The natural beauty of a planted tank cannot be mimicked with silk or plastic aquarium plants. In this article, you'll learn tips for selecting plants and maintaining a planted tank you can be proud of!
Artificial plants simply cannot compare to the beauty of live, thriving aquarium plants, nor can they offer the same benefits. In a freshwater aquarium, live plants boost the oxygen content, help to control algae growth and also provide fish with natural places to hide. All of these qualities are valuable, but they pale in comparison to the aesthetic benefits – the sheer natural beauty of a fully planted tank cannot be mimicked with silk or plastic aquarium plants.
Cultivating a planted tank is a very rewarding experience but it is not always easy to accomplish. Live aquarium plants have certain requirements for lighting and nutrition which must be met in order for the plants to thrive. If you hope to cultivate a planted tank that you can be proud of you will need to invest in a substrate that will nourish your plants, install lighting that will help them grow and you will also need to select the right plants for your particular tank. With a little research and preparation, all of these things are possible and you will be on your way to a beautiful planted tank.
Selecting Plants for Your Aquarium
When it comes to selecting the plants for your planted tank there are several considerations you need to make. First and foremost, however, you need to decide what type of plants you want to use. If you want your tank to be fully planted you will either need to purchase a large number of plants or start off with a few and separate them as they grow then redistribute them throughout the tank. Aquarium plants can be divided into three categories: ferns and mosses, rosettes, and stem plants.
The first category includes plants which do not flower – many of the plants in this category do not grow very tall and are typically planted near the front of the aquarium. Rosettes are ornamental flowering plants which can be used in either the home aquarium or in outdoor ponds. The final category, stem plants, includes some of the more popular species of aquarium plant like Vallisneria and Amazon Swords. In addition to these three main categories, a wide variety of floating aquarium plants is also available. Floating plants do not need to be potted in substrate, they simply float along the top of the aquarium. Some popular species of floating plant include Hornwort, Anacharis and Duckweed.
In order to give your planted tank a natural, diversified appearance select a variety of plants to start off with. Choose plants from all three categories to ensure that you have a range of height so you will be able to layer the plants in your tank. When it comes time to actually pick out your plants you may visit your local pet store or order plants online. While ordering online may be the cheaper option in some cases, you will not be able to hand-pick the plants for your aquarium.
If you are able to find a pet store that has a wide selection of aquarium plants, look for specimens that have healthy green leaves and white roots. It is normal for aquarium plants to have a minor defect or two but spongy leaves, black roots and severe damage may be signs of a snail infestation or algae problems. While aquarium plants can recover from damage it is best to start out with healthy stock. Select the tallest specimens of each species and check them for snails before introducing them into your tank. It is wise to rinse aquarium plants well and to immerse them in a salt bath for five to ten minutes to kill any lingering snail eggs or algae.
Setting Up a Planted Tank
When you first set up your planted tank it is wise to begin with as many plants as possible. To make this easier, select inexpensive fast-growing species like Hygrophila, Cabomba, Hornwort and Vallisneria. Prune all of your plants before adding them to the tank – trim away any yellow or damaged leaves and remove any soft brown roots. For rooted plants in particular it is wise to trim white roots to about 5 cm in length to prevent rotting.
Fill the bottom of your tank to a depth of two inches or so with your choice of substrate. While gravel and sand are the most popular choices for freshwater aquariums, these substrates will not provide your plants with the nutrients they need to thrive. If you do choose to use gravel or sand, lay down a one-inch layer of peat moss, laterite or plant soil first and cover it with sand or gravel. By doing this your plants will have access to some nutrient-rich substrate but you can still retain the appearance of sand or gravel.
Another good choice in substrate for a planted tank is fluorite which can be used alone or mixed with either sand or gravel. Flourite is a lightweight, porous clay gravel that provides plants with the nutrients they need to grow. One of the highest quality substrates available for planted tanks is Eco-Complete. This type of substrate is specially formulated for planted tanks and it contains both live heterotrophic bacteria and over 25 essential nutrients. Though it is one of the more expensive substrates, Eco-Complete provides a planted tank with balanced nutrition while also conditioning tank water.
After adding the substrate, fill your tank about halfway. Dig small holes into the substrate and carefully insert one plant into each hole by the roots. Rather than shoving the plant roots deeper into the substrate, simply push some of the substrate into the hole to cover the roots then gently pull the plant up, stretching the roots until the crown sits just above the surface of the substrate. Arrange the plants in your tank so that the tallest plants are toward the back and the shortest are near the front of the tank. This arrangement will not only be visually pleasing but it will also ensure that your fish have plenty of open swimming space near the front of the tank.
Planted Tank Maintenance
Once you have finished planting your tank, the plants will need a week or so to re-establish their roots and to acclimate to the tank conditions. While your plants are settling in you must carefully control the lighting and nutrients in your tank to prevent excessive algae growth. Plug your lights into a timer so they will be on for 8 to 10 hours a day. If, during this time, you still see algae growth try lowering the wattage or move the lighting further away from the water.
After the first week, establish a lighting cycle of 10 to 12 hours per day. Once your plants have re-established their roots and your tank has cycled you may add a small number of fish. Avoid overfeeding fish during this time to limit algae growth and to keep nutrient levels low. Over time, add more fish until your tank is stocked the way you like it.
Maintaining a planted tank is much like any other tank – it is important to keep up with routine water changes and to monitor water chemistry. While weekly 10% or 20% water changes may be adequate for a regular freshwater tank, planted tanks may require larger water changes – around 50% on a weekly basis. There are exceptions to every rule, however, so if your tank isn't overstocked and you have adequate filtration in place you may be able to get by with smaller water changes. Water changes will serve to control the levels of nitrates and phosphates in your tank water, which will help to keep your plants healthy and strong. You may use a gravel vacuum to clean your tank, but use caution to avoid damaging plant roots as you siphon the substrate.
In addition to water changes and water tests, you will also need to prune your plants occasionally. Remove dead and damaged leaves from rooted plants and thin out floating plants so they will not block out too much light. Some fast-growing species of plants like Hygrophila need to be separated and replanted when they begin to reach the height of the water surface. Pruning your plants will not only keep your tank looking neat, but it will also result in healthier looking plants. In some stem plants, pruning results in doubling at each node and the resulting growth will be thicker and more attractive.