Succeed with aquarium plants

planted aquarium

How to succeed with aquarium plants: a guide to aquarium plant care

While the beginning aquarist spends a great deal of time learning how to tend to fish and give them an environment in which they can thrive, aquarium plant care is, by comparison, a subject that is rarely given the full attention it deserves. Keeping your plants happy is just as important as keeping your fish happy, though, since the two will live in coexistence in the closed ecosystem that your fish tank provides.

You can’t just place plants in your aquarium and expect them to thrive or even stay alive. You must pay attention to the lighting, water conditions and the fertilisation needs of the plants.

Choosing the right plants for your aquarium

See also best beginners plants

and Aquascaping for beginners

and keeping plants healthy

The most important aspect of aquarium plant care is: choosing the right plants for your aquarium. The right choice here can make the rest of your live plant experience a pleasure by providing a beautiful environment for your tank while controlling algae and absorbing unwanted ammonia and nitrates.

There are scores of plant species that, though undoubtedly beautiful, are very sensitive to water conditions, require specialized CO2 systems, or need extra lights in order to flourish. At the same time however, there are plenty of hardy, attractive plants that provide all the benefits that you expect from aquarium plants without the extra hassle.

A list of some of the best options for your first aquarium plants for the beginner are as follows:

• Java Moss. This unassuming plant is one of the most popular aquarium plants worldwide for a number of reasons. It thrives in a variety of environments, offers lots of convenient hiding places for fish and their fry, and offers simple, beautiful decoration for aquarium owners.

It can be tied to rocks or driftwood with fishing line, or left to float naturally through the tank. Java moss requires very little maintenance; only some occasional trimming when it gets too thick.

• Amazon Sword. This plant can reach a great size, even under low lighting. Evidently, this plant is ideal for large tanks, and may require fertilizer tablets because of the fact that it is a root-feeding plant.

• Java Fern. This plant can survive in nearly any aquarium, and is very forgiving when it comes to water quality and light. Even goldfish that regularly eat aquarium plants will generally leave Java fern alone.

• Valisneria. This plant will feel right at home in a variety of aquariums, although some hungry fish might decide to snack on it. Vallisneria spiralis is usually singled out as being one of the best varieties for aquarium plant care beginners.

• Anubias. This is one of the only underwater plants that actually prefers low lighting, and to make it even more attractive to aquarium owners, herbivore fish tend to leave it alone.

While many other specialty plants can provide a fun and challenging experience for live plant enthusiasts, any of the plants listed above make an excellent introduction to the world of aquarium plant care.

Lighting for your aquarium plants

Once you have chosen which species of plants you would like to keep in your tank, you must consider your lighting setup in order to give the plants the correct environment in which they can thrive. In general, your aquarium plants will do best with day and night cycles of 12 hours each.

The duration of the lighting period is important, but you must also examine the type of light that you use in your aquarium. Lights designed for aquarium plant care are notably different than average fluorescent lights, and you will need to make sure that yours carry a suitable Kelvin rating, among other characteristics.

• The Kelvin rating refers to the spectrum of light that the bulb emits, commonly referred to as the, “temperature” of the light.

• Most plants reject green and yellow light while absorbing red and blue light, as well as light on the ultraviolet scale. In terms of the Kelvin rating, this means that you should provide full-spectrum lighting between 5500 K and 7500 K for most tropical plants, including as the ones listed above.

• LED lights often offer the best combination of low power consumption with light intensity, ease of installation, and price. Make sure to purchase quality LED lights, however, as the market is full of low-quality options not suitable for aquarium plant care.

Following these guidelines will help ensure that your plants grow large and healthy, although providing them with ample light will make your plants hungry for the nutrients they need to thrive.

Feeding your plants: fertilizing your substrate

Once you have developed your lighting setup properly, it is time to consider the fertilizer and nutrients that your plants will need. Many waterborne fertilizers will provide the boost that you need to get your plants strong and healthy quickly— especially in the beginning stages of aquarium plant care.

