Creating Como’s stunning summer-time aquatic gardens requires four seasons of careful planning
On hot summer days, Como horticulturist Victoria Housewright has one of the coolest jobs on campus, tending to the lilies, Victoria water platters and other aquatic plants that grow in the water gardens that surround Como’s Visitor Center.
Standing in her waders, Housewright can often be found talking to visitors as they pass through Como’s front doors, or persuading them to take in the fragrance of a water lily. “I love the chance to talk to visitors about the water garden and to answer the questions they have,” Housewright says. “And I’m always passing those flowers around because they really do smell amazing.”
While the water gardens reach their peak at mid-summer, planning, planting and cultivating these aquatic plants is a year-round project. Here’s a look:
1). While she was a student at the University of Minnesota, Housewright had her first experience working with aquatic plants during an internship at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, which coincidentally shares seeds for the show-stopping Victoria water platters with the Conservatory and other botanical gardens around the country. “I spent just a couple weeks working on the water garden but I was hooked. Plants like water lilies are so aesthetically pleasing, they grow so fast, and they keep blooming and blooming. The incredible variety of aquatic plants is what makes them so interesting.”
2). Though the full-grown leaves of the iconic Victoria water platter can grow as large as 11 feet across, and are sturdy enough to support a small child, the seeds they start from each season aren’t nearly as hearty. “We germinate them every year in special tanks that keep the temperature between 82 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit—they don’t like any other conditions,” says Housewright, who checks on the seeds three or more times every day in late winter. Once they develop a tiny sprout, she pots and repots them in gradually larger containers until they’re established. “Even then you can’t relax because they’re notoriously finicky,” says Housewright, who begins moving the plants out to the heated pool in front of the Visitor Center once the conditions are perfect. “Once they get to a certain size, I’m rushing them out to the pool because they grow so fast and there’s just no room for them in the greenhouse.”
3). Housewright uses an aerial Google map of Como’s water garden to help her plan how many aquatic plants and replacements she may need each season. The design also helps her to pull in marginal plants like this year’s Black Elephant Ears, which add dazzling contrast against the pool’s watery surface. In spite of the well-laid plans, aquatic plants grow and change so quickly that Housewright often hops into the pools throughout the season to restore the balance and scale of the plants on display.
4). Since water lilies are sensitive to water quality, Housewright dechlorinates Como’s city water to give them the right growing habitat, and aerates the tank slightly to keep algae formations at bay. Until they reach the size she wants to display, Housewright pinches back the fast-growing flowers.
5). A new feature in this year’s water garden display is a floating bog of carnivorous plants, including venus flytrap, sundew, sarracenia and butterwort. “The venus flytrap is probably the most well known, with the leaves that fold up around prey, but they’re all plants that have adapted in some way to being in a poor nutrient environment,” explains Como horticulturist Bo Akinkuotu. For instance, the beautiful pitcher shape of the sarracenia is an alluring pitfall for prey insects, while the sticky, glandular leaves of the butterwort keep bugs from flying away.
6). Como’s water gardens are among the most photographed attractions on campus, with colors and shapes that cry out to be Instagrammed. “It makes me really proud to see our visitors snapping pictures of the garden, or coming here to pose,” says Housewright. “After all the work that goes into getting all of these aquatic plants to bloom, it’s the highest compliment when visitors tell me how much the garden means to them.”