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water gardening | designing with marginal plants

by dig the dirt editor

While water lilies float serenely on the surface of a water garden, it's the backdrop of cattails, pickerel rush, and iris that weave drama and movement into a liquid scene. These marginal plants, with their lush foliage and dramatic blossoms, earn their name because they thrive in the shallow water and moist soil found at the edge of a pond.

Designing your water garden with marginal plants



mimic mother nature:

In a water garden, it's easy to simulate the boggy conditions in which marginal plants grow in the wild. Simply situate these moisture-lovers in submerged containers. Tucking marginal plants into pots contains their aggressively wandering natures, keeping these aquatic beauties from overtaking your waterscape. Pots also allow you to mix and match plants that require vastly different depths of water to grow. Set pots on bricks or cinder blocks to submerge them to appropriate depths.

design tips:

  • once you get your watery ecosystem in place and stocked with water lilies, fish, and fountain, you're ready to tackle choosing which marginal plants earn a place in your pond
  • Pair contrasting foliage textures. Blend big-leaved beauties, such as giant arrowhead or pickerel rush, with fine, feathery-foliaged favorites, like umbrella palm or papyrus.



  • Try a touch of the tropics. Taro--either black, green, or variegated--adds a tropical look to the most northerly-located water garden. These quick-growing, tender foliage superstars grow from bulbs that can be lifted and stored over winter.



black taro


  • Stripe up the garden. Don't hesitate to tuck in plants with striped, variegated leaves, such as sweet flag, houttuynia, or zebra rush. The bright leaves of these marginal beauties lighten shady edges of pools and add a great contrasting element to a green watery scene.



sweet flag


  • Stage a short to tall drama. Mix plants in different heights, from upright cattails to creeping bogbean, or from graceful primrose willow to golden club. Use floating plants, such as parrot's feather or yellow water snowflake, to complete your cast of marginal plants.


water snowflake


  • Add bloomers for color. Foliage isn't the only star in waterside plantings. Select flowering beauties to daub bright color into your garden: cardinal flower, water iris, marsh marigold, calla lily, water snowflake, or Louisiana iris.



calla lily

  • Don't forget your borders. Choose marginal bloomers and foliage plants in colors to complement the rest of your garden. You might even want to add a planting bed or pots of flowers and herbs around your water garden to blend its landscape with your existing garden.



water gardening, plants for water gardens, marginal plants