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Plant Primer (low tech approach)
For the past three years I have been working on a fool proof method for
low tech plant tanks. Putting all of this down in writing is an
invitaion to flames and controversy but I think it has merit or I would
not be taking up the bandwidth. Some day I will get pictures of some of
the tanks set up using these simple methods. I will expand the text
where needed and try to get published, probably in my favorite
As a disclaimer, there are no doubt dozens of ways a low tech tank can be
set up. Dan Q. has given you his approach. When you consider that each
area of the country has its
own water chemistry what will work for one will not necessarily work for
another. I am not claiming this approach will work for everybody, but I
do claim that everybody who has followed this approach in our local water
chemistry area has had the same results.
I will also tell you that several folks have set up tanks using the
methods described here and six months later the tanks were awful. Full of
hair algae with most of the plant species doing poorly. The problem was
always tracked back to not doing regular water changes.
You can save lots of reading by letting me summarize.
1. Change water a lot
2. Don't use air pumps
For more, read on.
Many excellent references to growing plants are available. The purpose
of this paper is to summarize a few fundamentals that work for me.
It is good to understand LIVE. A plant is either growing or dying. We
learn in basic science that plants give off oxygen and consume carbon
dioxide. This process only occurs when plants grow. Growth involves
storing starches and other stuff that makes a plant a plant. Aquatic
plants need sufficient light, nutrients, proper water conditions
(temperature, pH and water movement) and for rooted plants, proper
substrate. A dying plant will rot and give off carbon dioxide and other
byproducts of decay.
Benefits of live plants include, but are not limited to:
Consume fish wastes (nitrates, ammonia and carbon dioxide)
Provide hiding places for fish
Can sell or trade surplus plants to subsidize hobby
Provide surface area for protozoan and other microscopic life to anchor and
provide bacteria control
Spawning medium (some species of fish require plants to breed).
Growing plants consume fish wastes. But plants will not remove all
wastes since the fish load in our tanks is much greater than what would
be found in nature. So having plants will not eliminate the need for
occasional water changes. If the aquarium is considereed a closed
system then adding fish food will require an equivalent removal of
material by pruning or removing extra plants.
There is another reason to make regular water changes. Plants produce
their own set of chemicals to protect them from being eaten and to
protect their space for growth. In 1995-6 there were excellent articles
written in the Aquatic Gardener about this interesting phenomena called
"allelopathy". Allelochemicals are almost impossible to measure toxins
that keep other plants from doing well. Where water changes are
infrequent, such as every six months or so, the tank will tend to a
single species or two of plant. Allelotropes kill off less competitive
species. The easiest way to control allelotropes is by water changes.
If you want to see some amazing picture of planted aquariums, get
"Nature Aquarium World" by Takashi Amano (t.f.h.). Amano lists specs on
how each tank is maintained. Most of these extraordinary tanks get 1/3
to 1/2 water changed ever week!
One of the recently published books on growing plants stated that regular
water changes are necessary to replace minerals and nutrients taken up by
the plants. The previous two reasons suggest water changes dilute toxins
produced by fish and plants. No matter, what is important is to change
water on a regular basis.
In 1947 I was given my first aquarium. In those days air pumps were
prohibitively expensive so I did without, as did nost aquarists of the
day. But I had pretty good plants. We knew nothing of the nitrogen
cycle and it was believed that very old water was best. Water was added
to take care of evaporation and the lime buildup was heavy. After
several years the tank required complete tear down and the mud in the
gravel was excessive. In the ensuing years many changes have taken
place, but some, such as air pumps, are not good for growing plants.
Listed below are the main points or "success items" for low cost, low
tech, low maintenance good looking plant tanks.
1. Use undergravel filters. Do not use air to make the water flow. Use
a power head and do not turn on the bubbler. Set the top of the power
head about 6 inches above the gravel unless the tank is very deep. For
deep tanks set the power head 6 inches below the surface. Keep surface
agitation to a minimum. This provides ample filtration without driving
off the carbon dioxide. Outside filter are OK too but avoid too much
surface turbulence. My personal preference for UG over outside filters
is they are cleaned when doing water changes (see below) and they don't
add to the clutter by hanging on the back of the tank.
2. Change 15% to 30% of the water every two weeks and use a gravel
vacuum. Push the gravel vacuum all the way down to the filter plate
unless the roots prevent this. There should be at least two inches of
gravel over the filter plate.
3. Use fluorescent light 1 1/2 to 2 watts per gallon for 10 to 12 hours
per day. This assumes no natural light. Replace bulbs every six months
IF you see a reduction in growth. When bulbs have a black area at the
end they should be replaced. Use any of the bulbs reported to be good
for growing plants and mix them if you want to get a different color
tone. There is a strong body of evidence that says the spectrum is less
important than the intensity so the use of expensive bulbs can be
4. Use a liquid fertilizer such as Tetra's Florapride. Substrate
fertilizers are not necessary but if you want to experiment, try a second
tank with substrate fertilizer and see if you notice a significant
difference. Of course with substrate fertilizer you will not be able to
use an undergravel filter.
5. Start with faster growing plants. Use enough to get a head start on
6. Be aware it takes some time to see any real change in plants. It
will take about 3 weeks to see improvement and it will take almost that
long for plants to show distress. There are exceptions of course but
this is mentioned so you will follow the water change schedule and not
wait for a problem to show. By the time you see a problem you will be
playing catch up to make corrections.
7. Use Malaysian live bearing trumpet snails. They do not bother
plants, are difficult for snail eating fish to eliminate and they do a
good job of eating extra food.
ALGAE. There is no way to avoid algae. There are many types of algae
and each has its own special requirements. The subject is too extensive
to get into here but as a point of common sense - - Algae Are Plants.