You should be aware that many of these store bought fertilizers, while very good for plants, contain nitrates and other ingredients that are poisonous for your fish. Most fish can tolerate small amounts, but over exposure to fertilizer will kill them, so use these fertilizers with care.

But better still use a substrate fertilizer for rooted plants like the Amazon Sword. They come in tablet form. These tablets need to be pushed into the substrate directly to the root base of the plant. In this way they directly feed the plant rather than into the water in general.

Choosing between gravel or soil

While soil is a much more natural substrate for aquarium plant care, it is notably more complex to keep in optimal condition. Soils are generally reserved for experienced aquatic gardeners who wish to grow particularly difficult underwater plants.

If you introduce soil into your tank it can affect the water quality for your fish.
Therefore, gravel is generally recommended as the safest option. You can always add soil in separate pots if you wish to experiment later on.

The benefits of potting your plants

One of the key benefits to be realised by potting your plants, apart from being able to use soil without disturbing your tank’s existing substrate, is that your pots will also protect the plants. Potted plants have a secure location from which they can grow, and this can help keep them alive when nosey fish want to dig around their roots.

While gravel may be an acceptable substrate for beginning aquarium plant care, you may find that some of your more active fish seem intent on overturning the rocks and digging into the roots of your plants, harming or possibly killing them in the process. Potted plants combat this behaviour by offering your fish very little space in which they can satisfy their curiosity or hunger.

Reproducing aquarium plants for fun and profit

If you give enough space, nutrients, and lights to your plants, you may find that they begin to propagate and reproduce. A vast majority of these plants reproduce asexually, meaning that, if the conditions are healthy, they will simply begin sprouting new individual plants without your intervention at all.

Some species of plant, however, may need your help reproducing, and often it is worthwhile to expend the effort— aquarium pants, just like fish, can be bred and sold for profit. Seeded plants like lilies are notably more complicated to breed, and tend to command higher prices than their asexual cousins:

• A plant cutting is exactly what it sounds like: a segment of the parent plants’ stem, cut and replanted into the substrate of the aquarium or pot. In most cases, these cuttings will grow their own roots and turn into full-fledged individual plants over time.

• Plants that have seeds will need to be sexed and paired in order to propagate successfully. The two parent plants will need to be flowering above the surface and then have their pollen transferred from one to the other. If pollination is successful, seeds will be produced and those need to planted in damp soil as quickly as possible.

Over time, you should be able to grow a healthy collection of extra plants using these aquarium plant care methods, and you can then begin to sell to or swap with other local aquarists either through the help of your local fish store or directly using an Internet classifieds website to find customers.

Rocks for your aquarium

planted rocky malawi aquarium

How to select the right rocks for your aquarium

While many aquarists around the world have no problem discovering their favourite varieties of fish, finding them, and then creating the perfect underwater environment for their fishkeeping hobby, determining how to select the right rocks for your aquarium can be a different story altogether. Many beginning aquarists are surprised to learn how important rocks can be in a marine environment.

Why are rocks important for your aquarium?

See plantless aquarium

Rocks in Malawi tanks

As you probably are already aware, your aquarium is essentially a miniature ecosystem that requires you to manage a precise chemical balance in which your fish can thrive. Thanks to water’s erosive qualities, the rocks in your aquarium will play a minor, but recognizable role in the “hardness” of your water— that is, the level of dissolved minerals in your water.

“Hard” water contains a higher level of dissolved minerals such as magnesium and calcium than “soft” water does. Obviously, the primary source of these dissolved minerals is the tap in your home, but the rocks that you introduce to your aquarium habitat can change the water hardness over time. Depending on the fish you wish to keep, this can be desirable or dangerous.

Additionally, well-placed and well-chosen rocks offer a beautiful decor that gives the tank a serene sense of beauty. Fish also love them, as the varied texture and landscape gives them lots of places in which they can hide and take shelter, just like their natural habitat would.

