By Larry Hodgson
Family swimming pools have never been more popular, propelled into the spotlight by the last two years’ COVID-19 confinement, causing people everywhere began seeing their backyard as a safe place to be and leading to major investments in renovations to create that perfect family paradise. And if your image of paradise involves lounging on a deck chair near turquoise water, you may well be one of the many who’ve had a pool installed or will be doing so soon.
But although you may appreciate the pool for cooling off and relaxing, a pool all on its own in a backyard isn’t always particularly appealing, especially an above-ground pool, which often sticks out—dare I say it?—like a sore thumb! So, how can you help integrate a swimming pool into the surrounding landscape? A good choice of plants, of course, can make a huge difference!
I’ve had several letters from readers on the subject, and it turns out their main concern is that splashing and overflow water will harm the surrounding vegetation. Oddly, though, this is rarely a major problem. First, in fact, relatively little water actually leaves a pool in the course of a summer other than through (upward) evaporation. True enough, the kids may have the occasional water fight and spray pool water everywhere, but those actions are usually sporadic and very short-lived. In fact, rather than becoming soaked from constant splashing, the ground around a swimming pool is generally instead rather on the dry side, because usually sand was used under and around the pool precisely to ensure perfect drainage. And even when you drain a pool, you rarely do so into a garden.
It’s important to understand that pool water, whether treated with chlorine or salt, is usually not all that harmful to plants. Most plants tolerate chlorine so well that you could even, in a pinch, water them with swimming pool water! Even the water in a saltwater swimming pool doesn’t contain enough salt to harm most plants, at least not if we’re talking about an occasional soaking. This is even more the case if your climate is on the rainy side, because the rain will leach the soil of excess salt. Salt usually doesn’t build up that much in sand unless the saltwater has nowhere to drain, yet again, proper drainage was probably the very basis of your pool’s installation.
That said, it’s still possible to choose plants for poolside use that are naturally less affected by chlorine and salt. Especially look for plants that have waxy, grayish or especially thick foliage: all help prevent chlorine or salt splashed onto the foliage from scorching the delicate tissue on the leaf surface. You’d also need to look for plants that tolerate dry conditions in general (because of the sand used), but don’t mind the occasional pool party soaking. Quite often, drought-tolerant plants naturally have roots tolerant of soil that is on the saline side.
Here are some plants that resist both chlorine or salt deposits on the leaves and dry, rather saline soil; plants that you could then use near a swimming pool without too much worry:
- Alpine currant (Ribes alpinum) hardiness zones 4b
- Arabis (Arabis spp.) hardiness zones 4–7
- Artemisia (silver-leaved species) (Artemisia spp.) hardiness zones vary
- Bayberry (Myrica gale) hardiness Zones 1-9
- Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) hardiness zones 2-6
- Blue fescue (Festuca spp.) hardiness zones 4-8
- Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) hardiness zones 4-8
- Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) hardiness zones vary
- Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) hardiness Zones 2-7
- Common juniper (Juniperus communis) hardiness zones 3-7
- Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) hardiness zones 2-7
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) hardiness zones 3-9
- Holly (Ilex spp.) hardiness zones vary
- Hosta (Hosta spp.) hardiness zones 3-9
- Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) hardiness zones 3-8
- Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calmagrostis × acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’) hardiness zones 3-9
- Lantana (Lantana camara) annual or hardiness zones 10-11
- Miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis) hardiness zones 4 or 5-9
- Mock-orange (Philadelphus spp.) hardiness zones vary
- Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) hardiness Zones 3-9
- Mugo pine (Pinus mugo) hardiness zones 1-7
- Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica, now Morella pensylvanica) hardiness Zones 4-7
- Oleander (Nerium oleander) hardiness zones 8-10
- Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) annual
- Rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) hardiness Zones 6-8
- Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) hardiness Zones 3-7
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, now Salvia rosmarinus) hardiness zones 7-10
- Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) hardiness zones 3-7
- Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) hardiness zones 2b-7
- Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, now Salvia yangii) hardiness zones 4b-9
- Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) hardiness zones 2b-8
- Sedum or stonecrop (Sedum spp.) hardiness zones vary
- Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa, syn. Potentilla fruticosa) hardiness zones 2-7
- Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata) hardiness zones 1b-9
- Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) hardiness zones 2-7
- Succulents (various species) hardiness zones vary
- Thyme (Thymus spp.) hardiness zones vary
- White mulberry (Morus alba) hardiness zones 4-8
- Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) hardiness zones 5b-9
- Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) hardiness zones 2-8
- Yucca (Yucca spp.) hardiness zones vary
If possible, don’t place plants right up against the pool, however. Ideally, any flower bed or other planting would be at least 2 or 3 feet (60-90 cm) from the pool to allow easy access around the pool for cleaning purposes, a space which could be covered in paving stones, gravel or pretty much any mulch.
