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Related FAQs: Planted Tank Set-Up, Growing Aquatic Plants

Related Articles: Growing Aquatic Plants, Planted Tank ComponentsPlanted Aquarium Livestock, Aquarium Garden Maintenance

/The Aquarium Gardener Series

Ten Elements of Aquarium Gardening Set-Up, or
Planted Tanks 101

Bob Fenner

A simple example

Imagine creating a world, a small freshwater microcosm, a little but complete biosphere just the same. Playing "aquarium creator", what would you make the principal components or inputs of such an arrangement? Cogently this is what aquarists do when we set out to gather and assemble a new aquatic environment.

After doing more than waiting the last three decades in the aquatic interests, hoping and trying to make real freshwater aquariums a reality in the U.S. these are my "ten steps" for REAL freshwater aquariums; those featuring live plants.

Components/Elements of Planted Aquariums:

1) Tank, Stand, Placement

2) Light, Lighting

3) Substrate, including Soil Media

4) Filtration and Circulation

5) Heating

6) Water: preparation, treating, testing

7) Nutrients, including Carbon Dioxide

8) Plants

9) Planting, aquascaping

10) Maintenance

1) Your "Worlds" Physical Confines: Tanks and Stands

Think about this: By analogy, the skins of our aquatic worlds are their aquarium walls and "gravity" the stand or other tank support beneath them

What does it take to have a planted tank in terms of the container? In all practicality, just some chemically non-toxic "box" that holds water. There are ideals or preferences beyond this simple consideration. Such as:

Shape: More flat or shallow and wide for aquascaping, maintenance and light penetration.

Size: For stability and fun, breadth for experimentation, expression, the bigger the better. For me, I'd like to silicone a piece of glass/acrylic in place of the front door of the house and dive on in.

Construction: Glass, acrylic, wood, plastics, kiddy wading pools'¦ Doesn't really matter other than aesthetic considerations what material your system is composed of functionally, as long as it doesn't interfere with water quality.

On Stands: When you think of tank support, three words/concepts should come to mind: strong, level & planar.

Strong: to hold the tank in place if it's bumped, rocked or subject to earthquake-size jolting. Ditto for the underlying floor beneath the tank support.

Level: as in relative to Earth's center of gravity. Do this if you don't have a tool to check level. Barely fill the tank with an amount of water just able to coat the bottom. Does it? Or is the water pooling to one corner or side? Relatedly, does the tank "rock" on the support surface? Then it's not planar. Both situations are unacceptably dangerous and may well lead to leakage or catastrophic system loss. Shimming the bottom of the stand should be able to correct both situations of "unevenness". If not, check your floor or get another tank support.

Tank Placement: A few words while we're on tanks and stands. Other than putting the tank in a place where it's good for viewing and matching décor, are the functional issues of thermal stability and avoiding direct-sunlight-algae problems. On both counts, natural lighting (being near windows or glass doors) is to be discounted, or planned for. Be similarly aware and avoid being near heaters, their vents, door openings to the outside'¦ or too close to outside walls. On the last, give yourself a good few inches of free space all around the system for access as well as to prevent mildew from condensation.

2) Light & Lighting:

Proper light energy wavelengths, sufficient strength (intensity), and duration are necessary for plant growth, animal health, as well as our pleasurable viewing. Such illumination can be achieved through a few types/strengths of fluorescent, metal halide and other fixturization. For timeliness (10-12 hours per day) and regularity of light cycling, nothing beats electrical timers.

Rules of thumb for how much light is necessary or advantageous can be very misleading'¦ 3-5 watts per gallon of any source type lighting is often cited, but there is much variance in useful photonic energy produced per mode, and even greater range of need by plants of different types. The depth of tanks, dissolved color and surface disruption all seriously figure into light penetration as well.

The "proof in the pudding" is ("in the tasting") or course in your own results. Not enough growth or desired color in your plants? Look into increasing photo-strength and providing more full-spectral bandwidth. Too much "stringy growth"? Might be nutritional deficiency, but maybe you have too much light or insufficient strength in necessary spectra. Keep tabs on inception dates for your lamps and cycle them out per their effective life spans. Lumen depreciation and spectral shift are not appreciable by your observation'¦ label your lamps.

