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If you have ever had a dirt-planted pot of plants tip over in your pond, you know first hand what a mess it is to clean up. Once the dirt from the pot gets into the pond, the pump further spreads the dirt throughout the entire system.

Even when a pot does not tip over, the water still has a brown tinge to it that people often refer to as tea colored water.

Over the years we had experimented with different planting methods using different types of planting media and still the water would take on a brown tinge once we placed the plants in the pond. Additionally, there was that dreaded, stinky smell at re-potting time.

Every year, I dreaded un-potting the stinky, smelly pot full of dirt. Dirt will go anaerobic in just a year in the pond and send off hydrogen gas (rotten egg smell). The hydrogen gas can actually build up in the dirt to the point it will kill pond fish.

Over time, generally a year, the dirt will mix with organic waste like fish feces, uneaten food, and pieces of plants. As the organic material builds up and decomposes, the much needed oxygen cannot reach the roots, and decay takes place. The decaying organic matter produces ammonia and carbon dioxide, which use up the oxygen the pond fish need to live!

The accumulation of this rotting matter also encourages the buildup of anaerobic bacteria, which are bacteria that do not need oxygen to survive. These bacteria are responsible for the nasty smells and are often the cause of health problems in pond fish.

We have been growing pond plants that we sell hydroponically for many years in the greenhouse and I was fairly sure that there had to be a way to grow them in the pond without dirt.

My first experiment was growing plants in my streambed without dirt. Streambeds are always a source of algae. By reducing the amount of sunlight that hit the rocks, I thought I could cut down on the algae growing on the rocks if I could provide shade on the rocks.


Watercress growing in my streambed  Watercress growing in our streambed in just a few inches of water.  The bare root plants were wedged between the rocks.

We placed bare-root plants in the streambed by moving a couple of rocks aside. Using the rocks, we propped up the plants until the roots could take hold. It worked very well! We have tried this method with other plants including Egyptian Papyrus, Cannas, taros, bluebells, bog lily, King Tut papyrus, and many different water-variety hibiscus.

We tried low growing plants like pennywort, lemon bacopa, water mint, parrots feather, and watercress; they worked just as well.  These are just a few, there are others that will work just as well.

At first, we tried growing bog plants in black nursery pots with pea gravel. Then the following year we noticed they were just as smelly as those we had grown in dirt in previous years.
The following year, about 6 years ago, we decided to try using just the black nursery pots and large rocks.

Egyptian Papyrus in our streambed   Egyptian Papyrus in our streambed growing bare root in a few inches of water. At the base on the right side there is watercress.  I should note the 2 above photos were two different years.  I love the watercress because if it gets to big and outgrows its space, I shear it off and feed it to my koi.  They love it!

It was amazing! In just a few weeks, the roots were growing all around the rocks. The plants were bigger and fuller than ever before. Tall plants like the Egyptian papyrus, large growing umbrella, cannas, and hibiscus did not tip over in the pond anymore; this is because the rocks were large enough to weigh down the plants so the wind would not blow them over.

Using the our soil-less method one does not need to worry about fertilizing because the roots will grow out of the drainage holes in the pot and use the nutrients from the fish waste in the water!

One other bonus, if you live where the winter is cold, is that you can easily move the plants into your home for the winter. Purchase a large tote-storage type container. You can place several plants in the same container near a sunny window in your home for the winter. You no longer need to drop the plants to the bottom of the pond for the winter unless you choose to do so.


Above is Iris growing in the rocks in our streambed. Right picture a few weeks later when the iris started to bloom.

Lower pond plants on plant shelf in plant stands, all growing soil-less in 3 gallon pots filled with rocks. These are all bog plants and the top of the pot is even with the water.

Above: Roots growing out of the pot of Hibiscus.

We tried the soil-less method above on both hardy and tropical lilies, but growth was not successful. In many cases, they just died. We then experimented with growing them in sand.
Sand will go anaerobic in time, but not as fast as dirt. We use 3-gallon buckets with metal handles that we bought at dollar type stores.  The handles make adding the buckets to and removing the buckets from the pond much easier.

By planting in a 3-gallon bucket, we only need to remove the lilies every 3 years to divide them. The bonus is the sand is very easy to wash off the tuber and roots. We replace with clean sand at that time.

We also found large round tubs at a dollar store and the tubs are perfect for lotus tubers. We have been growing our lotus in sand for about 5 years now.

Fertilizing in Sand
Sand does not contain, nor does it hold many nutrients. You need to fertilize the lilies and lotus regularly, about ever 3 weeks with pond-plant fertilizer tablets. Simply push the tablets down in the sand around the outside edge of the container, using 3 for every gallon of sand.


Here you can read more about Growing soil-less or hydroponically.

One trick I discovered years ago is to first line the pot with burlap, weed barrier mat or a few layers of damp newspaper. After the bottom of the pot is lined then add your sand and plant. This little trick keeps the sand from washing out the drainage holes in to the pond.

One last point that is important is when you are putting the plant in the pond make sure that you slowly lower the pot into the water rather than just plunge the pot into the water. By lowering the pot slowly this will keep the force of the water from washing the sand out of the pot and into the water.

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