The Use of Color in Ponds

Published on March 2, 2010

Mixed Pontederias
Mixed Pontederias

Three things occurred one day recently that caught my attention and made me think of the subject matter for this article. It is something that has crossed my mind a thousand times over the years, and I think that it deserves a discussion. It is how we use colors in our aquascapes, and how this can make a difference in how we and our clients view our ponds.

In each of these incidents, it was the combination of plants in bloom that caught my eye. The first event occurred while I was working in the pond of one of my maintenance clients. There were as many as 20 Hedychium coronarium stems and perhaps 40 Lobelia cardinalis inflorescences on one side of the pond. The juxtaposition of the flowers, with the clean white of the Hedychium and the brilliant red of the Lobelia mixed together was an absolute delight, and I was energized by having noticed it. All that I lacked was a camera, of course.

The second was a similar arrangement in another pond, this time involving several Crinum americanum inflorescences and Lobelia cardinalis again. Again, the sight was inspiring.

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The third event occurred while I approached a pond that I have maintained for a couple of summers. It is an 8´ circle with a fountain that spits a single stream of water into the center of the pond from the edge. I have accidentally managed to create a lovely arrangement of Nymphaeas, starting with two specimens of the dwarf white tropical, N. ‘Innocence’ at the far point of the circle relative to the fountain, with N. colorata next on either side, followed by N. ‘Lindsay Wood’ a little further around the circle. The whole thing is topped with two specimens of Eichhornia paniculata on either side of the fountain. The mix of purple, blue, and white is exquisite, and I only wish that I had actually thought of it, instead of just noticing it. One flaw is the inclusion of a specimen of N. ‘Laydekeri fulgans.’ I am going to refine the arrangement next summer by excluding the red Nymphaea after July 4th.

The use of color in ponds is an often over-looked aspect of water gardening. There are those who take it quite seriously, though. I remember one fellow in Los Angeles who spoke of how he arranged the lilies in his ponds in a chromatographic procession from one hue to another, through a selection of intermediate shades. At the time I thought that it was a neat idea, but way too much trouble, and I had no idea what he did with his bog plantings. But, for the most part, builders of ponds never give the ultimate success or appearance of the plants that will go into their ponds a moment’s thought.

At one point early in my career, I was into riotous color, telling people to mix it up with reckless abandon, regardless of what the rest of the garden looked like. “It doesn’t matter,” I told them, “just get some color out there. You can even put purple and yellow together and get away with it.”

This approach has some merit, but it can have the effect of making the pond look like a mess of confetti after a parade, with different spots of color scattered all over the place, with neither rhyme nor reason. In situations where the client wants a completely naturalistic look, this is fine. Most situations, however, require a more sophisticated approach. For some people a mix of pastels is just the thing, while for others, brighter colors are better suited to the yard or to the people. Some clients want you to use only certain colors, usually to match their landscape, and that is always fine. It is always sort of discouraging, though, to hear a person say, “I don’t like yellow flowers,” or, conversely, “I only want to see yellow and white in my pond.”

In the first instance, not using plants with yellow flowers can be pretty limiting, excluding entire genera, and in the second instance, using only white and yellow is boring. The last person to tell me that she wanted only yellow and white now has several colors in her pond and loves it. I started her out with yellow and white, but then quickly added some yellow-orange. In the second summer I moved her up to N. ‘Albert Greenberg.’ Once she saw it bloom, she was hooked. Pretty soon she was asking me for other colors, and now it is a nearly theme-less collection of red and red-orange, yellow, peach, and whites, with one large specimen of N. ‘Lindsay Wood’ right in the middle. She loves it, and if she does, then so do I. It is almost a truism in this business that if you can make the lady of the house happy, then everybody involved can keep smiling.

It has been said that there really is no disputing taste, and what excites one person makes another sick to his stomach. There are, however, some combinations that appeal to the vast majority of people, and understanding which colors combine well is essential. Combinations such as purple, blue and white or red, for instance, or yellow, orange, and burnt reds, are always safe. Again, developing a sensitivity for what clients want to see, and what sort of mood they want in their yard has helped me satisfy several really confused people, who, when faced with an empty pond, were at a loss to know what they wanted or how to achieve what they thought that they wanted. Of course, much of this confusion is from ignorance of what is available to them. This is especially true when it comes to aquatic and hydrophilic plants.

Because the pond is often the center of attention in a landscape, either because of a waterfall, or because it is the centerpiece or the natural termination of a scene, or because it looks particularly good or bad, how they are set up needs to be taken seriously. I believe that it is appropriate to use the pond as an attraction to make people want to go further into the yard, or to follow the stream to see what it does, and to reward the seeker with a display of color and grace that cannot be achieved elsewhere.

Rose beds have their bare dirt, old wood, and weeds. Iris beds have their crabgrass and short blooming season, and yes, ponds have algae sometimes, but even that has beauty and might support an entire little ecosystem. Sometimes the algae are the only things keeping the fish alive. Properly planned marginal and open water plantings can be scenes of absolute beauty, with blends of foliage types and flower colors. Also, there is something about the surface of a body of water with, perhaps, some brightly colored water lilies against dark water, and the sound of falling water that appeals to all of us. When I can approach a pond from below and can see across the surface of the water at eye-level, with Nymphaea leaves and flowers the only disturbances of the sheet of water, I can fall in love with this hobby all over again.

