A Guide to the Best Pond Plant Varieties

Pond and plants in a backyard

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Getting Started With Your Pond

Growing pond plants lets you experiment with plants you otherwise might not get to enjoy. To create an environment suitable for a wide range of plants, follow these tips.

    • Situate your pond where it’ll get at least 6 hours of sun daily. Pond plants flower better in full sun.
    • The first step in installing most any water feature is setting up an impermeable basin to hold the water. For a small space, bury a preformed liner.
    • Get your water from a natural pond. Pond plants grow better without the chlorine found in tap water. If you can’t get pond water, rainwater is fine.
    • Install a fountain if space permits. The sound of cascading water is soothing.
    • Install a pump to move the water and avoid stagnation.
    • Choose plants with a variety of textures and forms. Coarse-textured Rodgersia contrasts sharply with papyrus, for example. Corkscrew rush, horsetail, and papyrus boast architectural forms.
    • Favour vegetation over flowers. Although it’s possible to calculate the sequence of bloom in such a way as to have one plant come into bloom right after another, it’s easier to achieve continuous visual interest by selecting pond plants with nice foliage, which lasts longer.

Pond Plant Categories

View of plants submerged in a pond

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There are five categories of pond plants. While some are more likely to do well in larger ponds, all can be used in ponds of any size. Mix and match these categories to create a varied, interesting pond eco-system.

    • Deep-Water Plants: Pot them up and sink the pots to the bottom.
    • Submerged Plants: The plants are entirely submerged.
    • Floating Plants: They need no soil; roots obtain nutrients from the water.
    • Marginal Plants: Their roots can be in water but don’t have to be.
    • Bog Plants: They thrive in much wetter conditions than do most plants.

Pitcher Plant

Purple pitcher plant in flower growing in pond.

David Beaulieu

Purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpureais an example of a bog plant and is one of the best pond plants you can grow in a water feature. You can install such bog plants in the same way that you would install any other plant​ since they can be grown in the ground surrounding the pond (as long as the soil is kept moist). But in very shallow ponds, you can also grow pitcher plant in a pot and place the pot in the water. The beauty of the pitcher plant is that it offers both interesting foliage and fantastic flowers.

Water Lilies

White pond lily and lily pads floating on water.

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Water lily (Nuphar and Nymphaea spp.) is an example of a deep-water plant. The lotus flower (Nelumbo spp.) is similar to the water lily but is a bigger plant, making it better-suited to large ponds. The delightful lily pads that come with water lilies will be as important to your display as the flowers.

Don’t be scared off by the “deep” in “deep-water plants.” Even in a small pond (say, seven inches deep), you can still grow a water lily. But there’s a trick to growing pond plants that need to grow in soil but will have their roots underwater. Do not pour soil into the preformed liner to try to form an actual pond bottom; it’s much easier to grow these water garden plants in pots.

Your main challenge is this: if you put dirt in a container and sink that container into the water, you’re going to muddy the water. But there are steps you can take to alleviate the problem. First of all, don’t use a potting mix, because it’s too light and fluffy and won’t want to remain submerged. Instead, opt for a soil that is a mix of sand and clay. After installing your plants in their pots, mulch with gravel or small crushed stones before placing the pots in the water.

Corkscrew Rush

Corkscrew rush stems turning every which way.

David Beaulieu

Corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus) is another example of a bog plant. Its twisting stems say “bad hair day” like few other plants can, but this is one messy hairdo that you’ll enjoy viewing. Its corkscrew-like plant form provides a pond with so much visual interest that you won’t mind it’s not offering showy flowers.

Horsetail Rush

Stalks of horsetail rush plants growing in a mass.

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Horsetail rush (Equisetum hyemale) is a bog plant that grows in masses, multiplying itself by means of aggressive rhizomes. This “rush” is of a different genus than corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus). But that’s not the only way in which the two plants differ. Horsetail rush’s stems are just as perfectly straight as corkscrew rush’s stems are wonderfully crooked. Due to its aggressive nature, don’t grow this rush in the ground if you have only a small space in which to garden. Instead, grow it in pots.

Rodgers Flower

Rodgers flower in bloom near water feature.

David Beaulieu

Rodgers flower (Rodgersia spp.) is a bog plant that offers pretty flowers, as well as foliage (like pitcher plant and unlike the rushes). If your pond is situated against a house wall, providing a more suitable backdrop may increase your viewing pleasure of the water garden. For example, try planting Rodgers flower at the back of the pond. Rodgers flower is a good-sized perennial valued for its attractive, big, abundant leaves. Such a bog plant makes for a background that is far superior to a house wall, in most cases.

Northern Blue Flag

Northern blue flag plants in bloom.

David Beaulieu

Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) is an example of a marginal plant. To install marginal plants in a pond, you’ll have to adjust the depths at which their pots stand in the water so that you don’t drown them. In large ponds, shelves are built right into the pond to house marginals. But you can easily accomplish the same thing in a small pond by resting the potted plants on bricks.

Floating plants, such as water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), are the easiest to incorporate. If, after installing all of your other plants, there’s room left on the surface of your pond, you can fill in that empty space with floating plants. Water hyacinth is an invasive plant, so do not dispose of it in the wild.

Using blue flag as a pond plant allows you to inject floral colour into your water garden. So does yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus), but the latter is invasive.

Ogon Golden Sweet Flag

Grass-like leaves of Ogon sweet flag, a variegated plant.

David Beaulieu

Another marginal plant, Ogon golden sweet flag (Acorus gramineus Ogon) is a grass-like plant with variegated leaves. Also grass-like and variegated is the Spark Plug cultivar of Japanese sedge (Carex phyllocephala Spark Plug), which could function as a bog plant. Such plants are often used as if they were ornamental grasses that are tolerant of wet soils. But they are not true grasses, the latter belonging to the Poaceae family. Also note that, while this plant shares “flag” in its common name with Iris versicolor, it belongs to a different genus.


Water garden image with papyrus, marsh marigolds.

David Beaulieu

Some specimens straddle the line between the marginal and bog categories. Certain bog plants can stand in a bit of water; marginal plants often don’t need to stand in water at all. One example is the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), a marginal.

Papyrus will do well planted in a bit of water. But it can also be grown in the ground (or in a container) the way you would grow any other specimen, as long as you give it plenty of water.

Papyrus provides enough visual interest to serve as a focal point of a water feature. When your papyrus gets too big, divide it, place one of the divisions back in your pond, and use the other divisions elsewhere. For example, some homeowners like to grow papyrus in pots on a patio.

Marsh Marigolds

Marsh marigolds in bloom growing in a swamp.

David Beaulieu

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) bloom in mid-spring. They work wonderfully as marginal plants for water gardens in May. They are North-American native perennials for sunny areas. They are not true marigolds (Tagetes spp.).

Tips on Caring for Pond Plants

Punalu’u Beach Lilies #2

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Homeowners fortunate enough to have large ponds can establish permanent plantings in their water features. You will not, however, be able to overwinter water plants in cold climates in really small ponds. You may have to accept losing your deep-water, submerged, and floating plants (unless you have the space to grow them indoors during the winter). Plan on buying new one’s next year. Try transplanting marginal plants to the wettest spots on your property; if you have a wet winter, they may survive. But bog plants can be left in place, as you would any other perennial.

By David Beaulieu