Many people who like growing plants have at least some growing in pots. Very few of these, though, grow water lilies. Perhaps we just don’t think of water lilies as being good pot plants, and think that we have to have a dam or a lake or at least a pond to grow them.
But the truth is that water lilies are super easy to grow in pots. I have no dams, no lakes, no ponds, but at least six pots of water lilies and other aquatic plants. They are much more forgiving of my neglectful watering practices than most other potted plants. They don’t have to be watered every day, or even every week. So long as there is some water in that bowl, the plants will survive. I top up the bowls every two weeks or so if there hasn’t been enough rain to do that job.
Water lily flowers are wonderfully showy and fragrant, opening for three days in succession. The leaves may be plain green or they may have lovely marbled patterns on them. Hardy water lilies flower from September to April. The flower floats on top of the water, and the colours range from white through pink, red, apricot and yellow. Tropical water lilies flower from October to May, although there are a couple of varieties that will spot flower throughout the year. The flowers are held on stems 15-35cm above the water. Colours range from white, through shades of pink, magenta, apricot, yellow, blue and purple. There are night-blooming varieties which open in the evening and close mid-morning. There are also miniature varieties which are ideal for smaller, shallower pots.
Any pot can be used as a water bowl if you can make it watertight. You will need 30-100cm of water on top of the lily. This is one situation where bigger is usually better. If the pot is too small, the water will heat up too much in summer and may cook your plant.
Put a few inches of course gravel in the bottom of the pot to help to keep the water clean. You can simply place the plastic pot containing the lily on top of the gravel. Another way is to fill the bottom of the pot with garden soil (not potting mix) and plant the lily directly into that, putting a layer of gravel on top of the soil. This technique gives your lily more room to grow, but does make it a bit harder to move the plants around.
Ideally, the water bowl will receive full sun for at least half a day. This is the absolute minimum if you want the lilies to thrive and bloom. They like the water to be still, so don’t install a pump. You can put in some native fish to deal with any mosquito larvae.
Caring for water lilies in pots is easy. They are heavy feeders, so they need regular feeding throughout the growing season. I like to use a slow release plant food tablet that is suitable for flowering plants, and I use those every 4-6 weeks. If you can’t find those, just roll some slow release fertiliser in newspaper and push that in to the mud. Be guided by the directions on the pack about how much to use and how often.
Most water lilies will die back completely in winter, so you might want to grow something else as well that will provide interest during the dormant period. A quick solution is to pop some Vietnamese mint in – it looks pretty, grows in shallow water, and you can eat it.