More on ornamental ponds—particularly my own; including on a balcony
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

April 22, 2018

Above, Water Hawthorn is one of the earliest pond occupants to flower, this one in our large pond right at edge; Marsh marigolds in centre to left of water geyser in large pond; and Water Hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyus). Below, dwarf pond lily (Nuphar pumila) is not only considered dwarf, it also grows in light shade; Pink tropical in small pond; Large Koi fish beside water soldier plant. Author photos.




It was in 1982 I first decided to experiment with growing water lilies, and decided to do so using a half barrel. I had one red water lily, two water hyacinths, two goldfish, and two or three trapdoor snails. The barrel garden was a terrific success! The following year I installed an in-ground pond, and in successive years kept enlarging my water garden until today I have both a large and a small pond here in Parksville. They total 334 cubic feet and hold a total of about 2500 gallons of water

You can easily duplicate my barrel garden for well under $100; the total cost dependant on how resourceful you are! Half barrels are sold at a variety of garden supply outlets, but often also at home improvement centres. Check numerous sources. Some half barrels will be ready for use (the interior having been burned to clean them) while others may need work. At some garden supply outlets, there is a plastic interior half barrel liner available. This guarantees no contamination of the water from previous barrel uses (although the burn treatment seems to do this very well).

Though it is possible to grow a large number of water plants in areas that do not receive at least five hours of sunshine daily, water lilies will generally not bloom if they don't receive that five hours. That may mean placing your half barrel or tub at a level above the floor in order to get maximum light. It definitely means water lilies are not suitable for north- and east-facing balconies! It does not mean you cannot grow many other water plants and even one or two some-what-shade-tolerant hardy lilies, about which more can be found in my book Gardening Off The Ground.

Your balcony or deck water garden need not be a half barrel, but I suggest the size of whatever container you choose should be not less than a half barrel. I have seen old laundry and bath tubs recycled as water garden containers and they serve well! You may also buy your own specially-made pre-formed pool (generally of rigid black Fiberglas or plastic) from any number of garden and building supply dealers. Another route is to build a grid (base) for a pool out of wood or concrete, covering the harsh surfaces with felt cloth, and then installing a PVC pool liner (40 mil recommended). Usually such liners are available in various sizes in garden supply outlets; they should be black or dark green.

If you are designing a pool, an important point to remember is though water lilies and a few other plants like to be placed so that there is at least 30 cm of water over the surface of the soil in their planting container, most other water plants (iris, for example) prefer, or demand to have the soil surface of their container at the surface of the water. This means if you are building a pool to be covered by a PVC liner, or are purchasing one of rigid Fiberglas, plan to have at least one shelf that is only about 20 cm (8") down from the top surface of the pond. This will enable you to set the shallow-water plants where they like to grow. In a barrel or pond without such shelves, it is necessary to build up platforms with overturned pots or bricks for these plants. An alternate way of suspending shallow-water plants in water gardens, is black vinyl-coated wire holders sold at major water garden supply dealers.

If you plan to design and build a water garden pool for your balcony or deck, the depth of water is an important consideration. Hardy water lilies (as opposed to Tropical types) are generally able to survive winters with no additional protection [zone 6] in a pool with a water depth of at least 50 cm (20"). Fish cannot survive winters unless the water depth is at least twice this, and some oxygen can get to them. However, if you build a pool with a 50 cm depth, you may well be able to keep your hardy lilies over each winter right at the bottom of the pool.

If you are unable to over-winter hardy lilies, the next best is to remove the plants, cut back all the foliage and place them (container and all) in a black plastic garbage bag, which you tie tight-ly closed (to retain moisture). Store this in a cool, frost-free location, perhaps at a friend's or neighbour's who gardens at ground level!

Obviously the number one plant for water gardens are the glorious water lilies. Basically, there are two types (hardy and tropical) which you may want to consider growing. The first, the hardy lilies, come in a number of exciting colours ranging from bright red to pink, yellow, cream and white, with some varieties changing in colour as each flower ages. 'Comanche' for example, starts out an apricot colour and later changes to a copper-bronze. Hardy lilies are best obtained in early spring, and placed in the pool at about the same time that tender annual flowers and tomato plants are placed permanently outdoors. They are available now, and planted soon, will give you a good show right up until a heavy frost. Hardy lilies will cost around $40 each (de-pending on their size) at garden supply dealers.

There are at least two hardy water lily varieties which can be considered 'dwarf' in growth habit. Though I do not exclude other larger-growing varieties for use in half-barrels or other containers of this size, the dwarf hardy water lily (Nymphaea pygmea 'Helvola') and the dwarf pond lily (Nuphar pumila) are particularly recommended. Note too that the latter is also capable of growing in shaded conditions.

If purchased by mail-order, hardy lilies may arrive bare root, and need to be planted into an open (mesh-like) basket. It is best to obtain planting baskets from the supplier when you get the plants. For a small young plant, the first planting basket should not be smaller than 15 cm (6") square. If you buy your lilies from a garden supply dealer they may well already be in four- or five-inch plastic pots. While you can grow lilies for the first season without transplanting, the better way is to buy mesh baskets as described, and transplant the lilies before you sink them into the pool. Virtually any soil, even heavy clay, is fine for planting water lilies. Be sure to have each plant's crown (from whence the leaves grow) just above the surface of the soil in the basket. Follow the suppliers' directions.

When transplanting lilies into baskets, or in any case, as soon as you put them in your pool, or in succeeding years, as soon as you see growth coming up, is the time to fertilize. Long-lasting tablets such as Water Garden Plant Food (14-3-3) is ideal in that it will last an entire season—just push them down into the soil at the outside of the pot or basket, burying them at varying depths. Use quantities suggested by the manufacturer (Vigoro). Tablet fertilizer is one important step in preventing algae.

The second major type of water lily is the Tropical. These have several advantages as well as drawbacks over the hardy cultivars. First they have a wider range of flower colours including some delightful blues and pinks, and they have a much superior fragrance. Tropical lilies should not be placed in any outdoor pond until at least mid-June in most areas. The water should be warm to the touch before installing Tropical lilies. Tropical lilies also have a much stronger fragrance, including at night.

The drawbacks to Tropical lilies are, first as mentioned here; secondly they cannot be left in the pond over winter. Several different growers have developed interesting methods of over-wintering Tropicals and you can check those out on line or at a major garden supply dealer.


  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row