In today’s world, where we’re increasingly buying green, thinking green and living green, a green, lush planted aquarium may be just the thing to give a little perspective. Planted aquariums can be quite rewarding, a relaxing indoor view to the serene underwater world. Now, facing the doldrums of the upcoming winter season it may be the perfect time to create a tropical getaway in your living room. A beautiful green planted paradise can give the room an ethereal and comforting glow, just the aesthetic therapy to ward off cabin fever till spring. Your pleasures aside, a planted aquarium has tons of benefits for the fish that reside in the tank too! I’ve always thought that a thriving planted aquarium makes for happier, healthier fish. A successful planted tank gives fish and inverts an environment close to nature, with more natural processes maintaining key aspects that keep the fish in good health.
Ready to Garden?
To start with, live plants are a natural means of filtration. Non-planted tanks require powerful and efficient means of filtration, whether you prefer canister filters, power filters, under gravel or any other type, these filters and the bacteria they harbor are charged with the duty of removing and breaking down all of the crud produced by the fish and their keepers (usually by means of overfeeding or poor maintenance habits). Unfortunately, tanks and filters without regular maintenance may not be able to maintain the balance on their own. In a well-planted tank, the plants serve as chemical and biological filters, removing and processing many of the toxic components produced by decaying waste, and serving as colonizing surfaces for beneficial bacteria. All that is necessary is a simple mechanical filtration system with a bit of biological media as a back-up. No more chemical solutions to detoxify and neutralize all those nasty toxins! By the active processing of these leftover nutrients in the water, there is little left to benefit algae growth. A planted tank with balanced nutrient and light levels will need very infrequent algae maintenance needs if at all.
As in nature, plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis, so as long as your fish population isn’t too high, you shouldn’t need air stones or the pumps they require to complicate you set-up. One less thing to plug in and fiddle with and your fish will still have all the oxygen they need.
A jungle of aquatic vegetation provides necessary cover for fish that are accustomed to dense areas of freshwater waterways. Small and timid fish will benefit from the safety and security of lush live plants, and if you’re lucky enough to have fish spawn in the aquarium, the foliage is the perfect nursery for the little guys to find cover too. As a bonus, many fish will eat bits of algae and dead plant bits in the aquarium. For the most part this nibbling will benefit the fish and the plants, the fish varying their diet while allowing the healthy plant tissue to thrive. Of course, you’ll need to be choosy about the fish that you house in a planted tank, as some are strictly herbivores and may destroy and uproot plants.
I can’t really think of any way you can go wrong with a planted aquarium. By far, the benefits outweigh the few minor drawbacks. The maintenance will be about the same if not less than a fish only aquarium. The cost of set-up may be a little more expensive, but you’ll be rewarded once the tank is established, thriving and basically balancing itself and your fish will be very appreciative.
When you’re ready to build your new set-up or upgrade your plastic paradise to something phenomenal, you’ll have to first consider the basics. First, take a look at the aquarium and associate yourself with what you have to start. What are the tank measurements, especially depth? What are the specs of your current lighting, heaters, and filtration? If you’re just starting out, you’ll just want to consider where your tank will be settled then make your shopping list. Your best bet is to start with a tank of at least 30 gallons, and not too tall (under 20”), for the best light penetration.
Once you’ve decided on the aquarium, you’ll want to look for suitable lighting. There are several aspects to consider here, including aesthetics, functionality and economics. There are many fixtures and lamps available in the market, and with a little research or help from an informed salesperson, you’ll be able to find lighting to suit your individual needs. Without exploring the technical complexities of lighting, you’ll basically need to be looking for lighting that will suit the biological needs of your plants, allowing them to photosynthesize efficiently, thus optimizing their health and growth. The quality of the light is vital. I would suggest that you forget about incandescent, halogen, halide, and skip right to full-spectrum fluorescent lighting. Full-spectrum and compact fluorescent lamps will provide the best quality lighting for a planted set-up and it is the most economical to run and replace, the biggest bang for your buck in the long run. Look for bulbs with full-spectrum bulbs with at least 5000K intensity. You’ll have to consider the depth of your tank, the amount of surface agitation, and you may need to adjust the amount of light up or down depending on other aspects of your aquarium, but as a general rule of thumb, start with at least 2 watts of light energy produced per gallon. This amount may need to be doubled or more depending on various conditions and species of plants you want to keep.
