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Success With Aquatic Plants  Pt.    Rationale,

 Buying, Keeping


Bob Fenner & John G. Pitcairn                       


Next Installment: Retail Success With Aquatic Plants: Maintenance 

Last installment: Success With Aquatic Plants 3: A Good Selection

Live plants husbandry is an enormously wide field  that is poorly to totally undeveloped in a large part of the aquatic life keeping hobbies. In Europe, aquatic gardening is more popular than fishes; there are some strictly aquatic plant stores, selling carbon dioxide infusion systems, expensive specialty lighting and a regimen of chemical treatments for underwater gardening.

In the U.S., per unit unit, aquatic horticulture is in a state of infancy, with some "hot-spots" of local growth and talent. What is lacking  in this area is baseline knowledge and motivation; availability of suitable plant materials and technologies to help them flourish. This is a strong growth area (pun intended) where hobbyists can easily underwrite costs by sales and distribution of excess plants. Through these three articles we hope to encourage appropriate selection, treatment, and application of these plants. 


There are several     hundred species and cultivars of usable aquatic plants available to the hobby world-wide, year in & out. In addition, there are many questionable "house-plants" and other "materials" sold as aquarium plant-decorations that are entirely inappropriate and are to be avoided (Fenner and Pitcairn 1987).


These plants include both natives and exotics from all over the world. Identification, as with fishes, is confusing in some ways due to many names, both common and scientific, being applied to one particular type of plant.

Lucid arguments for live aquarium plants have been offered over the years in the aquatics hobby and business literature  (Fenner and Fenner, 1982). To mention a few of the more important benefits: they aid in nutrient removal and cycling, oxygen production, Carbon dioxide reduction during daylight hours when the fish are most active; they provide food, hiding & "fun" space. All in all they make the aquatic habitat more suitable and stable. For you, the aquatics keeper, the tangible results are healthier fishes, more beautiful, natural aquaria, enhanced habitats and more success as a hobbyist. How to go about this? Read o

Set Up:

For the most part, if you've taken care to set up your system well, selected healthy stock, most of the "best-selling" plant species will live well and long enough to out-grow your tanks, and ponds and possibly reproduce. We are going to walk you through a few embellishments/tricks to boost plant well-being, appearance & multiplication. 

Plant Tanks: 

Your plants can and should be raised  in aquaria that fish and invertebrates are kept in. The activity of fish swimming around will serve to keep dirt an algae from settling and growing on the leaves. Some fishes and non-fishes are too rough on most plants and there are other valid reasons for having mainly a plant tank.

Plant tanks are easier to maintain on their own, make beautiful displays & are easier to optimize by themselves. 

Size & Shape: 

As large and many tanks and tubs as possible & practical; twelve inches deep with some tank space to eighteen inches or deeper for taller plants. Some "dither" fish should be added since the plants do better when fish are present, even in a highly planted tank. 


A fine washed gravel of two to three inches depth will do. The gravel should be chemically inert to slightly calcareous; not dolomite, marble or marl. Colored, coated gravels may be used, but fine (1/8"-1/16", #8 or #1) natural gravel is less expensive and more neutral in color, showing off the fishes and plants. 

Some people mix and/or bury organic (e.g. African violet potting mixture) & inorganic nutrient-source-materials in and under the gravel. These potting soils are intended for terrestrial plants and often contain buoyant material that will float up out of the gravel and make a real mess. Also, the chemical fertilizers made for gardens and houseplants are unsuitable to use in aquaria and may result in algae problems or even dead fish and plants.

If you wish to grow a real "natural" "Leiden-Style" aquarium with lush, established foliage that it entails, you will want to use some supplements in the gravel, but make sure they are suitable for aquatic use. Tetra has a very good program for this treatment; see their materials through your distributor and read of other technology through the bibliography offered at the end of this series. In general "soil supplements" are not necessary  in most settings and create more of a mess than they're worth; tap water and fish wastes will provide all the nutrients generally needed. See our suggestions regarding periodic maintenance including periodic fertilization. 


Aquatic plants have essentially the same nutritional requirements as land plants; oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and numerous trace elements.

The first four nutrients are readily available in your set-up. If you're into organic gardening, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium may be minimally supplied by keeping some display fishes in your plant tanks. Trace elements will be supplied through water changes, fish food and the gravel.

