There’s just something about the shimmering charm of a sunlit water garden that turns our heads.
"If you have a bowl with some lilies in it … near where people are walking by, everyone will stop and admire your lilies," says Andrew Dedrick, who, with his wife Layla, owns Geobunga, a landscapes products shop for contractors and do-it-yourself types.
At the Dedrick home in upper Nuuanu, a few flowering bowls cheer passing neighbors as well as the household. "You can’t walk out in the morning … and see that lily blooming without smiling," Dedrick says. "You walk out to get the newspaper or to get to your car, and they’re opening up already. It’s like they greet you."
Want some of that botanical bliss at your place? Thanks to Hawaii’s warm climate, cultivating a lily-centered water garden here is both easy and inexpensive. Dedrick said first-timers can get a basic setup — a glazed bowl and a plant or two — for $30 to $40. No filtration system is needed.
But before shopping for water plants, take a little time to think about where to place your garden, says Michelle Wachi, vice president and biologist at Aqualife Unlimited Inc., a company that specializes in maintenance of ponds, aquariums and other water features.
"You absolutely need maximum sunlight all day, if you can get it," Wachi says. At least six hours daily is needed to max out flowering, but some varieties of lilies will bloom, less prolifically, with fewer hours of sun.
Another getting-started tip: Wachi cautions against trying to replicate an "old-style Japanese painting" of a water garden with splashing koi that is situated under an elegant tree. In real life this serene scene could fall apart as koi grow large and the tree blocks sunlight and sheds leaves.
To keep maintenance at a minimum, Wachi recommends selecting a site away from falling plant debris and stocking it with small mosquito-munching fish. (Geobunga offers free guppies, dragonfly larvae and water snails for use in water gardens.)
Water garden plants range from tropical and hardy lilies to goza (a rush used to make Japanese slippers and tatami mats), horsetail and papyrus.
For a simple bowl, pick a tropical or hardy water lily, which typically costs less than $40. Dedrick said only one or two plants are needed to start, as they are easily divided and propagated.
Tropical lilies, which bloom on stalks above the water, need more sun and have larger pads than hardy lilies, which bloom on the surface. A hardy is more likely to die back during Hawaii’s winter months, producing smaller leaves and fewer flowers. Tropical lilies come in two types: night-bloomers, which are usually not fragrant, and day-bloomers, which produce more blooms.
When mixing plant varieties, keep in mind that different plants thrive at different depths, Dedrick says. A new product sold at Geobunga, Aquatic Patio Ponds, has built-in shelves, making for an even easier "turnkey" water garden.
The Patio Ponds come in 24-, 32- and 42-inch diameters and range in price from $160 to $340.
A water garden can thrive for many years. However, should you decide to remove any plants, "mulch ’em" or give them to other gardeners, Dedrick advises.
"If you put them in your rubbish, they might somehow find a way to a waterway" where your delightful, once-contained water plants could "grow like crazy." Wachi adds that lilies are tagged as invasive species, known for threatening other freshwater plants and animals as they gobble up space and nutrients along streams, in reservoirs and even in ditches used to funnel rainwater overflows.
PLANTING A WATER LILY
» Fill a planting pot about one-third full of topsoil or heavy garden soil. Do not use potting soil or compost.
» Place an aquatic fertilizer tablet close to the outer edge of the pot. Add another inch of soil. (One tablet for every gallon of soil.)
» Place a tropical lily in the center of the pot and spread out the roots; place hardy lily on the edge of the pot with roots spread out and growing tip facing the pot’s center.
» Add enough soil over the roots to nearly fill the pot. Do not cover the growing tip. Pea gravel may be added over the soil to discourage fish activity.
» Place the potted water lily in a bucket or tub filled with water. Or slowly add water to the pot with a cup or garden hose. Submerging the pot will allow air bubbles and "floaties" to escape. After all the bubbles are gone, add the potted lily to your water garden bowl.
» Tropical lilies do well in bowls with water levels set at 6 to 18 inches above a just-potted lily’s crown or growing tip. Hardy varieties, 6 to 24 inches.
» Fertilize once a month with a potassium-rich aquatic fertilizer tablet pushed deep into the pot. After the initial repot, repot once a year.
» Blooms typically last up to four days. Don’t tug on fading leaves or flowers. Instead, pinch them off. "Even though they’ve already run their cycle, they’re still pulling nutrients from the roots," Dedrick says. "By trimming that off, you’re allowing all of the nutrients to go to the new leaves and new flowers."
» Stock the garden with mosquito-eating fish, such as guppies. Be aware that larger fish, such as goldfish or koi, may cause a mess by digging in the pot for worms and bugs.
» Don’t feed the fish. "Let nature find a way," Dedrick says. "The ecosystem will balance itself. You will have just enough fish to eat the mosquitoes you have, and it creates a symbiotic relationship." Too much food can spur overpopulation and too much nitrogen (from fish waste) in the water.
THE ‘PEA SOUP’ PROBLEM
Newly planted water gardens often go through a "pea-soup" phase. Green water indicates an abundance of algae competing with your water plants for nitrogen and other nutrients. How should you clear the bowl?
» Partial water changes help get rid of excess nutrients. Don’t change out all the water at once, though. A full water change will remove healthy bacteria, which are also competing for nutrients.
» Add a floating water plant, such as water hyacinth. Its dangling roots will compete for nutrients. Also, ornamental algae such as anacharis, elodea and foxtail will help starve "pea-soup" algae.
Source: Aqualife Unlimited, Geobunga
Maureen O’Connell is a freelance journalist living in Honolulu.