How to Grow Water Lilies at Home

Lily Pads

Standing in your garden, you have your newly bought water lily in your hands. They looked pretty at the shop you bought them at, but now they are unpotted and in a mess. What do you do now? How are we going to take care of these beauties?

As mentioned in our previous article, “Different Kinds of Water Lilies for You”, there are two main divisions of water lilies: hardy and tropical. Growing instructions for the two kinds differ slightly. 

Today, I’ll be focusing on the Tropical Water Lily (Nymphaeaceae).

The Best Garden Plant? The Water Lily.

For now, I will assume that your water lilies were bought bare rooted, with either fully grown flowers and leaves or newly sprouted shoots. If your water lilies came potted, then you can click here to skip to the fertilising process. 

Baby water lilies actually come from tubers, which are similar to the “potato” in a potato plant, but these are usually not sold to customers unless it is what they want.  

Okay, let’s get down to business. I’m going to go through a step-by-step process of what we have to prepare to properly nurture a healthy tropical water lily. 

The Perfect Container

I advise that tropical water lilies be planted in a pot that is around 20cm in diameter (or 10inches). This is because a smaller container will result in a smaller plant, hence a 20 to 30cm wide plastic pot would be ideal do note that if you wish to use a pot of a smaller size it is still possible just that you water lilies will not be as big as those you might see outside. Personally, I use a 9cm wide pot for my water lilies at home and they are still growing beautifully!

Crystal Clear Pond with Growing Water Lily
Water Lily Setup at Home

Choosing the best soil

Use a heavy clay loam or soil that is specific to aquatic plants. Loam soil is actually a mixture of clay, silt and sand. We want a composition which has more clay because clay is a very sticky soil. When we submerge our pot into the water, the soil will not come loose and escape.

Depending on the size of your water lily, and the size of the pot, fill the base of the pot with loam soil, roughly around 1/4 the height of the pot. Add 2-4 fertiliser tablets (I’ll touch on this later) and place the water lily into the centre of the container. 

Proceed to fill up the gaps around the roots of the water lily with soil, while ensuring that you do not cover up the “crown” where all the leaves or buds are growing out from. Fill up the soil until the point where the roots meet the crown. Press the soil in to make it more compact. You can even take the entire pot and hit it lightly on a table or on the floor. 

Lastly, add a layer of sand or gravel as an additional measure to prevent the soil from escaping the pot when we dip it into the water. 

Steroids for your plants, AKA Fertilising

Fertilizer for Lilies
Fertiliser Tablets

To fertilise your water lilies, all you have to do is press the fertiliser tablets into the soil around the plant. Whatever you do, do not fertilise directly into the water, as this will alter the pH of the water and harm both plants and fish. You could even be plagued by algae if you do this, so please ensure that you take the container out of the water to press the tablets in. 

Tropical Water Lilies are heavy feeders and should be fertilised generously, so a good gauge would be to do it once a month. Fertilisers can be bought cheaply at any local store, or you can get them online here

The Depth of Water

Yep I know, you might think: how would this affect my plant?  

While it is not commonly known, this is one of the most important factors we have to pay attention to when planting our water lilies. The general rule of thumb is that water lilies need plenty of sunlight and warm water. Hence, placing you water lilies too low and we prevent young plants from receiving enough sunlight to grow well. 

Tropical Water lilies prefer to be planted no less than 10cm and no more than 40cm (between 4 and 16 inches) below the surface. Placing your water lilies too close to the surface isn’t as bad as placing it too low, as it is more for aesthetic purposes. However, if you place it extremely high and the water will evaporate and dry the soil, so remember to refill your water if you wish to do this.

With new plantings, I recommend that the pot is placed just below the surface of the water and gradually lower it as the water lily grows. You can do this by starting with less water and subsequently adding more water to increase depth or use bricks (or any form of elevation actually) to elevate the plant initially and slowly remove them as it grows. Once the plant is established the pot can remain at your desired depth. 

Do note that for Hardy Water Lilies, the concern will be different for people living in temperate climates. Tropical Water Lilies will almost always perish in winter and will need replanting. Hardy Water Lilies on the other hand will be able to survive the frost, thus it is important to place them deep enough, such that the crown is below the freezing point of the pond.

Sunlight: Our plant's source of food

Water lilies are heavy feeders, thus they need a lot of sunlight: at least 4 hours a day, and ideally 6 hours or more. 

Basically, provide as much sunlight to your water lilies as possible. The more sun it gets, the better it will grow. Luckily, here in Singapore, this should not be a problem. 

Still, you can grow water lilies in partial shade, so do not worry too much if you can’t find an ideal spot to put it. If there really isn’t enough sunlight, I suggest getting a grow light for your plant. 

light and plants below

Full-spectrum bulbs are the most ideal for your plant because it can simulate actual sunlight, which contains the complete spectrum of light. LEDs are better for the environment and are cheaper, so there is no reason not to get them!

Additional Tips:

Plant to Surface Ratio

Try to strike a balance between plants and the surface area of the pond; as a general rule of thumb, plants should cover about 65 per cent of the surface area. This gives just the right amount of cover for fishes living inside the water from crows, who love to prey on small fish. It also ensures that the inside of the pond does not receive too much sunlight as this can spur unwanted algae growth. 

Water Features

Water lilies do not like to have their leaves splashed continuously, so it is good to keep them away from water features, such as fountains. Gently moving water is not a problem for most lilies, so it is still possible to have the water features in your bond in conjunction with the lilies, just place them further away from the feature.