There’s no escaping how attractive a well planted water feature can look, but if space is restricted, picking the best pond plants for a small garden can be a bit of a challenge.
Many of the typical aquatic plants on sale in garden centres and specialist outlets are just too vigorous and will soon out-grow a small pond. Even if you are prepared for the near constant maintenance and pruning needed just to keep things under control, with only enough space for one or two full-size pond plants, you’re never likely to be able to get a really showy water feature.
However, there are some types of pond plants that are perfectly suited to living in the smallest of garden ponds, so even a little half-barrel can enjoy some imaginative planting.
Although oxygenating plants are vital to the pond’s health, some of the commonly available types are just too successful for the small water feature – the rampantly-growing Elodea canadensis (Canadian Pondweed) being a perfect example of what to avoid! Better bets where space is tight include, Fontinalis antipyretica (Willow Moss) and Myriophyllum aquaticum (Parrot’s Feather). VIEW RANGE OF OXYGENATORS
Growing to only around 15cm (6in) tall and needing only about the same depth of water, Eleocharis acicularis (Spike Rush ) and Juncus effusus spiralis (Corkscrew Rush) can be used to add interest to even a very small pond. For ease of maintenance, planting is best done in pond baskets. VIEW RANGE OF MARGINALS
When it comes to floating plants, you can safely ignore the advice about not going for overly-vigorous specimens! Azolla caroliniana (Fairy Moss) is extremely invasive left to its own devices, but in the confines of a small pond it can be controlled fairly easily and adds tremendous character. Eichornia crassipes (Water Hyacinth) is another rampant pond plant – and a real scourge of tropical waterways – but a safe choice for the water garden, since it does not survive the British winter without protection, so it is unlikely to choke nearby rivers if any escapes! Pistia stratoides (Water Lettuce) and the native Stratiotes aloides (Water Soldier) are also worth considering – especially since Water Soldier is seldom seen in the wild nowadays, so you’ll be doing your bit for conservation too. VIEW RANGE OF FLOATING PLANTS
If you pick your variety properly, it’s even possible for small ponds to be home to a water lily. Nymphaea candida (Dwarf White Water Lily), for example, needs a planting depth of only 10-30cm (4-12in) to offer beautiful compact 10cm (4in) flowers in the summer, and spread to little more than 60cm (2ft). Even smaller, there are varieties of Nymphaea pygmaea (Pygmy Water Lilies) such as Nymphaea pygmaea helvola which produce leaves only around 25mm (1in) across and will grow in about 15cm (6in) of water.
The South African Aponogeton distachys (Water Hawthorn) is an interesting companion plant where space allows, its oval leaves and small white flowers setting off the shape and form of any of the small water lilies very effectively. Both water lilies and Water Hawthorn should be planted in pond baskets or similar containers. VIEW RANGE OF WATER LILIES
Tricks and Tips
The main trick with pond plants for small water gardens is to make sure that you pick the right plants in the first place – and resist the urge to over-do the planting.
One useful tip for getting the greatest variety of plants in a small space is to work with height – producing loose ranks of pond plants, getting taller as you go towards the back. Link this with deliberately selecting plants for different colours and leaf shape and you can soon have the beginnings of a striking display no matter how small the container.
Marginal plants such as Scirpus zebrinus (Zebra Rush), Typha minima (Dwarf Bulrush or Dwarf Reed Mace) and Cyperus papyrus (Paper Reed) are good candidates to achieve this in the shallows of slightly larger ponds, for example. Growing to around 30, 60 and 90cm (1,2 and 3ft) respectively, they don’t spread much, making it possible to add height to your planting without using up too much of the surface area – and each has its own distinct look to add interest to the planting.
When it comes to selecting the pond plants themselves, look for clues in the name – ‘dwarf’, ‘miniature’ or ‘pygmy’ are obvious give-aways – and don’t be put off by the Latin; nana, minima and pygmaea mean just the same thing!
Just as there’s room for water in every garden, there’s a place for pond plants in every pond; the trick is picking the right ones and using them imaginatively. It may take a bit of head-scratching – but it’s definitely worth it in the end.