They require the same basic stuff as the "good" plants. Therefore the
plants we want are in competition with algae. For fewer algae problems,
do regular water changes and have a few good algae eating fish. One of
the best and available is the Ancictrus or bristle nose plecostomus (not
reaolly a pleco but sometimes called such since they look similar).
Avoid any other plecostomus. They can get to be up to 18" long and can
be mean and lazy when they get larger. Mollies browse algae and
Otocinclus are good. The best of all is the Siamese Algae Eater (SAE).
Avoid Chinese algae eater unless your dealer will take them back when
they get large, lazy and mean. Juviniles are OK but I suggest you avoid
them. Recent research suggests that algea can be completely controlled
by proper fertilizers and light levels (lots of light, use CO2 injection
and specially formulated trace element aquatic fertilizer). This research
shows that by giving plants all they need for optimum growth they will
compete with algae and lock up phosphorus. Algae are starved when they
don't get enough phosphorus.
Assuming the tap water contains minimal phosphorus, regular water changes
are the best low tech way to control algae. Some water conditioners
contain phosphorus. Read the label. Charcoal can remove critical
nutrients. Don't use it unless you are removing medication after
My experience is consistent with the Aquarium Atlas by Baensch when it
comes to difficulty level in rearing plants. Stick with the level 1
(easy) plants until you have enough success to try more difficult varieties.
Specific plants that work well for me with hard, alkaline water are
listed below. They may also do well in soft acid water. After each
plant I have copied the suggested environment range from the Baensch
Aquarium Atlas. D=difficulty, KH=carbonate hardness, pH=pH, T=temp in
Vallisneria - either corkscrew or straight. Medium light
requirement, Grows fast and looks good. D=1,KH=5-12, pH=6.5-7.5 (mine
grow at pH 8.2), T=59-86F.
Water sprite. Does either very well or dies out. If it will do
well it can take over a tank and is truly a beautiful plant. I suspect
allelotropes are involved. Several plant varieties do better with a
critical mass and water sprite seems to be in this group. Cryps fall
into this category (lots is good category). Water sprite seems to do
well in a new tanks and since it grows so fact it is a highly recommended
starter plant. D=1, KH=5-12, pH=6.5-7.2, T=75-82F.
Rotalla Indica (actually rotalla rotundifolia (sp?)). Needs more
light but grows rapidly and has a rust colored tint on new growth if
given enough light and iron rich fertilizer. D=2, KH=2-15, pH=5.5-7.2,
Hgrophila Polysperma. Durable and needs medium light. Other
excellent Hygrophila to try are H. Difformis (water wisteria - D=2) and
if the tank is large enough, H. Corymbosa also known as Temple Plant or
Giant Hygrophila. D=1, KH=3-15, pH=6-7.8, T=68-86F.
Cryptocoryne. Most available varieties are hardy. Very slow
growing but are worth trying. Need less light. Suggest adding after
tank is established. D=1,2 KH=3-15, pH=6-7.8, T=72-82.
Anubias Nana. Looks a little like a house plant (ivy). Very,
very slow growing but as some say, almost impossible to kill. Very
expensive due to slow growth. Get one after you have succeeded with
cheaper plants. Can get by on very low light levels and has a tough leaf
that most fish can't hurt. There are other anubias varieties available
that are larger but share the slow growth and expensive attributes. D=2,
KH=2-15, pH=6-7.5, T=64-82F.
Amazon sword plants and most of the family Echinodorus. D=2,
KH=5-15, pH=6.5-7.5, T=72-82.
Aponogeton bulbs are sometimes available at modest cost packed
dry with four bulbs for around three dollars. Bulbs grow from food
stored in the tuber but that does not mean the plant is storing new food
as it "grows". Try aponogeton bulbs after you have had success with
other plants. Aponogeton need a resting or dormant period so read up on
them before you try them. Or, considering how cheap they are, try
them but be aware a rotting tuber can pollute a tank. When new leaves
stop forming, remove the bulb and let it rest for two months at 60
degrees or discard. D=2, KH=2-12, pH=6.5-7.5, T=68-79F.
Java Fern. Reported by most plant authors to do well but I have
had minimal luck. Slow growing, low light, quite hardy and very pretty.
Most fish that eat plants will not eat Jave Fern. D=1, KH=2-12,
There are other specialty plants such as hornwort
(ceratophyllum), and Java Moss that are good for protecting baby fish.
Once you have had success at keeping plants, try some of the more exotic
species. Avoid the potted plants sold in fish shops unless you know what
you are buying. These may be house plants sold as aquatics. When in
doubt, hold the plant where the leaves branch out of the base (the
crown). If the leaves fall over and droop on you hand, it is aquatic.
If not, it is probably a terrestrial plant. Some of the varieties
mentioned above are actually bog plants that do well in a submersed stage
(Echinodorus, Hygrophila, Anubias and Cryptocorynes).
As with any endeavor, knowledge will enhance the chance of success. Read
all you can. After having success you can go down the high tech road a
step at a time. Start with do it yourself carbon dioxide injection
system by using a brew of yeast and sugar and run the gas into a bell jar
made from the bottom half of a plastic 2 liter pop bottle. Upgrade
lights with additional fluorescent or replace with metal halide or high
output fluorescent bulbs (HO or VHO but they take a special expensive
balast). The ultimate is substrate heating and exotic substrate (such as
laterite). Each of these high tech steps brings rewards and problems.
Keep it fun. Before you move to a higher technical level, understand why
you should be doing the "improvement". The main thing you will get with
a higher tech tank is much more rapid growth and the ability to keep some
of the more difficult species.