3) Substrate: It's More Than Gravel

Backyard or store bought "mud", laterites or other soil additive should be investigated and used by any serious aquarium gardener. More than simply supplying needed nutrients directly, these substances are meant to act as inorganic catalysts. Acting something like your automobile's exhaust catalytic converter, some clay molecular sites attract and station other chemicals, speeding up rates of reaction and plant growth.

4) Filtration & Circulation

The standard spiel in aquarium gardens is to provide some degree of particulate filtration and circulation with a minimum of surface disruption. In practical application what this comes down to is a choice of inside power and canister filters with their returns underwater.

Oh sure, you can utilize spill-type hang-on-the-back power filters, even wet-dry (trickle) and air-driven types of filtration. But the loss of essential CO2 from surface disruption is decidedly disadvantageous.

How much flow, one, two or more times an hour is necessary or desirable? Functionally, just enough to remove floating material and keep your system destratified'¦ and yes, there are ultimate low-tech aquarists who even skip any type of circulation and purposeful mechanical filtration, just vacuuming the tank bottom occasionally.

5) Heat, Heating

As with all biological systems, live plants have minimal, maximal and ideal temperature ranges. There are cool, cold, warm and very warm tropical plants and of course you should research (don't rely on retailers, e-tailers) and select thermally compatible species to go together. Improper water temperature is a major cause of aquarium plant loss.

Adequately heating an aquarium garden can be as simple as placing an adequate wattage (2-3 watts/gallon) heater in a lower portion of the tank and setting it at the lower end of the desired range. This is the least expensive method.

There are proponents of under- and in the substrate heating, even under the tank techniques for warming their gravel, water. Two major benefits accrue from this "bottoms up" substrate warming. One is a modicum of water (and nutrient) movement around your plants roots. The other benefit comes from a biological "law" called the Q-10 factor, a speeding up of metabolism due to higher temperature (approximately double for every ten degrees C. increase). Is sub/in-gravel heating that worthwhile? You have to decide for yourself if the incremental better growth is worth the cost (shockingly high for imported resistant, cable models) compared with above substrate methods. Al alternative blended approach to consider involves a conductivity technology with a conduit that wraps around a standard heater then winds around under the gravel.

6) Water Matters

Water, as they say, is a lot more than just H-2-O; and even if you could get "pure water" your plants and fishes couldn't live in it. Both need dissolved gases, minerals and other matter to survive and grow.

Preparation. Your regular tap or well water is probably fine for use with the simple removal of sanitizer (chlorine, chloramines). Folks with very hard or to high Total Dissolved Solids (let's say more than 300-400) might look into blending reverse osmosis, or other physically filtered (de-ionized, distilled) water with their mains supply or utilize a chemical filter (contactor) or other technique for lowering their TDS.

Testing. I know (and am one) of many folks who don't periodically check their water quality (other than temperature) through test kits. Instead we deem to know what's going on in our tanks through careful observation of our livestock, looking for signs that something is amiss'¦ assuming all's in-line from regular maintenance and operations practices.

7) Nutrients, Including Carbon Dioxide

Materials added to and as substrate, minerals from your source water and occasional water changes, fish food and wastes, gaseous diffusion from the waters surface'¦ these can/do account for appreciable yet unspectacular planted displays.

For robust, luscious growth you need to "push" your system with a combination of extra lighting and nutrient supplementation. The latter generally entails a good full-service aquatic fertilizer providing all essential macro-nutrients (particularly solubilized iron) and CO2. There are a few variations on a theme for providing and infusing carbon dioxide; principally Do-It-Yourself yeast-bottle systems and higher technology pressurized carbon dioxide and regulator rigs.

There are folks who will tell you that a good to great tank can be had by just using "fish wastes" as fertilizer. Do you want to have an absolutely luxuriant live planted system that is a dream to control? Use supplements and carbon dioxide.

8) Plants

Ideally you've planned, known all along which plant species you intended from the get go, all the way back to your tank purchase'¦ assuring they're light, temperature, chemically compatible. In the "dream" phase keep in mind which types of plants grow tall for background, short for foreground, floating and show specimen use.