You may also want to pick up a timer for the light fixtures. This will allow you to maintain the necessary light-dark cycle. Set the timer for a 12-16 hour daylight period, and the lights will automatically turn on and off for the duration. Longer periods of dark or light will have a negative impact in aquatic plant life, more light is not necessarily beneficial, and prolonged dark cycles will be detrimental.
Filtration on a planted tank can be minimal, and some experienced Aquatic gardeners even keep them without filtration, but for beginners it’s always good to have a safety net. A submersible or canister filter will be ideal to minimize surface CO2 displacement. Even a simple power wet/dry will work, but the likelihood that you’ll need supplemental CO2 will be increased. Do not use under gravel filtration.
There are lots of substrates that will be suitable for a planted aquarium. Fluorite, being one of the first iron-enhanced, porous clay, plant-specific substrates has these benefits as well as an rather fine grade for good root development. I would say any fine grade, smooth freshwater substrate will do , even mixed with sand to make a finer mix. Substrate is mostly a matter of taste, though roots are delicate and prefer a smoother denser base. Make the gravel bed at least 3-4" deep.
Most plants can tolerate a pretty wide temperature range, but be sure to look at the specific needs of the plants you want to keep to make sure they don’t prefer temps that you won’t be able to maintain. You’ll want to keep the temperature of the tank regulated more for the fish than for the plants, but some species may not thrive in that ideal range. Average temps that keep tropical fish happy will also keep a slew of aquarium plants happy. Do avoid extreme changes in temperature, like strong drafts from windows and doors. Keep the tank in a temperature stable area, and keep an appropriately sized heater to regulate the temperature, keeping it in the ideal range.
How you decorate a planted tank is entirely up to you. I prefer the natural look, devoid of plastic bridges and castles, but a good piece of gnarly driftwood and a couple of interesting rocks are always welcome. You don’t have to add any embellishments if you don’t want to, but they do add more cover for fish and a focal point in the garden so to speak. Rocks and wood are also useful in terracing. Do be aware before adding any rock in particular as some types of rock and ornamentation may significantly alter PH and other aspects of the chemistry. Beginners may also want to avoid collecting from sources other than aquarium stores and stick to items designed for aquariums to avoid contamination from outside sources.
Though many of the necessary nutrients for plants will be provided by the fish and feeding, a heavily planted tank will inevitably need some supplemental fertilizer for continued growth and vigor. Products that provide iron in particular are important, with several other micro-nutrients following closely behind. Some plants may need even more nutrients or root tab fertilizer, but keep a broad range fertilizer on hand to start for regular dosing. CO2 injection is a little more complicated and may not be essential initially. Supplemental CO2 will come into play especially when the system is established and the plants really get going and will probably be necessary once the demand for CO2 from the plants increases. You may want to consider how you’ll provide supplemental CO2 early on if not right away at set-up. For a really impressive set-up and robust and lush growth, it should be included in your plan by any means. You can invest in manufactured regulated injection systems, or with a little research, you can do-it-yourself, but that all depends on you and the needs of your tank.
Reap the Rewards
So, you’re all set-up and ready to add all the fun stuff. The principles of set-up are basically the same as any other tank. Start out slow with hardy species, be patient with the progress and the growth, be diligent with maintenance, and keep track of what is working and not working, and you’ll be on the road to success. Plan ahead so you know what you want to add, when and where you want to add it, and always be aware of chemistry and how both the plants and the fish are reacting to any me additions. Once the tank has become established, and if you’ve taken the process step by step, the maintenance should be pretty minimal, and the results greatly rewarding. A daily feeding and glance over your equipment each day, routine weekly water quality maintenance, periodic trimming and pruning, and annual bulb replacement will leave you in awe of your investment.
This article is by no means as comprehensive as it could be on the subject. There are without a doubt innumerable other literature, articles, blogs, forums and websites entirely dedicated to this corner of the aquarium hobby, and I encourage anyone reading this to explore the topic in depth. I want to spark your interest because I think there is nothing more beautiful than a natural, lush green planted slice of aquarium, and I hope that you’re inspired to create your own. Whether you choose a fantasy or a true to nature biotrope, dream of making anyone who sees your tank green with envy, or keep it your personal treasure, give it a shot; you won’t regret it.