer or two of landscape fabric. It's important to allow about 45 to 60 centimetres of the liner to extend over the edge of your pool. It is here that you install flagstone to hang over the edge so the liner won't be seen.

The single most important consideration in planning a water garden is the availability of sun-light. Water lilies do not like shade! Full sun is a must. This may well govern both the location and size of your water garden. Obviously, first and foremost of the aquatic plants are the water lilies.

The most common and least expensive are the hardy water lilies. These are perennial and are a permanent investment since they may be carried over from one year to the next right in the pond. Their colours range from white to yellow, red, and pink, with some such as `Commanche' starting out apricot in colour, later changing to a copper-bronze. Each plant should be around $40.

The second type: tropicals--both day and night blooming. While these cannot be carried over the winter (except in a greenhouse) their sheer beauty--particularly those in the blue/purple range (absent in hardies) is stunning. Flowers are often the size of a dinner plate, and their fragrance permeates an entire garden. Since tropicals are accustomed to warm climates, they should not be put in until the pool water is warm. Once they bloom, they will continue until frost. If your garden is lit at night, you'll want to have at least one night-blooming tropical. It will also remain open on cloudy days. Tropical lilies sell for around $50.

Other aquatic plants you may wish to consider for your water garden are the Egyptian Lotus (including some newer dwarf forms which do well in half-barrels or plastic tubs on balconies), marsh marigold (an absolute must), cat tails, arrowhead, water iris, water forget-me-not and some ornamental grasses. These are all hardy plants that can be over-wintered with no special protection in a pool that is 45 to 60 cm deep. Tropical aquatic plants such as water hyacinths, water lettuce, taro (with many varieties ranging in colour from green to deep red or almost black, and of different heights), umbrella palm (easily moved indoors as a houseplant over winter), papyrus and giant papyrus (both may be overwintered in the basement or a greenhouse), water canna and spider lily also make good additions for any water garden. The water hyacinth is an absolute must.

None of these is hardy and thus they will not live over the winter in the pool. However, water hyacinth, which floats on the surface of the water, and in hot summers, multiplies many times over, is an important aspect of keeping the pool clear of algae, and also provides cover for the protection of eggs laid by tropical and goldfish. They will also bear pale blue flowers in hot summers.

Currently in my pool, the spider lily is about to have several of its white flowers that are very exotic looking and are the subject of many questions from garden viewers. There are few specific requirements for water lilies other than the already mentioned sunlight, rich clay-loam soil, fertilizer, and warmth.

In the next installment of this water gardening story I’ll tell you about the building of two even larger ponds at our new home in Parksville, B.C. We poured concrete for these.

There are also a few problems with ponds—nothing that is too difficult to deal with, such as algae--about which I will write within the next few weeks as well.


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