Planting, what should you look for?
Updated: Mar 11
This article is meant to help provide you the information to make informed decisions on how to direct your water where to go, in regard to plants. We reference species by the common and scientific name so that you know exactly which plant we're talking about. Many plants have the same or similar common names. For example a willow tree (Salix sp.) and American water willow (Justicia americana). The willow tree is a pond owners dread but American water willow is a great pond and lake management species. Now let's get to the fun stuff!
So you've recently bought a property with some water or you've built a new pond or lake. You want to introduce some native vegetation but don't know where to start. In this article we'll talk about what we look for before and during a planting project.
First lets establish that nothing is guaranteed. A planting project can be planned and performed perfectly but mother nature can render it useless. Snow storms (like that of Feb. 2021) and periods of drought (such as the TX summer of 2011) can be detrimental to a planting.
These are the factors to consider before planting:
Goals and uses for the water body
Soil make up
Potential for herbivory
Goals and uses for the water body
First and foremost, we must define what you're doing with the water body. This will, in many cases, significantly impact what species are utilized and where they're introduced. Typically private water bodies are used for one, or a combination, of these three things:
Aesthetics and swimming
Let's tackle fishing first. One of the most important things in fisheries management is establishing structure, which plants can do very well. The most often utilized species are eel grass (Vallisneria americana), American water willow (Justicia americana), yellow water lily (Nymphaea mexicana), white water lily (Nymphaea odorata) and American floating pondweed (Potomageton nodosus). All of these provide elaborate structure for fishes and invertebrates in the substrate/pond bottom, water column and the air space above the waters surface.
The roots will provide structure to the substrate/pond bottom. This is where invertebrates such as worms can be found, a common bait (live and artificial) used for targeting multiple fish species. In the water column the leaves of the eel grass, lilies and pondweed will provide homes and food for aquatic insects. These insects are another important food source for fish. The floating leaves of lilies and American floating pondweed provide a place for frogs to rest, while a bass waits for it to jump off the leaf. Meanwhile the emergent leaves and stems of the American water willow provide a perch for dragonfly nymphs to emerge.
Waterfowl are a bit different. The biggest difference is that waterfowl can be more directly fed by the plants introduced. We still want to introduce some habitat for invertebrates though ,as they can be forage. The primary species are sago pondweed (Stuckenia pectinata), American floating pondweed (Potomageton nodosus), smartweed (Polygonum sp.), pickerelweed (Pontedaria cordata) and eel grass (Vallisneria americana).
Submerged species, which include pondweed and eel grass, provide habitat for invertebrates and direct forage via their seeds and root structures. Smartweed and pickerelweed produce large amounts of seed, making an easy meal for waterfowl. In some cases, their root structures are consumed as well.
Aethetics and swimming is a bit simpler, we just want the pond to look pretty! This changes from person to person but the go-to's along the shoreline are golden canna (Canna flaccida), thalia (Thalia dealbata) and pickerelweed (Pontedaria cordata). Deeper water aesthetic plants are typically the yellow water lily (Nymphaea mexicana) and white water lily (Nymphaea odorata). These all have showy flowers that bloom from spring to late summer and early fall.
Ponds can be to small for certain plants to perform well. Water lilies are not recommended for ponds that are under 1-2 acres. The lilies can take over if left unmonitored, especially in ponds less than a half acre. If you've got your heart set on lilies in your smaller pond, it can be done but be aware that plant management may be necessary. A similar argument can be made for American floating pondweed and sago pondweed. Whether this is desirable or not, depends on your goals/uses for the water body. For example, in the picture below lilies were planted in this quarter acre pond. This coverage was the desired look for the project and the property owner was very happy with the coverage and blooming from the lilies.
A steep slope isn't often a problem but you should be aware of it while planning. The steepest part of the shoreline in lakes and ponds is typically along the dam. Here submerged species tend to struggle. It simply gets to deep, to fast preventing the plant from receiving the required sunlight to flourish. This isn't always the case though, but if you have other options they'd serve you better. Similarly, emergent plants located at these steep areas can be left high and dry, literally, during drought-like conditions.
Water level fluctuation
That brings us to the next point, water level fluctuation. The hot summers of Texas can cause increased evaporation. This coupled with little to no rain, is detrimental for aquatic plants. If you know how the water fluctuates through the year, we suggest planting near the lower time of the year. This ensures that emergent plants aren't planted to deep and that submerged plants will have a water column to grow in.
With new water bodies, this is more difficult. We recomend watching the pond/lake at least through the hottest part of the year. This way, you have an idea how low and how fast the water level can drop. From there, an informed decision can be made on what plants would work well and where to put them.
This component is most important with submerged and floating leaf plants, for example eel grass and water lilies. If you have muddy water, submerged plants are going to be difficult (or impossible) to establish. There isn't enough light coming through the dirty water for the plants to grow and flourish. A tactic often used to clear water is an aluminum sulfate application.
Most native plants aren't terribly picky, making soil makeup easy. If your soils are mostly sand or if the shoreline has rock, plants will struggle. The greater concern of these two is rock. Rocky soils can be very difficult to properly plant from a mechanical standpoint. It's also difficult for the plant to penetrate the rock in the search for suitable soil. Hard clay soils are difficult for whoever is planting, but the plants themselves tend to grow well in it.
Potential for herbivory
Last but not least, will your plants be safe from being eaten or disturbed? Herbivory by turtles is the biggest concern for this topic. Disturbance by wild hogs and cattle also pose a problem. In both situations, the plants are disrupted before they can mature. In these situations, we utilize cattle panel caging to protect the new plants. After they mature, typically 6-8 months, the cages are removed.
Once you've decided the goals/uses for the pond and collected the information you can start planning! This introduction should help start the process, but if you need help let us know!