Hardy Water Lilies

Considered the crown jewel of any northern water garden, hardy water lilies are sturdy souls able to survive the cold winter climate, yet they provide a much sought after explosion of colour and blooms during the dog days of summer.

Hardy water lilies are exotic, fragrant dayblooming plants, available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours including red, yellow, orange, peach, pink and white. Some varieties even change colours as their blooms mature!

As they grow, water lilies push out a profusion of rich, green floating leaves, creating a gorgeous backdrop for their blooms, and important shade cover and habitat for all pond life. Easy to grow and maintain, hardy water lilies are almost a prerequisite to fully appreciate the water gardening lifestyle.

The botanical name for the water lily is Nymphaea, named after beautiful female Greek mythological creatures called nymphs, who are known to seduce young gorgeous men into tranquil pools of water and drown them in lust and passion. Now that’s a plant every woman needs in her garden!

Shopping for Water lilies – What to look for

Hardy water lilies are ideal for any water garden because of their perennial beauty, ease of culture, wealth of bloom, and range of colour and form. Their purchase may be considered a permanent investment, with reasonable care they can be retained for many years.

There are two types of water lilies, hardy water lilies, and tropicals. We do not recommend tropical water lilies as they need a consistent water temperature of 80 degrees Celsius and above, and are therefore poor bloomers in our Northern climate. Tropical water lilies also require a very extensive over wintering process which does not always prove successful.

At the Pond Clinic all of the lilies we sell are hardy water lilies which do very well in our climate. When shopping for water lilies always look for healthy leaves floating on the surface of the water and new growth. It is best to buy lilies that have not yet bloomed so that the bud will bloom in its new home, your fabulous pond.

Often you can find multiple plants in a pot, these will give you better value and a fuller plant.

You should always check to see if the lily is root bound, you can do this by sticking your finger in the pot. If the lily is root bound you will not be able to get your finger in and therefore it will be difficult to get a fertilizer tab to the roots; these lilies will need to be re-potted.

Purchasing bare root lilies vs. potted lilies

Spring is the only time of the year that bare root lilies should be purchased. If water lilies are not potted early in the season they will use up all their nutrients that are stored in the plant’s tuber and will not do well, as lilies are heavy feeders.

If you do purchase a bare root lily be sure to plant it right away and expect for the plant to take up to a month to fill out and may not flower in the first year.

If you are looking for an instant “wow” factor it is advisable to purchase a potted lily that has had time to mature.

All hardy water lilies should be fertilized each spring to encourage blooming and strong growth.

Planting your lily

The elegant blooms of water lilies only look delicate. Plant a hardy water lily for a summer splashed with colour.

Ideally lilies should be planted at a depth of 30-50cm (12-18”), the closer the lily is to the surface of the pond the closer it is to the sun. The warmer water results in a fuller plant with more blooms.

The best way to plant lilies is to plant them in a fabric lily pot and adding aquatic planting media. These flexible porous fabric pots were designed to help aerate the root zone for healthier growth of your aquatic plants.

The aquatic planting media is an all natural, non-toxic alluvial planting media. A fine-grained soil perfect for supporting your aquatic plants. Our Media contains no peat moss or compost and is safe for fish and does not cause any cloudiness when put into your pond.

Make sure at this point to fertilize your lily. All hardy water lilies should be fertilized each spring to encourage blooming and strong growth.

Place the fabric pot in the lily pockets in the bottom of your pond and covering the pot with the displaced gravel. It is best to use a heavier gravel (1-1.5”), especially if you have koi, as the fish like to nibble at the gravel around the plant.

If you do not have a lily pocket, no problem, you can create one using rocks.

The great divide

A good way to determine if your water lily needs dividing is if it’s not blooming or producing nearly as many pads as normal. What can happen is the root (or rhizome) has become so overgrown that it has essentially run out of room in the pot, and can’t effectively absorb nutrients to grow.

Another sign that is time to divide you lily is if you try to put in the fertilizer tabs and you are unable to due to the overcrowding of the roots in the pot.

Dividing your lily is simple, and the best time to do this would be in the spring when the plant is just beginning to grow.

To divide remove the pot from the pond and empty the contents. You may at this point choose to rinse of the tubers so you have a better visual.

Using your fingers, feel along the tuber to about 4” from the new growth, this is where the tuber will be cut using either a sharp knife or secateurs. Your plant may yield 10 or more lilies by the time you are done.

Please note that dividing can be hard on your plant so ensure it is re-potted correctly and fertilized. The new plants may take a month or so to really start growing and producing blooms.
If you must divide the plant in season it is best to just cut some of the tubers from the pot and fill in the holes with planting media and re-fertilize the plant.


Hardy water lilies will overwinter well if their roots do not freeze solid. Foliage will die back mid to late fall but roots will remain alive. Steps to overwinter lilies should be taken at this time. DO NOT COVER the pond or bring plants inside until late fall when dormancy has begun.

If you own a 2′ deep pond, and your lilies are in lily pockets, simply cut back all plants foliage and stems to just about the level of the rhizome. The ice will only freeze down 6″-12″ so there is no need to worry about the plant freezing.

If you lilies are in a shallow area, and are not in lily pockets, move planting pots to an area of the pond that is at lease 2 feet deep. Remove the dead leaves on the lilies leaving the new sprouts. Colder zones in Canada (Zone 3) should increase this depth. Return planting pots to original positions in spring.

If you pond is shallow and will likely freeze solid, remove the old leaves and stems from the lily and bring planted pots indoors to cold storage, approximately 40°F (5°C), for the winter. Keep planted lilies moist and in a dark area at all times. More lilies are lost from drying out than from freezing. Return plants to the pond after the ice has melted the following spring.

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