Much better short and long term results can be had by using Plantabbs, Florapride or other similar industry product. Be careful of using houseplant or garden fertilizers as they are often formulated differently, are highly concentrated and can easily pollute your system. 


Conditioned tap water is the best. Treat it with a chloramine and heavy-metal neutralizer. If the system is being set-up for the first time, a bacterial starter culture or some "mulm" from an established system should be added to aid initially in expedient nutrient/fertilizer cycling.

If you have a recirculating "central" filter system it is strongly suggested that you leave your plant tanks off of it. Medications, salts, diseases, parasites & pests may be restricted in this way.            

Water Chemistry: 

We have not mentioned measuring or adjusting pH, DH et al. for good reasons. For the most part, these are secondary factors and your end-users, customers, will be using about the same water as you. Often, attempts to adjust water chemistry worsen plant vitality. Extremes should be avoided, alkaline gravel for example, but otherwise pH & hardness should not be a problem.


Undergravel filtration is undesirable; a filter with some circulation and a little aeration is preferable. An air-lift powered box filter will do except in densely populated fish tanks where some additional power filtration  will help compensate for the effects of broken roots and leaves rotting away all around the plants.

Regarding undergravel filters: many rooted aquatic plants do not do well with them. If you must place rooted plants in systems with undergravel filters, blind-pot them or lay a sheet of saran or plastic over the plate in their area. 


In almost all plant species, room temperature is fine. If it's comfy for you, most plants will prosper. Seventy to seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit is right in there. 


Very important; the area where most wanna be aquatic horticulturists fail. Most systems don't have enough (photostrength), broad spectrum, especially red-end spectrum (photoquality) illumination on long enough (photoperiod). Without getting too detailed, most problems of adequate lighting can be ameliorated by having more light (3-5 watts per gallon). How? If you use fluorescent lighting, put an extra fixture on with a bulb with more phosphor/surface area if possible. If you can, add some incandescent lighting for red-end spectrum. Some of the newer lighting equipment and fixtures featured in hobby and science publications are very appropriate technology if you can afford them. If all else fails, the least expensive dual shop-light with soft-white lamps will work.

Put these lights on a 12-16 hour per day light cycle with an automatic timer. Regular, long light-days work miracles. 

Some or full sunlight may be desirable but impractical due to the vicissitudes of nature; if you use "solar", augment it with supplemental lighting. 

Educate Yourself: 

Learn the living conditions, both range and optimal factors for your plants as you do for you finny aquatic charges & try to accommodate them. It's easy and profitable. See the bibliography at the end of this series for further reading and read the popular periodical literature. 

Buy Quality: 

Find reputable sources for plants through your existing and new dealers. There are many good growers, distributors and retailers. Check through your local hobbyist organizations for stock. Many tropical fish societies actually have Horticultural Award Programs for promoting and recognizing excellence in the aquatic plant field.

Many problems with aquatic plants start  with and come from buying stock that is dead or dying. Poor shipping & storage methods (e.g. without light) are all too common among dealers who otherwise care well for their fishes. Check out your sources by questioning and visiting their facilities.

Stems, roots and leaves should be firm and color should be good. Check the bottom of sword plant petioles (leaf stems); if this part has turned brown, the whole leaf is dead and might as well be removed. A quick test is to hold up the sword plant right side up and see how many leaves fall more than 45 degrees from vertical. These may not be completely dead, but they're on their way. Swords, Sagittaria, Vallisneria and Cryptocoryne should be well-rooted with crisp, white roots.  

Back Home: 

Inspect the plants carefully. Rinse and remove extraneous and dead plant materials. Check for leech eggs and snail eggs (amber-colored capsules or gelatinous masses) and if found, scrape them off with your finger nail. Also remove any gravel or sand-snails from between the leaves by holding the plant upside down underwater and moving it up and down gently. A method of using aluminum sulfate (alum) as a disinfectant will be discussed will be discussed in the next installment.

Remember to get the plants into water as soon as possible, and when planting sword, Sagittaria, and  Vallisneria, be sure the crown of the plant (the point where the leaves and roots come together) is at the surface of the gravel and don't get any gravel in-between the leaves, as this will kill the plant. 

Next Installment: Retail Success With Aquatic Plants: Maintenance 

Last installment: Success With Aquatic Plants 3: A Good Selection

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