LOWCOUNTRY AQUATIC GARDENING

by PJ GARTIN

WHILE RECENTLY SIFTING THROUGH a pile of old gardening files, I came across my bog garden plant list. I had to laugh. Decades ago, I had tried to turn a soggy spot in my landscape into a flowery French Impressionistic-like setting. In other words, a Charleston version of Claude Monet’s garden.

I got as far as putting in some atamasco lily (Zephyranthes atamasco) and purple turtlehead (Chelone obliqua), but I couldn’t bring myself to install a pond liner for water lily. Perhaps Monsieur Monet didn’t have insect problems in Giverny, France, but I didn’t want to create a mosquito magnet. Plus, I was unsure how water lily might perform in a Charleston garden and, God forbid, what if I let in an invasive water plant like hydrilla (H. verticillata). This nonnative pest behaves like a floating form of kudzu and has choked tributaries up and down the East Coast for years.

It turned out that my concerns were baseless. Although water lily and mosquito larvae both live in still waters, the addition of a few native fish solves the problem. While some gardeners prefer koi or goldfish, colorful shiny critters often attract hungry wildlife, such as egrets and racoons. Small indigenous fish, like gambusia or mosquito fish, are significantly less conspicuous. Find them at aquarium shops.

The chances of cultivating a runaway rogue water lily species in a Lowcountry water enclosure or pond is practically nonexistent. Water lily, which is the collective appellation for several genera of aquatic plants, belongs to the botanical family named Nymphaeaceae. The most popular ones for home water gardens are affiliates of the Nymphaea genus and, according to the esteemed International Waterlily & Water Gardening Society (IWGS; iwgs.org), none are invasive in South Carolina. There are about 35 species of Nymphaea and, because they hybridize easily, they are favorites among amateur and professional breeders. As a result, a broad range of color and petal shapes are frequently available at locally owned garden centers.

Water lilies are also coveted for their saucer-shaped leaves, and two genera, Euryale and Victoria, boast larger than average leaf sizes. (Yes, frogs really do sit on lily pads.) Although lotus sometimes gets thrown in with Nymphaea, it belongs in the Nelumbo genus. If all this botanical-speak sounds confusing, just relax and trust the information on the plant tag—and for heaven’s sake, hang on to it and put it in a place you’ll remember.

Thanks to Charleston Aquatics Nurseries (charlestonaquatic.com), a nationally renowned wholesale supplier of aquatic plants and pond systems, water lily is readily available at many gardening shops throughout the Lowcountry.

Water lily need 18 to 25 inches of still water to survive. When allowed to float, buoyant surface leaves rest over long stems that extend downward to tubular roots. Plant these nutrient-storing rhizomes in a water-tight container filled with aquatic potting soil or anchor them in muddy pond soil. To keep the soil in containerized plants from floating away, be sure to cover the upper surface with a half inch of dark, clean gravel or small stones. Light-colored ones distract from the overall effect. Flowers will appear above the leaves.

Decorative water gardening containers are available, and folk without gardens can grow water lily indoors. Although not as portable as potted palms—each gallon of water weighs slightly more than 8 pounds—if the vessel is watertight and the plant receives a minimum of six hours of sunlight, the water lily should thrive and bloom.

Water lily will also grow in a recirculating fountain, but only if it floats in still water. Turbulence causes irreparable leaf damage, and splashing or churning will eventually kill the plants. A stunning water feature is located on Rutledge Avenue at Ashley Hall School in downtown Charleston. A large circular fountain occasionally squirts water from a flute-holding cherub. Dark lavender water lily blossoms appear in late summer. These water lilies have survived for decades.

Although my attempts at bog gardening eventually floated down the horticultural drain, I’m still smitten with water lily. Although I still haven’t acquired one, I’m currently content being a member of IWGS and enjoy other people’s collections. I’ve also rediscovered Claude Monet’s body of work on water lilies. He was recently inducted into IWGS’s “Waterlily Hall of Fame” at a ceremony in his garden in Giverny (giverny.org).

Although it might first seem daunting to submerge a container into a vessel of water or shallow pond, remember that Monet had to take that first step too. “It took me time to understand my water lilies,” he once said. “I planted them for the pleasure of it.”

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.