For marginal plantings, especially those with rocks and gravel on shallow shelves, I prefer to use low-growing plants of many textures and colors. Plants such as Rotala rotundifolia, Bacopa monnierri, Hygrophila diformis, Lobelia chinensis, Ajuga reptans, Lippia nodiflora, and Marselia spp, mix in interesting ways and produce flowers almost constantly in mild climates. Mixing plants whose flowers are of like or compatible colors, such as Rotala rotundifolia and Lobelia chinensis, or Myosotis scorpioides, Hygrophila diformis (Water Wisteria), and Lipia nodiflora, can always create a pleasing display. As accent plants, Pontederia, Sagittaria, Echinodorus, Hibiscus, and Iris are among the many genera that offer mixable colors and interesting foliage. These plants should be chosen according to scale and color. Mixing varieties of H. moushoetes or with H. coccinea can create a nice eye-level display, and of course, there are always the things that can be done with varieties of Canna. The bright colors and ease of culture among Canna species make them essential for ponds that want a tropical look, or just a lot of color in the background. Shorter plants can go in front of these, and with the variety of plants available, the lower plantings can blend chromatically with the taller background plantings.

In wild or natural-looking systems, it is relatively easy to attain an acceptable appearance. As long as it is not too formal or formulaic, then it is probably OK. Plants can grow more or less as they will, with the grower in charge of where things can and cannot intrude. In formal ponds, though, it is good to use potted specimens so that the plants will stay contained, and so that seasonal changes can be made easily. Also, the display can be made to look different each summer if that is what the client wants. In one round, lawn-pond that I tend, I always have a display of plants in the center. Last year it was three Eichhornia paniculatas with a Cyperus alternifolius var. ‘gracilis’ in the center. It was very nice. When the Eichhornias go down, I replace them with Zantedeschia aethiopica in two-gallon pots, which carries me through until mid-spring. Next year it will be two E. paniculatas and a Pontederia sagittata, whose pink flowers ought to look pretty nice with the purple of the Eichhornia. I have the pond planted with N. ‘Laydekeri purpurea’ and N. ‘Innocence,’ whose deep red and bright, pink-edged, white flowers, respectively, are a constant delight all summer. In the winter, we depend upon Aponogeton distachyos, which, with the Zantedeschias in the middle, keep things more interesting than they would be with nothing but dormant Nymphaeas and funky, burnt out Pontederias and Eichhornias.

Mixing colors of Pontederia has been a practice of mine for a number of years, and mixing varieties of Nymphaea in attractive ways is the norm for me now. A recent favorite was putting N. ‘St. Louis Gold’ next to N. ‘Red Flare’. The large red leaves, and the numerous yellow flowers were quite a sight. I do not mix them in the pots, but I put the pots close enough together to get a thorough mixing of the colors. With both Nymphaea and many of the Pontederiaceae, the circles of leaf-stems reach into each other, making a blend of colors that is always nice at the peak of the season. The different heights of the varieties of Pontederia make it possible to have tall ones behind shorter ones, which can give a large display of flowers that reaches from just above the water to 6 feet above it.

When mixing any colors, whether it is with Nymphaeas or marginal plantings, I bear in mind that vivid colors stand out better than pastels, but a mix of the two, in complementary hues, can be very effective, and indeed, using white or some other light shade, even as the main color, can make the less vivid hues stand out more than they might if they were left to stand on their own. When planting Nymphaeas, if you were to use a dark purple variety, with either blue or hot pink, a N. ‘Dauben’ mixed in will stand out more vividly than it might otherwise.

Of course, foliage color comes into the mix, and many varieties of both hardy and tropical Nymphaeas can hardly be beaten for single-plant beauty. Many varieties exhibit wildly variegated leaves with huge, multi-petal flowers, or they might have solidly hued, maroon leaves, with deep pink flowers. Plants such as these can be made to stand on their own, with other, lesser varieties placed in orbit around them. When space is limited, go for the gusto and get something that says it all. I have not decided yet, whether it is better to keep the wildly variegated types with other wildly variegated types, and keep the plain-leafed ones among themselves. Somehow, the non-variegated leaf seems to detract from the variegated one, and unless the flower is really special, I try to avoid this. For instance, the fact that N. ‘Wood’s Blue Goddess’ produces so many flowers in a day makes up for its plain green leaf. I have had one next to a specimen of N. ‘Foxfire’ this summer, and it has been nice.

Foliage colors also play a role in marginal plantings. Leaves are usually more of a textural element, but many are colored, some subtlety, Thalia dealbata, while others are more obviously different, Colocasia ‘Black Magic’. In a mix of broad-leafed plants, such as Thalia geniculata, Pontederia chordata, and Acrostichum aureum, a dark leafed Taro can add a welcome accent, even without flowers. Even in the shaded corner in the photo, the dark leaf is made vivid by the presence of the other plants.

Indeed, in shaded situations, sometimes the only thing that we can depend upon is foliage. Many of our common bog plants simply won’t bloom, or are prone to grow weakly, but some thrive in shade, and can be used to great advantage. Ferns, Zantedeschia, Saururus, Colocasia, and Caltha can all brighten a shady spot that might otherwise, God forbid, go unfilled.

Regardless of the situation, there is a plant, or a combination of plants, that will fill any void with color and interest. A bit of careful thought will give good results, which always makes it easier for my clients to write that maintenance check each month. And that is a beautiful thing, indeed.

Toledo Goldfish

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