Floating Art in the Landscape

By Mary and Hugh Williamson

The Williamsons’ Bluffton, SC landscape features a deck container water garden, and an adjacent lagoon that hosts both marginal and flowering water plants.

Water.  Elixir of life, it is said. It covers 70 percent of our planet; it is necessary for growing food, hydrating our bodies, cooking, washing and every aspect of sustaining life and providing recreation.  Yet while seemingly plentiful, it is ever sought after and is far too rare in many parts of our world.

Water is a powerful magnet.  A “water view” notation in a listing has a special allure to real estate buyers. Whether it is an ocean vista, or lake or river view, water panoramas are very desirable.  The sparkle, the color, the wildlife, the sound, the smell – they have a definite mystique.

Water in the landscape is glamorous, cooling, beautiful and offers such opportunities for spectacular visuals. If you do not live in a beach house, or have a grand river or lake view, your landscape can still boast the draw of all its appeal with a water garden.

Water Garden Possibilities
The inclusion of a water feature to your landscape can be any size, shape or type, whether it be an enhanced natural pond, elaborate geometric installation, or even just one or a series of containers on your patio or balcony.  It can be formal, a relaxed courtyard pond, an Asian influenced installation or even a bog garden that attracts wildlife.

But possibly one of the most exciting and colorful iterations is the lily pond. Waterlilies boast floating flowers, and can be the glistening jewels of any water garden or container. They can be very forgiving, as some cultivars will even survive in frozen ponds!

Tropical varieties are not as tough as some, and are considered annuals in cooler climates. They do, however, offer reward in warm, full sun, with dazzling colors that transform as they open. The range of hues includes white, pale yellow, blue, orange, pink and burgundy, and the foliage varies in color as well.  Collecting these beautiful specimens can be addictive, as you see success and witness the burgeoning blooms, and learn of rare and new cultivars.

A Little History
There are recordings of Asian-style water gardening before 300 A.D. The Chinese culture, so focused on the artistic replication of the natural environment, introduced the design of sparkling, reflective water features that included the careful placement of rocks, plantings, koi fish and bridges. These early examples provided the serene space necessary for the thoughtful meditation of philosophers.  Like with so many art forms, Japan was not far behind, adding other interpretations of symbolism.

Ancient Rome saw the emergence of water gardens and fountains that were a benefit of the construction of the elaborate aqueduct system, developed to meet the need of the populace for drinking water.  They were oftentimes opulent, and incorporated the sculptures that were not allowed in the Middle East, where those water gardens were more rigid in design, and human likenesses were forbidden.

The Middle East cultures utilized the availability of water provided by an aqueduct system, as did the Romans. The environment was often arid, though some were in proximity to the Nile River.  One magnificent example of the art form is found in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where a beautifully replicated river-evocative water garden complements the spectacular Temple of Dendur, brought from Egypt’s Nile to New York in the late 1970s. While the motifs that are abundant within many wall carvings of the temple are examples of the lotus, the Blue Lotus (Nymphaea Caerulea) is also known as the Egyptian Blue Water Lily and the Sacred Lily of the Nile. The lotus and the waterlily are often confused. But as with moths and butterflies, the differences become apparent as one grows to appreciate that which has inspired so many artisans.

The Blue Egyptian waterlily has a narcotic effect when processed, and is even illegal in some locations.  Brewed as a tea, or eaten, it is said to have caused the hallucinations and lethargy of the Lotus-eating Lotophagi race, visited by Odysseus (“The Odyssey IX“) in what is now likely coastal Libya.

Environmental Groups Are Not New
Even Claude Monet, who painted over 200 canvases of lily ponds, faced neighbors’ environmental concerns as he created his famous Garden at Giverny, Normandy.  The farmers were fearful that his plantings would poison their cattle. Monet’s dream prevailed, however, and the resulting garden, with 500 visitors each year has been hailed as one of the most significant 20th century art installations— true Art in the Landscape. The canvases that this living masterpiece inspired are viewed by many millions each year.

Back To The Future
The concept of water gardens has evolved to this day; from ancient times through the Renaissance, the French Impressionist era and into the New World, public and private spaces of import include the appeal of water gardens. New technology has allowed for continuing evolution, and now, so much is possible.  We don’t need aqueducts; materials, plantings, pumps and techniques have opened doors to creative new versions of a beloved landscape feature.



As you determine the commitment of space to devote to a lily pond, whether it be a large plot in your landscape, or simply waterproof pots on a terrace, carefully consider this planning step to integrate your water feature into your overall landscape design.

If you decide on a lawn pond and lean to a naturalistic look or to a firm geometry, construction is easy and simple.  Information on the construction is readily available online, from source books, and most reliably from your landscape professional.

If you instead opt for planting in pots, the process is easily accomplished without professional help. Select small bulbs for the pots. These will look like sweet potatoes in both size and shape (as opposed to the bulbs of larger lilies which resemble sugar beets). Good topsoil (not potting soil), sand and a small amount of pea pebbles will get your project under way.  Fill half of your pot with two-thirds soil, topped with one-third sand. Add a thin layer of pea pebbles on top of the soil and sand layer to keep it in place. This leaves the other half of the pot for water, carefully added on top of the sand, and allowed to settle for a few hours. You can then tuck the lily roots into the sand, pushing aside a few pebbles, leaving half of the bulb covered only with water. Then let the sun do its work, gently adding water as needed.

Lilies are available over the Internet, in amazing varieties. Sites will include “help lines” where your questions will be answered. Most suppliers offer this out of their understandable passion for lilies, and will be very happy to share their knowledge and an enthusiasm that will likely be contagious!

Mary and Hugh Williamson live in Bluffton, SC, where interior designer Mary’s interior traditional style is in agreement with landscape architect Hugh’s formal walks, arboretum, trellises and courtyards.