Aquascaping is enhanced with the addition of carefully selected rocks of various colours and textures. Make this choice based on the colours of the fish you plan to keep and whether the aquarium is to be planted or not.

Determining which rocks are safe

When it comes to finding out how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, its important to choose safe rocks, as certain types can be poisonous for your fish. There are several methods available to determining which rocks you can use:

• Purchasing aquarium-safe rocks. If you purchase aquarium-safe rocks from a quality pet store or aquarium supply centre, you can be relatively certain that the rocks will not gravely affect the hardness or pH level of your aquarium water.

If you choose to go this route, it is important that you purchase from trusted vendors, as some pet shops have been known to cut back on quality control and put unfit rocks up for sale.

• Testing outdoors rocks and gravel. Many aquarium enthusiasts and fish keepers like to take home interesting-looking rocks from riverbeds or other natural sources and introduce them into their aquariums. This approach requires testing, since outdoor rocks can contain high levels of calcium and other materials that will change the chemical content of your water and affect your fish. Granite, slate and sandstone are relatively inert and have little or no effect on the water chemistry. Also clay, although not strictly a rock, is a good source of rock-like material. Clay pots, pipes and slates can be used adding a nice brown colour to the landscape.

How to test outdoors rocks for aquarium use

If you have found some interesting rocks that you would like to introduce to your aquarium, there are two main ways to test them for use in your aquarium:

• The vinegar test. Vinegar reacts with calcium by fizzing and foaming on contact. If you pour a few drops of vinegar on your rocks and you see that they begin to react in this way, you should not use the rocks in your aquarium. This is an indicator of high levels of calcium. Rocks that do not react with vinegar can generally be used, but a more reliable test may be in order if you would like to be perfectly certain.

• The standing test. If you have some rocks or gravel that you would like to introduce to your aquarium and would like to test them securely, the best way is through the standing test. Let the rocks stand for a week in a bucket of the same water that you use for your aquarium, and then test the water hardness and pH level.

If you see that the water quality has not significantly changed, then you can reasonably expect that the rocks are aquarium-safe. Naturally, longer testing times will provide more detailed results, and help eliminate any doubt about the quality of the rocks or gravel you have found. When figuring out how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, the standing test represents the best way to be absolutely certain, although it takes time.

Also after adding new rocks it is wise to keep an eye on the fish over the following weeks to see if they show any sign of distress. Some rocks may very slowly release poisons into the water over the long term. If the fish do show some signs of distress, try removing the rock and do a 50% water change to see if the distress is relieved.

Freshwater vs. saltwater considerations

As you would expect, there is a marked difference between the types of rocks ideal for freshwater tanks and those that saltwater tanks can safely house. If you are a beginning aquarist determining how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, you need to base your choice of rocks on the type of water you are using.

While freshwater tanks are significantly simpler to manage, saltwater aquarists have additional concerns about maintaining the salinity of their tanks’ water. Given that some rocks can have poisonous effects, and that most will affect the water quality in some way over time, it is important to choose carefully and test your rocks.

An additional option that can help maintain excellent water quality, appropriate salinity, and balance a tanks’ pH level is live rock. Live rock is especially useful in saltwater tanks, but is also recommended for certain freshwater tanks such as the Malawi biotope, where it also helps create a decorative atmosphere in place of plants that may not be present.

What is live rock?

See live rock and live sand

Live rock is a bit of a misnomer, since the material in question is neither a rock nor alive. Live rock is made up of pieces of coral skeleton that have broken off of reefs and are collected for use in home aquariums. These coral skeletons become natural biological filters, helping the nitrogen cycle take place effectively.

In this case, the material that you are introducing to your aquarium is designed to affect the water composition, but in a positive way. Live rock introduces helpful bacteria, algae, and tiny invertebrates that can improve the quality of your aquarium water. Live rocks can raise the salinity and the pH level of your tank water. If you are looking for attractive solutions on how to select the right rocks for your aquarium, live rock is an important element to consider.