9) Planting, Aquascaping

Real pros go so far as to prepare schematics detailing top and front layout views of what décor items and plants are to be placed where. Watch our for upcoming Windows"¢ for Planted Tanks no doubt!

10) Maintenance

Ongoing care of your aquarium garden should be a breeze by design. A few minutes a day to check on the temperature and CO2 bubbling, filter function, and sparse feeding of fishes. Weekly routines might include partial water changes, nutrient checking and adjustment, perhaps some clipping, snipping of plant over-growth. Longer term maintenance entails lighting lamp replacment, re-enrichment or replacement of substrate additives'¦ to the yearly or more total re-do.

Setting up and keeping a real, read that planted freshwater aquarium is not hard at all. In fact, compared with fighting less natural arrangements, it's a joy, taken step by step. Read over and follow these ten steps, making notes for your own set-up and take care to keep track of what works for you and your aquarium garden to share with others.

Bibliography/Further Reading:


Arnold, Larry. 1988. Anyone Can Grow Plants. Fish Tales 2/88.

Baensch, Hans & Rudiger Riehl. 1993 (English). Aquarium Atlas, v.2. BAENSCH, Germany. 1212pp.

Barnes, Doris. 1956. Aquarium Gold. TFH 11,12/56.

Brunner, Gerhard. 1966 (English). Aquarium Plants. T.F.H. Publications, NJ. 159pp.

Fenner, Bob & Candy. 1982. An argument for live aquarium plants and some suggestions. FAMA 3/82.

Fenner, Bob & John G. Pitcairn. 1987. Caveat emptor! Don't buy non-aquatic plants for aquaria! FAMA 11/87.

Fenner Bob and John G. Pitcairn. Success with aquatic plants; pt. 1. Rationale, buying, keeping; Pt.2, Maintenance; pt. 3. a good selection. Hobbyist version: FAMA 12/88, 1,2/89. Industry version: Retailing aquatic plants, Pet Dealer 8,10,11/89.

Fenner, Bob. 1989. Frequent partial water changes. FAMA 4/89.

Fenner, Bob. 1994. Water quality. FAMA 4/94.

Fenner, Bob. 1994. pH, Alkalinity, acidity and you! FAMA 11/94.

Gasser, Robert A. 1979. Some old (or are they new?) thoughts on aquarium keeping. FAMA 2/79.

Hovanec, Tim. 1996. Water quality; freshwater. What fishkeeping is really about. AFM 6/96.

James, Barry. 1986. A Fishkeeper's Guide to Aquarium Plants. Salamander Books, Tetra Press.

Jeffries, Owen. 1995. Substrate and liquid additives for improved plant growth in aquariums. FAMA 6/95.

Kowite, William J. 1981. Plants in the Aquarium. FAMA 9/81.

Las, David A. 1996. Look ma- no filter! FAMA 2/96.

Osborne, Kevin. 1992. Hands Off, Planted Aquariums---Revisited. FAMA 7/92.

Rainey, Arthur D. Jr. 1991. Live Plants, To Increase Customer Demand for Plants, Emphasize Their Beauty and Benefits. Pet Age 4/91.

Randall, Karen A. 1996. CO2 supplementation in the planted tank. TFH 3/96.

Riehl, Rudiger & Hans Baensch. 1987 (English ed.). Aquarium Atlas. MERGUS, Germany. 992pp.

Roe, Colin D. 1967. A Manual of Aquarium Plants. Shirley Aquatics, England. 111pp.

Seidner, Sam. 1953. On the Function of Plants in the Aquarium TFH 1:4/53.

Stodola, Jiri. 1967. Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants. T.F.H. Publications, NJ. 368pp.

Tepoot, Pablo. 1998. Aquarium Plants. The Practical Guide. New Life Publications. Homestead, FL. 216pp.

Walstad, D.L. 1993. Plant nutrient availability in the aquarium. FAMA 5/93.

Watson, Thomas T. 1983. Beginning with Living Plants. T.F.H. 8/83.

Also, please see the Aquatic Gardeners home page and jumps via your computers search engine, and "fishy" electronic bulletin boards (many have aquatic green thumb sections).


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