Posted by Shari Horowitz in Tropical Fish Hobbyist Blog on October 18, 2012 at 6:08 am
In the November 2012 issue of TFH, professional aquascaper Lea Maddocks writes about how a beginner can easily set up a planted tank in her article Setting Up a Successful Low-Tech Planted Tank like a Pro, Part 1: The Basics. While setting up a tank from scratch is perhaps the easiest way to create an aquascape, sometimes you have to work with what you have. Here Lea offers her advice for how to create a lush aquascape even if your existing tank has less-than-ideal conditions.
Difficult Livestock Choices
The hardness for African cichlids or brackish fish like mollies is often too high for many plants, though some species such as Vallisneria, Anubias, Bacopa, Elodea, hornwort, water sprite, some crypts, Sagittaria, and Java fern, among others, may still do well.
Many plants also will not tolerate colder water used for goldfish, danios, white clouds, or other more temperate fish, though Elodea, Vallisneria, swords, Anubias, Java moss, and hornwort will thrive. Research your desired plant species online and through plant specialists to know for sure what you can and cannot plant due to water chemistry and temperature limitations.
Less-Than-Ideal Grain Size
If your grain size is outside the ideal range of 2 to 5 mm do not be concerned, for here is a useful tip: You can use epiphytic plants, floating plants, plants already planted in floss, and potted plants. A well planted tank can be devoid of substrate if this tactic is used.
Epiphytic plants are those which do not need, or even like, to be planted, and instead need to be attached to driftwood, rocks or other ornaments with cotton thread where they will eventually secure themselves with roots used purely as hold-fasts. Such plants also require no nutrients from their roots, and absorb all they need via their leaves. Many also have the advantage of being adaptable to low or poor quality lighting, and are very hardy.
Floating plants are also an excellent option here, and many will thrive in almost any healthy tank as they have several advantages over submerged plants. The first is that they are very close to the light. Even with a weak lighting system, these plants will often get all the light intensity they need as they are usually less than inches away from the light source, and the light generally does not even have to penetrate the water to get to them. Do note that even with good intensity some plants can suffer if the spectrum is not correct, so check out my article for lighting advice. The second benefit of floaters is that in many cases the leaves actually sit on the surface exposed to the air, which is far richer in CO2 than the water. When this is the case, the limitation of dissolved CO2 is removed, and plants often grow well with nutrients obtained from fish and food waste.
If you are wish to plant non-epiphytic plants in a non-ideal sized substrate, planting in floss or potted plants may be the answer. Both of these approaches are simple. Wrap the roots of your chosen plants in a generous amount of filter floss, add root tab or fertiliser ball, and add another floss layer. These tabs/balls slowly release fertilisers and micro-nutrients to supplement larger root systems. Bury the lot gently within your substrate, and make sure to add a layer of your substrate over the top or some pebbles around the base to hide the floss and keep it weighted down. The roots will grow well in the floss, as they can penetrate it easily, though it is dense enough to provide a good structure for the root system. It is also porous enough to allow a great flow of oxygenated water and dissolved nutrients around the roots, and a large area for nitrifying bacteria.
It works in a way akin to plants in a hydroponic system. Once the plant is established, I find that there is usually no need to replace fertiliser tabs/balls the level of accumulated mulm will do the work for you. However, if your plants start to yellow or show other signs of deficiency, by all means add another tab—it certainly won’t hurt.
Alternatively, the same strategy can be used with pots for an interesting feature. Many kinds of pots, cups or containers can be used including terracotta, small bonsai pots, sake cups, or any ceramic pot which is dishwasher safe (dishwasher safe indicates that the glaze is safe and will not leech toxins into the aquarium water). Indeed, a well decorated tea-pot or cup could make a novel feature in your tank!
Photograph by Lea Maddocks