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/The Aquarium Gardener Series

System Components For The Aquarium Garden

 Bob Fenner

A nice Sagittaria and Cryptocoryne spp. background pic... You getting ideas? Me too.

What type of 'gear' does it take to have REAL freshwater aquariums (i.e. ones with live plants)? Minimally, just a water-holding container, light, nutrient, plants and water. Many of my friends and associates in our hobby around the world get by on little else and have luxuriant plants.

lf these folks keep healthy fishes and plants in such 'bare' tanks; without heaters, filters, pumps, meter/dosers... how come your retailer insists on selling you all that stuff? How do these "pro's" get by on such a minimalist approach, and can or should you?

Yes, it is possible to have an aquatic garden in a veritable "jar"; but there are definite downsides to this approach. More careful set-up, diligence in regular maintenance, and lower non-plant (fishes and invertebrates) stocking to name three. Here's an outline of the major components of aquarium gardening; with comments on their function and alternatives.

Aquarium Garden System Components

A) Physical Container:

  Most folks use tanks made of glass and silicone rubber, or acrylic; though any chemical inert, water-holding vessel will do. The larger, more stable, the better. More squat, wide and flat shapes versus tall and narrow ("show") configurations provide for homogeneous, i.e. destratified conditions and better light transmission.

Do you need a top? What for? To cut down on evaporation? Keep your non-plant livestock from "jumping out"? Have you considered a paludarium; a system without a cover, with the lighting suspended high above the tank and the plants growing right out of the water? I prefer to not use a top, other than a contrivance used for holding light fixtures where utilized.

Leave your water level down to keep your critters in, and do water changes when you deem the system needs to be "topped off".

B) Lighting-

The quality, quantity and duration of light is important to your aquarium garden. There are a few standard types to consider; incandescent (for old timers); fluorescents (compact, regular and higher outputs), metal halides, mercury vapor, halogens, mixtures of these and more. You want full spectrum, high Kelvin (more than 5k), high color-rendering-index light of adequately high intensity to reach your plants, for 10-12 hours per day, without generating troublesome algal growth... at a reasonable cost to purchase and operate.

C) Substrate- 

Gravels of different sorts are of value; for anchoring rooted plants, buffering pH, expediting other chemical and physical reactions, and looks. Size, shape, make-up and quantity; fine (up to 1/8"), roundish, chemically inert or beneficial, 3-4 inches deep is best for most set-ups.

D) Water-

I'll go out on a not-very shaky limb, and state that ALL waters suitable for human consumption are useful for aquarium gardening. Tap or well waters are fine, even if somewhat hard initially. Distilled and salt-refreshed water softened waters are wholly unsuitable. Are reverse osmosis, deionized, "bottled", rain, otherwise selectively filtered waters better; even just mixed with tap? Nominally so.

E) Fertilizers-

Provided as soil or supplements with fish food/fertilizer are necessary for vigorous and continuous growth. If you are "boosting" photosynthesis further with intense lighting, carbon dioxide may become rate-limiting, and need to be infused additionally.

F) Filtration-  

For aquarium gardening mainly entails circulation and particulate removal; biological and chemical forms are readily done by way of the life in the system. In very small or shallow systems you may gain only a little by their use. Larger, deeper tanks stay destratified (with all its benefits), and "dust-free" with the use of inside or outside power open or canister filters.

Air mixing (e.g. air-powered and air-water splashing) types of filtration are contraindicated for their role in displacing CO2; operational undergravel filters are out for several reasons.

Aeration is unnecessary, even at night when plants compete with oxygen-using tankmates, unless the population of the latter is too high.

G) Temperature Control-

The absolute temperature of your system is not overall important; a regimen that suits the fishes will do for your plants. What is more important than any given thermal point is fluctuation; you don't want too much change too fast. More than five or ten degrees F. in any one day is too much flux, and calls for re-positioning the tank away from thermal influences (windows, outside walls, doors), or adding a heater for stability, set near the desired low range.

H) Aquascaping-  

Driftwoods, rock et al. add many contouring and aesthetic possibilities.

I) The Plants  

Themselves; are very important; particularly in the roles they play in modulating, ameliorating "water quality". By initially stocking and maintaining a high density plant bio-load (1/2 to 1% of the systems total volume), considerations of pH, nutrient supplementation, algae problems, et al. are greatly diminished.

Certainly, healthy, compatible forms must be combined and properly arranged, but it is a verity that through having many plants; auto-conditioning of the water to their use, and overall homeostasis is enhanced.

J) Other Livestock-

Are a principal component of an aquarium garden as are birds, bugs et al. of terrestrial ones. Simply put you want to have compatible life forms that complement the rest of your setting. Non-plant eaters of proper size and number that won't dig up the bottom or tear up your plants.

Care must be taken to avoid introducing pests, parasites and infectious disease along with your intended livestock. This is best and only practically accomplished through the use of a separate quarantine system. Keeping newcomers apart for a good two weeks virtually assures their and the main systems health.

Snails, yes or no? For most types of systems, resoundingly not. If you're interested in gastropod mollusks still, start with single sex varieties and keep your eye on them. There are far better fish-type cleaner uppers than snails.


There are many "paths" that one may follow in setting up and running a personal aquarium garden. Some are "sail-boat mentality, with little extraneous gear, others "motor-boat" kinds, driven to the maximum with supplementary filtration, lighting, fertilization and concentrated life. All have their proponents and will work, depending upon your efforts to look into, set-up and maintain them properly.

Which guru/expert/authority will you choose? I encourage you to become your own.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Buntin, Simmons B. 1997. Run of the river; creating the river paludarium. AFM 8/97.

Channen, Robert. 1988. Fabulous plants; magic touch or common sense? (Based on interviews with Dorothy Reimer). FAMA 4/88.

Charlebois, Gaetan. 1985. Lakes in my loft; pt. iii: Portable plants. FAMA 11/85.

Coletti, Ted. 1995. Ending the year by starting with plants. FAMA 12/95.

Gasser, Robert A. The Leiden aquarium, parts 1,2 & 3. FAMA 7,8,9/79.

Graaf, Arie de. 1989. A beautiful aqua-terrarium. FAMA 4/89.

Greco, Frank M. 1991. Aquascaping: the planted aquarium, pts. 1 & 2. FAMA 12/91, 1/92.

Grunder, Wilhelm. The paludarium; 1. Plan and construction. Today's Aquarium-Aquarium Heute 1/86.

Hayley, Marion. 1984. The Leiden aquarium for fun and pleasure. FAMA 9/84.

Kuckels, Karl & Rainer Folz. A different aquarium; the hydro-aquarium. Today's Aquarium-Aquarium Heute 1/88.

Osborne, Kevin. 1984. The planted aquarium: an approach. Pts. I & II. FAMA 4, 5/84.

Osborne, Kevin. 1985. The home paludarium. FAMA 6/85.

Randall, Karen. 1997. The paludarium; you could call it an aqua-terrarium. AFM 2/97.

Resler, Dan. 1995. The 10-gallon plant tank. AFM 5/95.

Weigand, Ray. 1987. Your first live plants: Once your aquarium has aged a bit, anyone can keep live greenery. TFH 10/87.


Examples of:

1) No,

2) Low, and

3) High technology aquartic gardens.

4) A beautiful cabinet-furniture

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