Gardening: winter water gardens

Blessed as we are with mild winters, there is plenty of colour and interest in the garden at the moment.

But one area that may be looking a little drab is the water garden.

If, like me, you have water lilies and lotuses as the main feature in your water bowls, there might not be much happening at the moment.

These stars of the summer water garden have retreated to their corms, leaving an apparently empty bowl. One of my lilies, Tropical Tina, doesn’t die down, but all the other bowls look a bit shabby.

There are plenty of options in sun or part shade to keep a bit of interest in water gardens through winter, though. Try some of the lovely grasses. "Twizzler", a cultivar of Lepironia articulata, is a striking plant with twisted, bluey-grey reed-like foliage.

Its strong, slightly crazy-looking upright form looks great in water features, pots or bog gardens. It doesn’t need much care, just a trim back to remove old leaves every couple of years. It will grow to 1-1.3m tall in wet soil or water, but will remain shorter in a dry position.

Twizzler will flower in summer through to winter, and the flowers are followed with attractive conical shaped seed heads, adding another interesting element.

Another beautiful grass that can be used with great effect in water gardens is Balaloskion pallens "Didgery Sticks". This is an Australian native with upright, green cylindrical stems with attractive scarlet markings.

It grows to about 1m high and will eventually form a clump about 50cm wide. Didgery Sticks produces small reddish-brown flowers on the tips of the leave in spring. Remove old stems by plucking them from the base of the plant to keep the plant looking tidy.

There are also several edible plants and herbs that can be grown in water. Try water spinach (Ipomea aquatica), also known as Kangkong.

This herbaceous aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial plant is related to the sweet potato, and shares a similar creeping habit. It belongs to the same family as morning glory, and in some parts of the world it is classed as a noxious weed. If you want to grow it, be vigilant to ensure that it doesn’t escape. I probably wouldn’t plant it in a dam as it may get out of control. It can be grown in moist soil or in water. To harvest, just cut the stems, remove the leaves and treat them as you would spinach or silverbeet. The fresh young leaves are best.

Vietnamese mint (Persicaria odorata) is a strongly-flavoured herb that isn’t really related to the other mints, but it does have a similar growth habit. It is used extensively in cuisine throughout Asia. It is eaten fresh in salads and rice paper rolls and is also used sliced in laksa, giving rise to another one of its many names, Laksa leaf. Grow it in the garden or in a water bowl. It has lovely variegated foliage and sprays of delicate pink flowers in autumn.

There are many different varieties of cress that can be grown in your water bowl, too. American upland cress (Barbarea vulgaris), Lebanese cress (Aethionema cordifolium) and, of course, water cress (Nasturtium officianale) will all grow in shallow water.

Louisiana irises flower in spring, but their strappy leaves look great in a water bowl during winter. For extreme drama, try Xanthosoma sagittifolium, a member of the arum family commonly known as Giant Elephant Ear, which has huge arrow-shaped leaves and can grow more than 2.5m tall.

Sarracena, those insect-eating plants commonly known as Pitcher Plants, also grow in shallow water. Their growth rate slows down during winter, but they don’t disappear entirely. The colourful pitchers are very decorative and they are a great talking point.

So, there’s absolutely no need to stare forlornly at the empty water bowls and curse the winter.

Just put some other plants in there until it’s time for the dormant ones to emerge in spring.

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