How to plant up a pond

Red water lily

Learn how to plant up your pond with beneficial aquatic plants using our guide
Image: Water Lily Red with Pond Basket from Thompson & Morgan

With so many aquatic plants to choose from, planting up a garden pond can be a daunting task. But getting it right will create one of the most breathtaking, diverse and fascinating habitats in your garden. Here’s everything you need to know about pond plants including the different planting zones and specific variety tips. 

Browse our full range of aquatic plants for ponds for more inspiration. 

Why are aquatic plants so important in ponds?

Frog on a lily pad

Aquatic plants provide shade and habitat for wildlife
Image: Shutterstock

Aquatic plants are vital for providing shade and using up nutrients in the water which would otherwise lead to a build up of green algae. They keep the water clean and well oxygenated, providing shelter for fish and other wildlife. If you’re trying to encourage wildlife to your garden, you may prefer to stick with native pond plants.

Pond plants are a diverse group with an infinite range of form and habit. The perfect way to soften the hard edges of your pond, they also add interesting texture and create intriguing reflections on the water. Why not add a few evergreen plants to keep your pond colourful all year round?

How to choose the right plants for your pond

Red lobelia aquatic flower

'Queen Victoria' is an exotic looking perennial to surround ponds and streams
Image: Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria' from Thompson & Morgan

Different aquatic plants require different depths of water, so it’s well worth doing a little research and choosing plants that will best suit the conditions that your pond offers. Most ponds have a series of shelves that provide different planting depths. These are known as ‘zones’. See the graphic below for a quick summary:

Planting pond illustration

What are the five 5 different pond zones?

Trio of water lily colours

These neat and compact water lilies are suitable for ponds of any size
Image: Water Lily Trio with a Pond Basket from Thompson & Morgan

To make the most of your pond, you’ll need to check the depth of the water in different places and choose plants that thrive in each position. If you’re creating a new pond from scratch, be sure to shelve the sides so that you can plant an interesting variety of beautiful aquatics. 

  • Zone 1: Moisture loving/ bog plants: This diverse set of plants bridge the gap between water and dry land. Although most of these species are not actually aquatic plants, they will enjoy reliably moist or even boggy soil around the edge of ponds, lakes and watercourses. These plants should not be submerged in water as they are likely to rot in such circumstances.
  • Zones 2 and 3: Marginal aquatic plants: These plants thrive in the shallow waters at the inside edge of your pond and are often referred to as emergent plants. Some prefer the shallowest shelves (zone 2) while others can cope with slightly deeper water (zone 3). Check the depths of your pond margins to help you choose the right plants.
  • Zone 4: Deep water aquatic plants (including Water Lilies) and submerged oxygenators: Deep water aquatics flourish in the deeper recesses of the pond. With the crown fully submerged beneath the water, many (such as Water Lilies) produce foliage on long stems that float at the water's surface. Submerged oxygenators, on the other hand, arerarely seen but are some of the most important. Submerged oxygenating plants create a healthy pond in which fish and wildlife can flourish. Many submerged aquatic plants are sold as bunches of stems that can be weighted or planted into pots to anchor them at the bottom of the pods. Aim for 4 to 5 bunches per square metre of water surface.
  • Zone 5: Floating aquatic plants: Floating pond plants create cover for wildlife and shade across the water's surface. They don't require planting - simply place them on the water's surface and leave them to float around.

Top tips for planting marginal pond plants

Golden petal pond plant

Trollius chinensis thrives in bog gardens or damp borders (RHS AGM variety)
Image: Trollius chinensis 'Golden Queen' from Thompson & Morgan

  • Plant aquatics between spring and early summer when the water is warming up and the plants are springing into life.
  • Use a heavy loam compost which won't float to the surface of the pond. You can buy specialist aquatic compost, or use heavy garden soil provided that it’s free from fertilisers and herbicides.
  • Use special aquatic containers with mesh sides that allow free movement of water and oxygen. Most gardeners will prefer to plant into containers as this controls the spread of the plants and makes maintenance easier. In larger ponds you can plant directly into the silt at the bottom of the pond.
  • Add a deep layer of stones at the bottom of the container for extra stability and to help anchor the plant in place. This is particularly useful when planting tall pond plants or when planting into flowing water.
  • Apply a thin layer of grit or fine stone across the top of the container to prevent the soil floating out when you submerge it. Saturating the soil with a hosepipe prior to planting will also help to keep the soil in place.

Top tips for planting deep water aquatic plants

Yellow water lily

This yellow water lily is a deep pond plant with exotic cup-shaped blooms and glossy green pads
Image: Water Lily (Yellow) from Thompson & Morgan

  • Water lilies and other such plants need time to adjust to deep water. When newly planted they will need raising on bricks wrapped in some spare pond liner, or a submerged temporary platform within the pond. Gradually lower them in stages until they reach their final positions - at each stage the foliage must have grown to reach the surface before they are submerged to the next depth.
  • Unless you have very tall wellies or don't mind a dip then it can be hard to position deep water aquatics in the pond. Find a friend to help you, and thread some twine through the mesh sides of the container. Take one end of the twine each and gradually lower the plant into position, before gently tugging the twine from the container.

Want to try growing some of these beautiful pond plants without a pond? Create a tranquil water feature on your patio with this special all-in-one patio pond planting kit containing a large bowl and three aquatic plants.

Sue Sanderson T&M horticulturalist

Written by: Sue Sanderson

Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.

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