Why not consider using the planted aquarium to bring nature into your home?

By Charlene Bobis

The planted aquarium is slowly gaining in popularity. The days of cheesy plastic foliage are mostly over; even casual fishkeepers are exploring more ecofriendly and attractive options for adorning their tanks.

Veronica Clamor of Pet City explains, “A planted aquarium is one which recreates natural scenery, both on top and underwater, with the use of real freshwater plants in a controlled aquarium environment.”

Science and Art in Creation

Does this mean anyone can set up a planted aquarium―even an amateur? Of course, Veronica says, but that person should do his or her research first. Starting with a complete set of equipment is also advisable, so that any potential problems posed by the lack of equipment can be addressed. Finally, one should not be too disappointed by the usual hitches that accompany
the beginning of undertaking any new hobby. “Building a planted tank is a work in progress, and you will just learn things by experience.”

The creation of a planted aquarium is a mix of art and science, because nature is being mimicked, if on a smaller scale. Thus she advises that one understand the science behind its creation, the equipment needed to duplicate the natural processes involved, and the relationship between the equipment and the plants and/or fish in the tank.

Two essential components of a planted tank are sufficient lighting and a good filtration system. The former is because the photosynthetic process (conversion of light into chemical energy) needs to be duplicated in any planted tank as all plants need this to grow and thrive.

As for filtration, it tends to be a natural process as well, one that only needs to be replicated on a
smaller scale in a planted aquarium. The choice of what kind of filtration system to use in a planted aquarium is not as wide as those used in regular tanks. A sponge filter, for example, is hardly used in aquascaping. Most commonly used are a canister filter and hang-on
back filter, as neither break the water’s surface (or if they do, it will be minimal), thus limiting the
escape of CO2 and allowing for the introduction of oxygen.

Because CO2 is critical to the photosynthetic process, there are high-tech setups that use carbon
dioxide or CO2; those without it are considered ‘low-tech’. Beginners may be taken aback, thinking they will need expensive pressurized CO2 systems and other difficult requirements.

But setting up a tank now is much easier than, say, 10 years ago, with the amount of resources available and the variety and costs of the equipment sold at the market. “There are alternatives to
infusing CO2 in the aquarium without having to buy a cylinder and all that goes into it,” Veronica says.

But a word of caution: “One should understand that there are trade-offs to this and not all plants thrive in this environment.”As an art, there are certain unspoken rules that help create beautiful aquascapes. “One cannot just throw in the plants, rocks, and driftwood and expect to have something beautiful. We basically follow the rule of thirds in a three-dimensional perspective.

In a classic sense, there should be stem plants in the back (family of Rotalas are most common), mid-ground bush plants (Staurogyne repens, Blyxa japonica et al), and foreground plants like Eleocharis acicularis, otherwise known as hairgrass or Hemianthus callitrichoides (HC),” says Veronica.

The choice of plants to use depends on what kind of scenery one wishes to duplicate and what equipment one has available. It is critical to know how each plant chosen for use grows and how it interacts with fish and its environment to know whether it will thrive in a planted aquarium.

A popular choice of fish for planted aquariums are those from the Tetra family, specifically cardinal and neon tetras. These fish are chosen for the contrast they give to the tank, their size, and their behavior or swimming patterns that highlight the general flow of the water.

Rookie Mistakes to Avoid

Veronica explains that in her experience, beginners make certain mistakes or fail to consider a few crucial things. For one, enthusiastic newbies usually go ahead and put fish in their planted aquariums within a short period of time after setup. It is recommended that they allow time for plants to grow and thrive before one introduces the fish; about a month would be enough.

Another common error is the choice of equipment, particularly lighting. Not all light fixtures work for planted aquariums. “One should understand that different plants have different lighting requirements, and this should be taken into account when choosing which light fixture to use,” says Veronica.The decision as to whether or not to use CO2 should also be considered by beginners as this would dictate which plants they can use in their setups and ultimately dictate the look of their tank.

The choice of hardscape is also tricky for a beginner. Rocks and sand from beaches are usually discouraged because of the salt content that alters the water chemistry of the aquarium. “We suggest that you do a vinegar test (if you want to use rocks and sand from beaches). Pour a generous amount of vinegar on the rock, and if it fizzles, then discard it,” she advises.

The Beauty of a Planted Aquarium

Veronica cites three major reasons for the growing popularity of planted aquariums. “First, going home to a miniature piece of nature is more relaxing.” It is, s/he adds, “…better than trying to fool yourself (or your guests) that a synthetic decorative plant is the better alternative.”Second, “Contemporary nature lovers don’t have the luxury of space and time nowadays.”

These vibrant and lush planted tanks, especially when done right, lend their owners a piece of nature in their homes without the need for a large time and space investment. They lend an air of calmness to any home, and no artificial plant can come close to the effect that a real plant can create.Planted aquariums also provide a much healthier environment to your fishes and because they compete with the algae on the nutrients, then that means less maintenance for the owner given the right parameters.

As a hobby, Veronica says it is challenging and rewarding at the same time, especially given that, more hobbyists are upgrading to higher levels in aquarium keeping. “Being a technical hobby, the planted tank or aquascaping provides a perfect venue wherein one can combine a bit of science, art, and everything in between. As they say, once you keep a planted tank, you instantly become (or are forced to be) a biologist, electrical engineer, art master, plumber, photographer, and so on.”

This appeared as “Natural Aquariums” in Animal Scene’s May 2015 issue.