Last Updated: 4/20/06
Live Plants in an Aquarium
Fish in planted tanks are happier and breed more readily. Small fish especially love to spawn in java moss. Their fry, if left in the tank, also have a greater chance of survival because plants provide shelter and food for them. Many fish, like goldfish, plecostomus, and large cichlids will eat most of the plants you try to put in the tank. But other fish usually leave plants alone and both fish and plants thrive.
Adding live plants to your aquarium converts it from a fish tank into a mini ecosystem. There are three basics that plants need to survive in an aquarium: light, food, and carbon dioxide.
Details on lighting should be found through reading and from people more knowledgeable in this area. For my tanks, I have two Triton fluorescent bulbs which work well enough for me. Often, new plant aquarists do not add enough lighting. Natural lighting is good but too much will create algae blooms which will cover and kill the plants. I have more information on lighting on my aquarium algae page.
For a web site with eight or more links to sites about lighting, go here and click on lighting your tank.
Plants use the wastes of animals for food so that you should either have fish and other animals with the plants, or you will have to add water with waste or nutrients (nitrate and phosphate mostly) in it. Plants utilize the end product of the nitrogen cycle, nitrate, and to a lesser extent ammonium (the beginning of the cycle in acidic water). Plants also need iron. This can be provided in the form of laterite balls or laterite which is an iron-rich clay. One brand of laterite that you can mix with the gravel is called Flourite (by Seachem) which I put in my 20 gallon tank on 8/29/98 under the gravel. I also put it in my new 40 gallon tank in December, 1998 and re-done 50 gallon tank in 2001. Liquid supplements for plants can be added to provide the micro-nutrients that tap water may lack. Some of these contain iron too but I have read that the plants need the iron at the roots and most of the supplements components are soon removed by chemical filtration in a tank. I used laterite balls and a liquid plant food as well as the Flourite.
Carbon dioxide can be provided by expensive systems or homemade "coke bottle" carbon dioxide generators. Aquarium water should have enough carbon dioxide in it naturally from the air that most plants will do well. They will, however, do better with supplemental carbon dioxide. Aeration may drive off too much of the carbon dioxide gas dissolved in the water so that many aquarists say not to use aeration in planted tanks. I do anyway since I have a lot of fish that need it more than plants that do not need it. As I have never used supplemental carbon dioxide, information on this is best asked of professionals. The people at rec.aquaria.freshwater.plants should be able to answer any of your questions.
When aquarium plants arrive, they come most likely in three possible manners. One is bare root where the plant has its roots exposed. Most slow growing plants like anubias, crypts, Java fern, and swords can be bare root. Another method is for the plants to be bound with lead weights. This is the usual method for fast growing plants that are actually cuttings. Plants like anacharis, Hygrophilia, hornwort, etc. often come with lead weights. A final method is for the same plants that can be sold bare root to instead be sold in little plastic pots with rock wool as the planting medium. Rock wool contains built-in fertilizer. It is not pleasant to the touch.
The aquarium should be prepared for planting by amending the gravel with laterite or an iron-rich substrate. I use a layer of Flourite gravel topped with regular aquarium gravel. If the plant has weights, rock wool, and/or a pot, it should be removed from these. An exception might be if putting a potted plant in a tank with fish prone to moving things around or otherwise disturbing plants. In that case, the plant may stay put better if left in a pot or tied to weights. In a calm community tank, the now bare plant can be planted into the gravel substrate. Some plants like their crowns slightly above the gravel like anubias. Some plants will pop back out of the gravel until they root over time. Lead weights can be used temporarily in that case until roots form.
Driftwood can be added to an aquarium as a decoration. It should be added to tanks with algae-eating catfish like plecostomus and otocinclus because they require wood for roughage. The problem with adding newly purchased driftwood to a tank is that it will leach or release lignins and, to a lesser degree, tannins which are chemicals found in wood. Besides lowering the pH of the water, lignins and tannins will make the water brown and murky and foamy. Even with a good filtering system, the wood will continue to foul the tank for months as it continually leaches lignins and tannins. To prevent this, all new driftwood needs to be treated.
The simplest, but longest method is to submerge the wood in a bucket of tap water. Change the water a few times a week. When you discover that the water you are changing is clear, the wood is ready. This may take many weeks or even months.
A faster way to leach lignins and tannins is to boil the wood. If the wood is too large for any of your pots, you can pour boiling water (or just hot water from the tap) into the bucket or even trash can holding the wood (as long as you do not melt the container). The hotter water will leach the lignins and tannins very quickly. After the wood boils for 10 to 20 minutes, let it cool. Change the water and repeat the process. Then, after the second cooling, place the wood in a bucket as described above and continue until the water is clear when you change it. With a small piece of wood, the boiling may be enough. With larger pieces, it may take a few weeks of water changes to get clear water.
Aquarium salt can be added to the water during boiling or sitting in the bucket. The exact amount in not important but it should be about the concentration found in a salt water tank. In the boiling situation, it increases the boiling temperature, thus leaching even more lignins and tannins. Also, both the salt and boiling water kill any bacteria and live creatures in the wood (a must if you treat virgin wood). The salt seems to help leach the lignins and tannins faster too. Be sure to soak the driftwood in a bucket of water without salt for a week or so to leach all of the salt back out of the wood (unless you already have a high salt concentration in the tank anyway).
Go to the main plant page (full index).
Go to the aquarium algae index.
Go to the pond algae index.
Go to the aquarium plant index.
Go to the pond plant index.
See the master index for the plant pages (quick index).
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