As an added benefit to saltwater aquarists, live rock can form the foundation of bright and colourful coral colonies that distinguish saltwater aquariums from their freshwater cousins. Many ambitious saltwater aquarists choose these rocks for their aquariums specifically for those species of bright coral to grow.

Additional considerations for your aquarium rocks: gravel

Since gravel often forms a significant element of any aquarium’s substrate base, it should be given special attention due to the additional concerns over its small size and numerous individual particles. Gravel offers a very natural appearance for your tank. The colour chosen must blend in naturally or pleasantly contrast the rock work. Examples are grey rock work with yellow sand or salmon pink rockwork with grey gravel.

Large-grained gravel allows waste to penetrate the substrate and stick unpleasantly to the bottom of the tank. This, in turn, will affect the water quality and the health and lifespan of your fish. For this reason, many aquarists prefer to use small-grained gravel or even sand. If you insist on using large-grained gravel, you will have to carefully and efficiently clean your tank regularly in order to maintain ideal water conditions.

Setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium

A quick guide to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium

There are many aquarists and fish keeping hobbyists interested in setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium, and for good reason: The African Great Lake is home to more fish species than any other lake in the world, including about one thousand separate species of cichlids. It represents a unique ecosystem that many aquarists find incredibly fascinating. The beauty of Malawi fish rival that of tropical marine fish in the range and vivacity of colours.

The specific term for an aquarium that is designed to mimic the conditions of a real-world location is, “biotope”. This kind of aquarium is highly rewarding for its keeper as it provides a unique view into the ecosystem that it represents. Keeping a biotope healthy, however, can be a complex process.

See also Malawi biotope

and tips for keeping African cichlids

and Peacock cichlids from Malawi

Water conditions for a Lake Malawi biotope

Lake Malawi’s water is alkaline in nature; it features a pH level ranging from 7.7 to 8.6. The water has a hardness level of GH 7 and KH 10-12. The tropical waters of this lake are generally warm, with a surface temperature of 24-29 degrees Celsius and a deep-water temperature of 22 degrees Celsius year-round.

The first step to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is recreating these water conditions in your tank. This will require the use of high-quality testing kits for the water’s pH level and hardness.

Managing your water pH level

Keeping your water at the correct pH level is critical for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium, and can be achieved using a material to buffer the pH level and keep it high. Crushed coral sand placed in the substrate or filter, crushed oyster shell, or live rock can do this for you.

Using rocks such as limestone will help buffer the pH level of your water and keep it at the desired amount, as well. Extra care should be exercised when changing the water, as your pH levels can change greatly during this procedure if the new water is not properly prepared beforehand.

Once your water is prepared, you are ready to begin gathering the necessary ingredients necessary to setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium.

Malawi biotope fish: cichlids

malawi fish with rock backgrounds
malawi fish in public aquarium

If you are interested in keeping a Lake Malawi biotope, chances are that you want to keep a community of cichlids. These beautiful fish are by far the most common inhabitant of Lake Malawi, and any Malawi aquarium should have quite a few.

There are two general types of cichlids in Lake Malawi: Mbuna, which are rock dwelling fish, and non-Mbuna, that live in the sandy areas of the lake and feature such species as the bright and colourful Peacock cichlid.

Some species of mbuna can be quite aggressive, especially the larger varieties. It can prove difficult to maintain peace and order between the species if they are not carefully chosen, with mysterious deaths occasionally happening. However, one mbuna species to consider is Labidochromis caerulus, also known as the “yellow lab” fish which is a relatively peaceful fish.

 

 

mixed malawi fish tank
crowded mixed malawi fish in rocky aquarium

In general, aquarists who wish to keep a mixed Malawi tank are recommended to keep larger peaceful non-mbuna like the Peacock with smaller slightly aggressive mbuna fish. However, avoid cichlids that are too aggressive, or grow very large like Venustus. Furthermore, attention must be paid to the male female ratio. One male to three or more females. This will reduce the males over pestering the female and avoiding fights between rival males.

