Water Gardening

Water gardening in aquariums and ponds has been a favorite pursuit for Jim Whitley of Columbia for the past 45 years. Whitley is a retired Conservation Department fisheries biologist and is considered an expert on aquatic plants. An aquarium containing water trumpet (Cryptocorynes spp.), a common aquarium plant, sits quietly in one corner of his living room. A starhead topminnow or southern redbelly dace may be seen darting among the plant's slender grasslike leaves.

You will not hear the low buzz of an air pump. The aquarium has no air stone or filtration system and yet is in perfect balance. Whitley thins the water trumpets occasionally, but otherwise they have been growing undisturbed for 36 years. As in ponds, the plants add oxygen to the water and provide homes for fish.

In addition to maintaining aquariums, Whitley also has planted more than 20 different species of aquatic plants collected from around the state in his favorite pond in Boone County. The number of species present grows each year. When Whitley leads a tour of this pond, he is likely to describe the medicinal uses of sweet flag, share tidbits of natural history about the unique reproductive biology of water lilies (the flower is only fertile on the first morning that it opens and must be fertilized by pollen produced from a flower that has already been open for three days) or give you tips on how to identify a pure strain narrow-leaved cattail from its hybrid.

Whitley says he loves aquatic plants because they are easy to grow and they bloom for a long period of time. Many water plants will bloom throughout the summer, unlike their terrestrial counterparts.

Whitley offers the following advice for successfully growing aquatic plants in a pond:

  • Start with plants native to Missouri and, if possible, obtain plants from a source close to your planting site. The plants will be more vigorous, spread faster and adapt better to local conditions than non-native varieties. Collecting and transporting non-natives can be harmful to your native flora.
  • Before planting seedlings, keep their roots in water and protect their leaves with a damp cover, such as wet newspaper. Without protection, the plants will dry out and may die.
  • For best results, plant the seedlings within one day of digging them.
  • Select a planting site with fertile soil. If necessary, transfer some good dirt to your planting site. Avoid areas with hard-packed clay.
  • Set plants firmly into the bottom and