re: Advice for a plant beginner?

>From: "Scott D. Weberg" <sweberg at garfield_wes.army.mil>
>Hello!  I don't belong to this list, so please email any replies directly
>to me...

Well what are you thinking, anyways?  :-)

>I have a 20gal freshwater fish aquarium right now, and I am planning to
>to either a 40 or a 55 gallon.  

This is only a suggestion, but I think you'd be happier with yourself to spend
a little more money and get a 70g tank over a 40 or a 55g.  The 70g tanks are
one of the better dimensioned tanks for plants, and actually have enough
substrate surface area to add some plants that you'll surely be wanting in the

>I mainly want to keep fish, but thought that
>trying to grow some live plants might add an extra challenge.  

We all said that at first.  :-) (most of us, at least)

>I've kept my
>current aquarium for 3 or 4 years, so I understand the issues in keeping fish,
>but I have no clue about plants.  Is it a LOT of extra work to add plants to
>the equation?  

It can be, but it doesn't have to be.  It really depends on how you intend to
run your tank.  If you want to add plants and fish to the tank that will work
together, you can acheive a tank that will pretty much sustain itself.  Most
people don't want to limit their choices this way (in the fish category), so
you may choose to make some compromises.  You can basically trade a little
extra (or a lot) maintenance for the fish species you want to keep.  Bigger
tanks can help here too, by giving you more room to select maybe set of larger
fish that could muck up a smaller tank more quickly.  Basically, the more stuff
(food) you add to the tank, the more stuff you'll eventually need to take out
(in the form of filter debris, mulm, algae, or plant mass).  This is the same
whether you have plants in the tank or not, but may change its nature with
plants in the tank.

>Can I grow some hardy plants in a "normal" fish setup with an
>undergravel filter, or do I have to have a different filter technique or 
>special equipment?  I understand that if I wanted to concentrate on just
>I would probably want to have a special setup.  But my desire is simply to add
>a few plants to my fish aquarium.  Can this be done with just a little extra
>work, or do I just need to stay with fish and plastic plants?  Thanks!

You can go with certain plants in place of plastic plants and treat them as
decorations instead of part of the ecosystem.  I'd recommend Java Fern, Anubias
Nana, Java Moss, and Hornwort, since most lightly planted aquariums are also
dimly lit.  These plants will grow relatively slowly (except maybe the
Hornwort, since it is a floating plant). 

For plants, you will want to light the tank on a timer.  If you plan to plant
just a few plants, I'd recommend a single 40w tube.  This will prevent you from
growing most plants unless you double, triple, or quadruple your lighting, but
it won't wash out your fish colors in a lightly planted environment.  If you do
choose later to plant more heavily, you can add more lighting and your plants
will suck it up like it was going out of style.  It's possible to have a 70g
tank with 240w fluorescent light that loods dark because of the shade the
plants produce.

Since you're planning to start a new tank, I'll take this opportunity to try
and talk you out of a UGF system.  They work, and they work fine, but after
using a UGF and using other filtration systems, I think a UGF is a bigger pain
than most (OTOH, I use a UGF-like setup to inject nutrients into my substrate,
but not as a filter).  If you use the plants above, I'd suggest an Aquaclear
300 or 500 power filter or a cannister filter.  I understand that the HOT
Magnum is supposedly a good choice for a cannister although I've never used one
myself.  Others may have other suggestions.  External filtration systems like
these eliminate the need for noisy air pumps and are much easier to clean than
UGF systems.  Also, if you do get bitten by the plant bug and plant heavily,
you won't be able to easily gravel-vac.  I'm going to recommend a 2-3 mm
non-carbonate sand for a substrate (to keep debris out) and an external filter.
These are personal preferences, so feel free to ignore.

Your biggest potential for problems is algae.  Since you are planting lightly,
you don't have the nutrient sponge capacity that a heavily planted tank will
provide.  Your light will help the algae grow just as much as the plants (if
not more), but you probably will not have enough plants in the tank to keep up
with the nutrient content in the water.  You may wind up needing to pull your
plants out and scrub them lightly with a toothbrush occasionally, or you can
set the tank up as a sterile environment and introduce plants only after
soaking them for 3 minutes in a 5% bleach solution, followed by an overnight
soak in water with dechlorinator.  This treatment will kill certain types of
algae that cause problems in planted tanks without seriously hurting most
plants (particularly the ones mentioned above).

Be careful to avoid terrestrial plants sold as aquatic plants.  You'll see a
lot of these in aquarium stores, and they just won't make it underwater for

Feel free to ask any more questions that you have.

David W. Webb
Enterprise Computing Provisioning
Texas Instruments Inc. Dallas, TX USA
(214) 575-3443 (voice)  MSGID:       DAWB
(214) 575-4853 (fax)    Internet:    dwebb at ti_com
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