Choosing the right mix of fish is an art. Special attention must be paid to the right colour mix, temperament, age of fish and especially the size of the fish. In some species it is just the males that are colourful with other species both males and females are colourful. And the choice of fish must contrast well with the rockwork, sand and even with the other fish.

Your decision about which types of cichlids to house in your Malawi biotope should reflect the setup of your aquarium: A mostly Mbuna aquarium should feature numerous rocks for the fish to feel comfortable in and use as shelter, while Non-mbuna fish will feel much more comfortable surrounded by sand and lots of open water to swim about in.

It is also important to keep your aquarium relatively heavily populated. It is in the nature of Malawi cichlids to fight over territory more often when they have plenty of space and few competitors. A heavily populated tank is a notably more peaceful one for this species of fish.

Considering plants for setting up the perfect malawi aquarium

aquascaped malawi aquarium
sandy rocky planted malawi aquarium

If you insist on keeping plants in your Malawi aquarium, the only commercially available underwater plant that is suitable for a strict Malawi biotope is Vallisneria spiralis, although Anubias and Java Fern can be suitable if you are willing to bend the rules of biotope keeping.

In general, Malawi aquariums have no need for plants with many keepers of this particular biotope do not add plants to their setup at all.

Setting up your tank

The size of your tank should reflect your needs regarding the amount of space that your fish need. It is important to remember that these fish tend to play nice with one another when they are in a more crowded tank.

A good rule of thumb for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is to keep one fish for every 20 litres of tank capacity. A few more fish can be acceptable if you change your water more often— for example, 50% weekly.

It is recommended that you line the bottom of your tank with a plastic egg crate-style light diffuser along the bottom of your tank. This will help distribute the weight of the rocks you will need to line your tank with and protect the glass from the digging action of Mbuna cichlids.

In general, setting up a successful Malawi biotope comes down to choosing the right rocks, layering thin substrate of sand over the egg-crate bottom, introducing a healthy mixture of smaller mbuna and large, friendly non-mbuna, and balancing their habitat with two high quality filters.

The best way to filter a Malawi tank is using a dual-pronged approach. The best results are realised by combining an external power filter and an internal mechanical filter in your tank. This offers excellent biological and mechanical filtration, improving water circulation and oxygenating the water effectively, especially for a crowded tank.

How to choose the right lighting

The last essential consideration for setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is lighting. Fluorescent or metal halide lighting is preferable to other forms, and should be liberally distributed at a rate of 1 watt for every 2 litres of tank capacity.

Malawi cichlids respond best to subdued lighting. Overwhelming the fish with too much light can cause them to lose their lustrous appearance and spend most of their time hiding out under the aquarium rocks or in whatever shady place they can find.

Conclusion

If you follow this short guide correctly and take the necessary steps to ensure that your Malawi biotope is put together faithfully, you will be able to enjoy a realistic example of one of the most exciting and interesting freshwater lakes in the world from the comfort of your home.

Setting up the perfect Malawi aquarium is an involving task, and it takes more involvement than a general freshwater community tank, but it can be a very rewarding experience for the ambitious biotope aquarist. With the help of this guide and numerous other web resources, your Malawi biotope can become a great success.

Floating plants in a bare bottom tank

floating plants bare bottom tank

How To Use Floating Plants For A Bare Bottom Tank

water lettuce in aquarium with dangling roots
water lettuce in aquarium with dangling roots

The use of gravel or sand as a bottom-lining substrate for aquariums has been a staple of aquarium culture for years, but recently interest has sparked in using floating plants for a bare bottom tank design. These tanks eliminate the need for expensive and time-consuming gravel cleaning and make it easier to control the nutrient flow within the water of the tank.