You also wouldn’t want to have a lawn that goes right up to the pool’s edge. In the case of an above-ground pool, that would require increased maintenance, because a mower isn’t capable of cutting near an upright object, meaning that, after mowing, you’d have to go back and you to finish the job with a lawn trimmer.
And as for a in-ground pool, having a lawn too nearby means that clippings will likely end up in the pool every time you mow. Bummer!
Avoid Tall Trees
A location near a swimming pool is really not a good location for tall trees. First, do you really want that much shade on your pool? In most climates, you’ll want a maximum of sun to heat both the air and the water, at least for part of the year. Any shade should therefore be something you can control as needed, like a parasol or an awning.
Also, trees are often messier than you might think, dropping not only masses of leaves in the fall, but flowers and seeds at other seasons and again, that will require cleanup.
But the worst problem comes from tree roots: they tend to reach under the pool, raising the liner and creating bumps, with a risk of piercing the bottom if swimmers step on them. In addition, once the bottom is covered with roots, automatic pool cleaners, which are designed to operate on a flat surface, will no longer be able to do their job effectively and you’ll have to start cleaning by hand.
The ideal situation is therefore to completely avoid planting large trees in the area around the pool and to plant even small ones some 10 feet (3 m) back. Among the small trees whose roots grow tend to grow more in depth than in width and that you might want to use not too far from a pool are Japanese lilac (Syringa reticulata), crabapples (Malus spp.), ornamental cherries (Prunus spp.) and Amur maple (Acer tataricum ginnala).
Also avoid trees and shrubs that tend to sucker abundantly, like staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and sorbaria (Sorbaria sorbifolia). With their wandering offsets popping up far from the original plant, they are simply not good neighbors for a swimming pool.
Less Messy Plants
To reduce refuse arriving in the pool, you might want to consider plants that don’t produce too much material that can fall in. Dwarf or low-growing conifers, like creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), as well as dwarf varieties of arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), are relatively “clean” and therefore produce little waste that can end up in the water. Most ornamental grasses, too, produce relatively little waste—at least not during the swimming season—and continue, through their foliage, which turns golden yellow in the fall, to create a harming hazy effect to decorate the pool even in winter.
A Question of Safety
For safety reasons, the surface of any swimming pool should always be clearly visible from the house and deck, especially if children will be using it. It’s therefore better to restrict your plantings in the line of sight to low plants, especially when you’re dealing with an in-ground pool. For example, you could plant ground covers, shorter perennials or low-growing shrubs. Or put in small container gardens.
As for the above-ground pools, obviously, the plants can be higher and thus able to at least partly camouflage the swimming pool wall, but should not exceed it too much in height, again for safety reasons: you should be able to see pool’s entire surface at a glance. To create an attractive effect, the idea of surrounding the pool with a (fairly low) hedge might seem logical, but the effect is often quite monotonous. Instead, try to group blooming plants into flower beds that brighten up the landscape. There are many shrubs and perennials of an appropriate height that can help create an interesting display of flowers and greenery while hiding the pool’s wall.
While you’ll want to be able to see the pool at a glance, you may not want your neighbors to be able to do so. I mean, who really wants to be in full sight of their neighbors when they’re sunbathing? That’s why it’s also important to ensure a bit of privacy around a swimming pool. So, between the swimming pool and the neighbors, it can be helpful to plant a tall hedge or windbreak made of small trees. If there is a safety fence, usually a chain link one, it really won’t hide much on its own, but if you grow climbing plants on it, they’ll quickly hide the pool from view.
A Tropical Look
To add a tropical effect to your pool area, don’t be afraid to incorporate a few pots of exotic-looking plants, such as palms, bananas, castor beans or elephant’s ears. That way, when you stretch out in your lounge chair by your turquoise swimming pool, under the fronds of a beautiful palm tree, you can truly feel as if you were on a tropical island!
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Pools take up big spaces in small parcels! That is what I dislike about them most in urban situations, where they are remarkably popular. Some backyards are just a bit of pool deck between the swimming pool and the surrounding fences and residence. (I dislike them anyway because they seem so unnatural.) Palm trees work well around them because they do not drop leaves until they are pruned. However, palms bloom. It is not as bad as leaves of other trees, but is too finely textured to just skim off of the surface of the water. Queen palm drops crud from its bloom that resembles corn meal.