Water Gardening

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

Water gardening in aquariums and ponds has been a favorite pursuit for Jim Whitley of Columbia for the past 45 years. Whitley is a retired Conservation Department fisheries biologist and is considered an expert on aquatic plants. An aquarium containing water trumpet (Cryptocorynes spp.), a common aquarium plant, sits quietly in one corner of his living room. A starhead topminnow or southern redbelly dace may be seen darting among the plant's slender grasslike leaves.

You will not hear the low buzz of an air pump. The aquarium has no air stone or filtration system and yet is in perfect balance. Whitley thins the water trumpets occasionally, but otherwise they have been growing undisturbed for 36 years. As in ponds, the plants add oxygen to the water and provide homes for fish.

In addition to maintaining aquariums, Whitley also has planted more than 20 different species of aquatic plants collected from around the state in his favorite pond in Boone County. The number of species present grows each year. When Whitley leads a tour of this pond, he is likely to describe the medicinal uses of sweet flag, share tidbits of natural history about the unique reproductive biology of water lilies (the flower is only fertile on the first morning that it opens and must be fertilized by pollen produced from a flower that has already been open for three days) or give you tips on how to identify a pure strain narrow-leaved cattail from its hybrid.

Whitley says he loves aquatic plants because they are easy to grow and they bloom for a long period of time. Many water plants will bloom throughout the summer, unlike their terrestrial counterparts.

Whitley offers the following advice for successfully growing aquatic plants in a pond:

  • Start with plants native to Missouri and, if possible, obtain plants from a source close to your planting site. The plants will be more vigorous, spread faster and adapt better to local conditions than non-native varieties. Collecting and transporting non-natives can be harmful to your native flora.
  • Before planting seedlings, keep their roots in water and protect their leaves with a damp cover, such as wet newspaper. Without protection, the plants will dry out and may die.
  • For best results, plant the seedlings within one day of digging them.
  • Select a planting site with fertile soil. If necessary, transfer some good dirt to your planting site. Avoid areas with hard-packed clay.
  • Set plants firmly into the bottom and at the correct water depth. Depending on the species, some plants must have their leaves left above the water so they can obtain oxygen. Almost all aquatic plants are buoyant and must be weighted with extra soil or be staked down so they will not float away. A stake in the shape of a staple can be made out of stiff wire for use in soft soils, or nylon string can be tied between two 10- to 12-inch long railroad spikes for use in ponds with hard mud.
  • Put a fence around all new plants to prevent damage by feeding muskrats, which can uproot plants or cut them off at ground level. It is disheartening to spend the whole day planting only to have the plants destroyed the next day. This is the single most important measure that you can take to ensure your planting success. Whitley recommends building enclosures 4 feet in diameter, using 3-foot wide, 1-inch mesh chicken wire secured to metal fence posts or 1-inch by 2-inch wooden stakes.
  • Once every two to four years, fertilize the plants with a balanced fertilizer like 12-12-12 to promote vigor. Drop granules of fertilizer down a pipe into holes 3 to 4 inches deep, 6 inches apart and 6 to 10 inches away from the base of each plant. Lastly, close the holes by squishing the soil together. It is important to seal the fertilizer under soil so it can be utilized by the plant. Don't leave it on the surface to be dissolved away by the water.
  • Once your plants are able to produce seed and develop a strong system of roots, they will proliferate naturally with little help. If you are building a new pond, islands with deep water around them and oases of fertile soil left in place can be ideal spots for an aquatic garden. The water plants also will provide great cover for fish, food for wildlife and nesting and breeding areas for many fish, amphibians and reptiles.

Many garden stores now are carrying some water plants; however, there are dealers, particularly in the Springfield, St. Louis and Kansas City areas, who specialize in aquatic plants. A good source of information, available through the Conservation Department, is a book called Water Plants for Missouri Ponds. The 151-page soft cover book costs $8, plus $2 shipping. Missouri residents add 6.225 percent sales tax. Send check or money order to Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson city, MO 65102-0180, or telephone order to (573) 751-4115, ext. 325, with a credit card.

If you are in the Columbia area, the Conservation Department manages two lakes, Little Dixie Lake and Dairy Lake #3, that have aquatic plants. You can obtain directions to these lakes by contacting the Conservation Department fisheries office in Columbia at (573) 884-6861.

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