Bare bottom tanks eliminate the possibility of uneaten food and fish waste collecting underneath the gravel or sand substrate, where it will rot and pollute the water. Bare bottom tanks also helpfully allow for higher water flow rates. Once the nitrogen cycle complications are taken care of by having your tank cycled properly, using floating plants in your setup can help you enjoy the benefits of plants in your aquarium without the disadvantages of gravel.

The primary arguments against floating tanks are that they tend to look unnatural and can be difficult for certain species to adapt to. The lack of plants can leave some species nervously trying to find a hiding place. Also, without a substrate to hold onto, waste can collect in the water if not vacuumed and filtered often enough.

See also plantless aquarium

Why Use Floating Plants For A Bare Bottom Tank?

frogbit covering the aquarium surface
frogbit covering the aquarium surface

While most of the beneficial bacteria in a fish tank make their homes on the aquarium filter, where a continuous flow of oxygenated water let them filter the waste and complete their part of the nitrogen cycle, the remaining nitrate still needs to be accounted for. Thankfully, these plants tend to absorb more nitrate than other plants, and a healthy population of these plants will help reduce the need for constant water changes.

As an added bonus, most free-floating plants are very easy to care for and get along magnificently with a wide variety of fish. A few examples of useful floating plant species that should be considered for any bare bottom aquarium are as follows:

• Tropical Hornwort. Ceratophyllum Submersum is a phenomenally easy, fast-growing floating plant that thrives in waters with a pH range between 5-8, at a temperature of 10-30 degrees Celsius. Hornwort is one of the easiest plants to manage: if you toss it into the water, it will situate itself naturally and need little-to-no care after that.

dwarf-water-lettuce
dwarf-water-lettuce

•Dwarf Water Lettuce Pistia stratiotes is an easy care fast growing small sized floating plant that does well under bright light. It reproduces by sending out runners that create baby plants that are easily separated at any time. Remove discolored or yellow leaves which will induce new growth.

• Marimo. Aegagropila linnaei, also known as Marimo, which is Japanese for “ball seaweed” is a rootless algae colony that can attach itself to rocks or other tank décor. Marimo can also float around freely within the tank. This particular plant is highly prized for its unique, beautiful appearance: small-to-medium balls of green plant material that make any tank look superb.

• Java Moss. Taxiphyllum barbieri is not actually a free-floating plant at all, and it will attach itself to just about anything within the tank. One of the best ways to realise the use of this plant as a free-floater is to give it a thin wire net to attach to on the interior of the tank and then let it attach to that. It is a popular choice because it provides food to newborn fry.

• Anacharis. Egeria densa is a very hardy plant that grows extremely quickly in a wide variety of conditions. These plants can grow as rooted plants or be kept as floating ones. In both conditions, they provide very useful benefits to the quality of the water as well as the appearance of the tank.

Adding in a healthy number of these floating plants can help structure your bare bottom tank and give you a clean, easily maintained tank without you needing to worry about periodically cleaning the accumulated dirt beneath the gravel or sand.

How to make floating plants look great in a bare bottom tank

floating plants cover fish
floating plants cover gold barb fish

One of the most common arguments against using a bare bottom tank is made by aquarists who do not like the unnatural look of a bare bottom tank. Thankfully, floating plants such as the ones named above can help to create a luxurious-looking underwater environment in an otherwise barren tank.

Since there is little-to-no substrate along the bottom surface of the tank, it is likely that waste will collect along the bottom. Normally, this requires frequent, simple cleaning with an aquarium vacuum cleaner. Even with this solution, however, It is recommended that bare bottom aquarists paint the bottom of the tank a dark colour such as brown or black.

Bare bottom tank aquarists have to clean their tanks less often than those with substrates lining the bottom of their tanks. Many of these aquarists, however, report that waste collects so quickly that they rarely get to enjoy a perfectly clean bottom unless they use a powerful mechanical filter that will collect up the waste matter. Adding a layer of paint to the bottom can help maintain a clean appearance in combination with beautiful and well-kept floating plants for a bare bottom tank.