Water lilies may grace Japanese gardens and Monet paintings, but to the home gardener, a lily pond may appear to be as unattainable as it is beautiful.
Not so, according to Yorba Linda resident and water lily enthusiast Vergil Hettick. Founding members of the International Water Lily Society, Hettick and his wife, Marilyn, have grown their fragrant, eye-catching lilies for more than 30 years. The colorful water plants are simple to grow, and they can be accommodated in any garden size, from an apartment patio to a large back yard, the Hetticks said.
"Water lilies are very forgiving flowers," explained Charles Thomas, a noted water lily expert and president of Lilypons, Md.-based Lilypons Water Gardens. "People who have not had experience with lilies are often fraught with trepidation. I like to tell people when working with water gardens you can be more successful by doing less."
Although water lilies may seem an extravagance in drought-plagued Southern California, that is a misconception, according to Vergil Hettick. "Lilies are very economical. They help seal the surface of the water, exposing less water to the air. A lily pond requires less 'makeup' water than a lawn, and you never need to drain the water. You just add a little water every now and then to replace the water lost to evaporation."
There are two types of water lilies for home water gardens--tropical and hardy. Holding their blossoms several inches above their floating foliage, tropical water lilies are generally larger than hardy lilies. During their first year in a water lily pond, tropical blooms yield six to eight times the number of blossoms of their hardy counterparts, Thomas said.
Tropical water lilies are divided into day- and night-blooming varieties. Blooming only when the sun goes down, tropical lilies are available in colors ranging from white to pink and red. Day-blooming tropicals offer more varied colors, including yellow, apricot, blue and purple.
The night-blooming, cerise "Emily Grant Hutchings" adorning the Hetticks' Japanese-style garden is a good tropical selection, Thomas said. "It's a profuse bloomer and often produces clusters of flowers."
Tropical water lilies usually won't last through a Southern California winter but can be stored above ground during cooler periods, Hettick noted. If not protected, tropical lilies will need to be replaced in the spring.
On the other hand, hardy water lilies are perennials. Resting their blossoms on the water surface, they bloom only during the day. Flowers are available in white, pink, yellow, red and apricot.
One of the most popular hardy lilies is the soft-pink "Fabiola," Thomas said. "It's very free-blooming and does well in a variety of locations, including a half-barrel." Another top hardy is the white "Virginia," he added.
For the beginner, the soft blue-colored "Dauben" is a good hardy choice, Thomas said. "It's what I call an elastic lily. It grows quite well contained in an oak half-barrel or, if the plant is allowed to grow in a large pond, it can reach three to four feet across."
Southern Californians can plant water lilies year-round, "but they won't do well until the weather warms up," Hettick advised. "Hardy lilies tend to bloom early in the spring, and we've even had them blooming through Christmas before."
If you want to purchase water lilies locally, most suppliers such as Huntington Beach-based Pacific Goldfish Farm (a source for both tropical and hardy varieties) start selling the aquatic plants as soon as warm weather begins, usually in March or April, owner Joe Akiyama said.
Water gardens selling mail-order water lilies send the full plant, including the buds, blossoms and pads, during the blooming season, said Thomas. If orders are placed before the season, a sprouted lily is sent. Prices for a single water lily plant can vary from $15 to $50, with $20 to $25 being an average price.
To grow lilies, place them in a plastic tub or pot filled with heavy garden soil and position the plant so its crown barely shows. Add soil around the roots. Then wet the soil and cover it with a half-inch of pea gravel, keeping the crown clear.
The pot then needs to be lowered into the pond until the gravel surface is 6 to 8 inches underwater. (Use bricks below the pot to achieve the desired height.) As the plant grows, remove the bricks until the gravel surface is 10 inches below the water surface.
The Hetticks have a unique twist to their water lily planting procedure. "We have koi in our pond, and a lot of people say koi and water lilies are not compatible," Hettick said.