FAQ: Pond Plants and Planting

Nothing brings a pond alive so quickly as a few plants. Whatever you want yours to be – a true water garden, a home for fish or part of a wildlife area – planting not only starts to provide the right environment, but it also adds so much to the garden as a whole.

Getting it right is obviously important, but with so many different kinds of water plants on offer and so much opportunity to let your imagination loose, especially if you have a brand new pond to plant, it can sometimes be hard to know how to start.

Although the particular needs of individual plants and planting schemes differ, it tends to be the same old questions that keep popping up – so here are a few answers to some of the most common ones.

How do you get a good backdrop in a small garden when all the plants seem so big?

It can sometimes seem as if every garden centre is set up to supply the local stately home rather than the average household, but the trick is to pick plants which have the impact, without the accompanying size – and keep things in scale.

Look out for varieties labelled as “dwarf” or “miniature” – Dwarf Bulrush (Typha minima), for instance – and read the descriptions carefully for clues on how big they’ll eventually grow. It shouldn’t cramp your artistic style; Zebra Rush (Scirpus zebrinus), for example, grows to less than a metre in height but it gives a much bigger architectural feel once it’s in place – and there are plenty of other good candidates for the smaller garden.

Someone told me I should cover about half of the water’s surface with plants – why?

It’s a good way of helping to avoid problems with algae. The leaves shield the water, competing for light with any algae in the pond, so covering half to two thirds of the surface can be useful in keeping it in check, as well as providing ideal hiding places for lots of pond life.

My pond doesn’t have any planting shelves – what can I do?

The simplest solution, assuming that the design of your pond permits, is to support a flat stone or slate as a shelf on top of columns of bricks. You’ll need to make sure that they can’t be knocked over too easily, but on the plus side, it does allow you to be very flexible about depth, which is something that pre-formed shelves obviously cannot.

What sort of plants do I need?

There are four main groups, namely floaters, marginals, oxygenators and deep-water plants and you should aim for a good balance of these. Depending on the overall design of your pond and garden, you may also want to add some bog plants, which can be very effective in helping to soften the hard edge between water and land.

I like floating plants, but I don’t want them to take over; how do I know the right number to buy?

As a general rule of thumb, only buy one or two large floating plants (such as water soldier), or a similar number of “portions” of small ones (duckweed or fairy moss) per metre of surface. It’s also a good idea to avoid the likes of Lemna minor and L. polyrhiza, which are prone to be invasive and pick less vigorous versions instead.

My water hyacinths never live for more than a year; what am I doing wrong?

Nothing really – except perhaps forgetting that they naturally come from much warmer climes that here! If you leave them out as the weather turns colder, the frost will kill them, so you have two choices; either keep them in a tank of water indoors until next summer, or resign yourself to buying new ones each year. Some pond keepers seem to be very successful at over wintering them, while others have no joy at all.

How do I pick the right sized lily for my pond?

You should aim to choose something that will eventually cover no more than two-thirds of the surface – but this doesn’t have to be a single plant; you can mix larger and smaller varieties if you wish and space permits.

As a general guide for each type of lily allow:

  • Miniature – 1 square metre
  • Small – 1.5 square metres
  • Small/Medium – 2 square metres
  • Medium – 3 square metres
  • Medium/Vigorous – 4 square metres
  • Vigorous – 5 square metres

I’d love a water lily but my pond is too small – any suggestions?

If your pond is too small for one of the miniature lilies, then you might like to consider the small pond lily Nuphar minima, or Nymphoides peltata (Water Fringe or Floating Heart). Water Fringe can be a bit vigorous, but it is easily divided.

Good planting is the key to getting the whole feel of the pond right, and preventing overcrowding, so it’s certainly worth taking your time over it. One thing’s for sure, with the range of choices available from even the smallest of suppliers, whatever “look” you’re after there’s bound to be plenty of scope – and there are plenty of useful suggestions elsewhere on this site to help you decide. Whatever you eventually choose, enjoy planting your pond!

Last Modified: January 25, 2022