Water lilies for your water garden

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

A water garden wouldn't be complete without the flowers and pads provided by water lilies. A University of Georgia expert says Georgia's climate allows most home gardeners to grow both hardy and tropical lilies.

"Hardy lilies are typically those with smooth-edged pads and flowers that sit close to the top of the water," said Tony Johnson, a horticulturist at the UGA Research and Education Garden in Griffin, Ga. "Tropical lilies usually have leaves with serrated edges and blooms that grow atop tall stems."

Decades of experience

Johnson should know the difference. An award-winning landscape designer, he has installed water gardens for the past 25 years. As the lead horticulturist at the UGA garden in Griffin, he maintains the garden's two water elements. And he shares his knowledge through water gardening classes.

"If you want reliable, perennial plants, install hardy lilies," he said. "Ponds and lakes in south Georgia are just covered with these lilies."

Although they "typically" won't overwinter in Georgia, Johnson recommends adding a few tropical lilies for effect. "If you love water lily flowers, tropicals produce more blooms per season than hardy lilies," he said. "They're really worth the extra money for that reason alone."

If you have access to a greenhouse, you can place the tropical lilies there during the winter and try to save them for the next year. "Most people don't have access to a greenhouse, though," he said. "And tropicals aren't that expensive, so it's just easier to buy a few new ones every year."

Tropicals bloom at night

Johnson recommends tropical lilies if you visit your water garden at night. "Tropical lilies are the only ones that are night-blooming," Johnson said. "If you entertain at night by your water pond, these lilies make a really nice addition."

Whichever lily you chose, keep the plant's leaves as dry as possible.

"This sounds strange when you're talking about water garden plants," Johnson said. "But lilies breathe through the leaves. So don't place them in an area where a fountain or waterfall will constantly be putting water on top of the leaves."

Like other garden plants, water lilies need to be fertilized. Do this once a month during the growing season, Johnson said.

"In (middle and south Georgia), both tropical and hardy lilies will do well," he said. "We've had mild winters the last few years that have allowed the tropical lilies to come back."

To learn more about installing and maintaining a water garden, visit UGA on the Web at

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.