in the pond
Yes you can!
for the Pond
by Rich Sacher, Louisiana USA
Click images to enlarge
When I was just a kid, I had so many aquariums in our bedroom
that to this day, my brother Bob claims it was like "sleeping
20,000 leagues under the sea", because of all the air pumps
gurgling and humming, night and day. We lived in Jersey City
at the time, and my favorite pet shop was owned by a charming
young woman named Evelyn
whose boyfriend was a guy named
Herbert. I spent a lot of time at this pet shop and probably
had a crush on Evelyn
but I was very young, so what did
I know about such things? But I do recall being a little jealous
and resentful of her boyfriend.
I remember one time Herbert made Evelyn shriek in alarm when
he visited the pet shop, said hello, and then took a long drink
out of one of her aquariums. He thought her distress was great
fun! Herbert and Evelyn got married, and he went on to travel
the world collecting unusual tropical fish and published innumerable
books under his Tropical Fish Hobbyist trademark. I did not connect
this childhood memory with Herbert Axelrod and TFH Publications for
almost 40 years ... but that is another story for another time.
Meanwhile, there really is a connection here to the topic of
Even as a young teenager, I was fascinated with the various
terrestrial plants that a pet shop could offer for planting under
water in the gravel of a fresh water aquarium. There were miniature
palms (probably Neantha bella), Chlorophytum (also
called spider plant), some variety of Ludwigia, and even
an exotic Pilea known as "aluminum plant. There were
other plants, too; I expect you will understand if I cannot recall
all of them. Even way back then, I was intrigued with the thought
that some plants could be coaxed into growing under water
even if that was not what Mother Nature made them for.
It turns out that there are also quite a few common terrestrial
plants which can happily adapt to growing in a pond, with their
pots totally submerged in water. Many of them do just as well
in a pond as they do in the ground. In fact, some of them grow
bigger and faster because of their constant access to water and
However, it is not often feasible to take a water-tolerant
terrestrial plant and place it in a pond. Most potted terrestrial
plants are grown in some sort of soil mix high in organic matter,
and the plant might be too buoyant. Plants in these lightweight
soil mixes usually fall over quickly since they are top heavy.
Therefore, the soil must be substituted with a heavier mix like
sand, clay, or a mix thereof. Once that is done, a fertilizer
tablet can be pushed into the soil, and the plant can be placed
in the pond. These land plants should be fertilized on the same
schedule as other potted pond plants.
Another consideration for replacing such a soil mix is that
a high bark component may create an oxygen deficiency at the
roots as the bark decomposes under water ... thus stunting or
even killing the plant. That same soil mix would be fine above
ground, since some air is always present in the root system after
excess water drains away.
Spathiphyllum, top of page, in any of its large or small
varieties, makes a great show in a shady pond. They can tolerate
a few hours of morning sun, but must have afternoon shade. With
its shiny white flowers and glossy foliage, they always surprise
visitors to the pond, because spaths are most commonly known
as indoor plants. To see them growing outdoors in a pond always
invites comments and questions. Spaths hate to dry out, so they
are sold in soil with lots of peat moss. If the plant is root-bound
to the point that this peat cannot be removed without damaging
roots, it can be left in place ... as long as the plant is repotted
into a larger pot with heavy, sandy soil. Because it is truly
tropical, it cannot be left in the pond for the winter in most
climates, but it is worthwhile as a summer spectacular.
Root-bound C. papyrus
Papyrus (Cyperus sp.) in most of its forms is well
known as a pond plant. But even an aquatic plant may sometimes
need special handling before going into the pond. These pictures
show a very root-bound plant that needs to be moved to a larger
pot. The root system is so dense, that a plant like this can
be simply moved to a larger pot without disturbing the root system
and then a sandy soil can be filled around it.
The plant at the left actually floated in its original one
gallon (4.4 liter) container, but after being transplanted to
a 10 inch (25 centimeter) pot, it was quite heavy enough to stay
upright in the pond. Papyrus will not survive a hard freeze,
but smaller plants can be brought indoors to a sunny window and
grown as a house plant until it is warm enough to return them
to the pond.
< Ready to repot
Hardy Hibiscus (H. moscheutos) is another water-loving
plant for sunny aquatic gardens. There are large "dinner
plate" flowering varieties, as well as other species which
are perfectly suited to the pond. Here in New Orleans, they go
dormant for the winter, and new growth emerges from beneath the
water in late spring. You can't get more water tolerant than
that! The large flowering varieties are quite striking, and they
usually do not get more than three feet tall. However, tropical
Hibiscus will not tolerate being submerged like their
The large white calla lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, is
well known for inhabiting damp, mostly shady gardens. This is
another plant that adapts beautifully to the pond, especially
if it has some afternoon shade. Again, if the soil in the pot
is too buoyant, it may have to be transplanted to heavier soil.
I like to plant three one gallon (4.4 liter) calla lilies in
a sixteen inch (40 centimeter) pot for a really nice full plant.
We should note here that other varieties of calla lily will not
tolerate having their pots submerged in water. The giant white
calla lily is the one to use for aquatic gardens. The plant should
be moved to a frost free location for winter, and the foliage
will die down while the bulbs go dormant until spring.
Canna 'Pink Sunburst'
Dave Brigante Photo
Cannas come in many different flower and leaf colors,
and absolutely love being submerged in water. They should be
planted in large and heavy enough pots to keep them from getting
top-heavy, since they can easily grow to 3-5 feet (.9-1.5 meters)
during a summer season. Some people think they have to use only
those small-flowering Cannas sold in the trade as "aquatic",
but this is not true. I have never met any Canna that
did not thrive with its entire pot under water. In those parts
of the country where the pesky leaf roller caterpillar is not
present, Cannas make a spectacular plant for the sunny
pond, with their long succession of large, vibrant summer blooms.
In the deep south, Cannas spend the winter in the pond.
Further north, these plants should be moved to a cold but not
freezing cellar, where the rhizomes will store quite nicely until
spring by allowing the soil to remain just barely damp.
Louisiana Iris are famous for growing in wet soil or in
a pond, but many people do not know that Japanese Iris
(I. Kaempferi or I. ensata) are equally happy with
their roots totally submerged. They bloom a month or so later
than their Louisiana kin, so they can extend the iris bloom season
in the pond. Variegated Japanese Iris is quite desirable,
with its prominent white striped leaves making a striking pond
accent long after its deep blue flowers are gone. Here in Louisiana,
both varieties are happy to spend the winter under water. In
cooler climates, a drier winter rest may be required.
Ruellia species, also known as "summer petunia",
do very well in the pond. There are both dwarf and larger growing
varieties, in a range of colors. A large pot of dwarf Ruellia,
only six inches tall and covered with flowers all summer, is
quite a nice addition to the pond for use in the foreground.
This is another plant that grows submerged in water all through
the winter here in Louisiana. You may have to experiment to see
what it tolerates in other climates.
Various trees and shrubs are adaptable for use in a pond, and
many annuals and perennials as well. The book has not been written
on this subject, but it would include normally terrestrial plants
that either tolerate being submerged in the pond
grow more freely in water than they do in soil. Here is a wide
open avenue of investigation for pond lovers. Got a suspicion
that a normally land-locked plant will do well in water? Try
it. If none of your plants ever die, well, you are just not taking