It can be difficult for a beginner to know how to incorporate plants into their setup with the amount of conflicting information out there, but a professional aquascaper breaks it down and makes it easy for anyone to start a planted tank.
Photo courtesy: Sukpaiboonwat/Shutterstock
Many new hobbyists transition from keeping freshwater fish to a planted aquarium. This is often inspired by the fantastic planted aquarium images available, as well as the aim of keeping live plants that look more impressive than plastic plants and keep the aquarium healthier. Indeed, live plants benefit the aquarium by providing more natural refuges (and even food) for fish and fry, oxygenating the water by day, absorbing excess nutrients, and/or releasing allelochemical defenses that may, to some extent, control algae.
When most beginners attempt to keep plants, two approaches and outcomes are common. In the first approach, the budding planted aquarium keeper proceeds directly to the local fish store (LFS), purchases a few appealing varieties, and plants them in their current substrate. A few months later, the aquarist is often left with spindly, yellowing, or wilting plants commonly plagued with algae. Replacing these becomes expensive and irritating, and often the hobbyist returns to hardscape items and artificial plants.
The other is the ambitious aquarist who researches planted aquariums online or through other means and is inundated with conflicting advice and complex terminology relating to the requirements of their desired species. The second approach often yields more success, as forum members will recommend hardier plants and easier, low-tech ways to maintain them, but the influx of baffling information can make some wary or hesitant to learn more, preventing their development as an underwater gardener and aquascaper.
I’d like to share advice for beginners on how to start and achieve long-term success with an impressive basic aquascape with live plants while still keeping it simple. Do note, however, that this should not stop anyone from learning more about the planted aquarium hobby. If you want to create a planted aquarium that will truly wow an audience, there is much to learn and there are myriad opinions on how to get there.
Before you start gardening, it is essential to understand your tank’s limits and the effect of its physical and chemical parameters, lighting, and livestock on a given plant species and aquascape.
Basic Water Chemistry
As with any healthy tank, you must start with a properly cycled and established aquarium with ammonia and nitrite reading 0 ppm and nitrates at 40 ppm or less (ideally around 20 ppm).
A stable pH is also important for the health of your tank and for most tropical fish and plants. Buying fish suited to your local water conditions is advised over using pH-altering chemicals, as these can sometimes be stressful to both plants and fish. Some have limited capacity to remain stable in a given tank (particularly if buffering capacity is low). Additionally, mixing your water to exact pH at every water change can sometimes be tricky, causing your pH to fluctuate. A stable pH is more desirable than a fluctuating one, and while some fish and plants will adapt to something at the limits of their natural range, it is better to select fish and plants already suited to your current water.
Water hardness is also very important in the planted aquarium. It is vital to the health of both fish and plants, though this parameter is often ignored by most new fishkeepers. Water hardness comes in two forms, general hardness (GH) and carbonate hardness (KH), which are measured in parts per million (ppm) or degrees (dGH or dKH).
GH is the total amount of dissolved salts in the tank (chiefly carbonate, chloride, and sulphate salts). Salts are an essential component of fresh water, as they are a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and other trace elements for fish and plants. They also affect the osmoregulation process in fish (i.e., maintenance of the internal to external salt/water balance), and a dissolved salt content above or below the tolerance of a specific species can cause a great deal of stress. Thus, it is important to maintain GH at an appropriate level via the addition of specially formulated aquarium salts (not sodium chloride or regular table salt) to increase hardness, or by diluting very hard water with soft water or RO (reverse osmosis) water to decrease it.
KH is a measure of dissolved carbonate and bicarbonate salts only. Understanding KH is especially important in planted tanks, as carbonates help a tank resist swings in pH and are commonly known as pH buffers. In planted tanks, plants photosynthesize during the day and consume CO2, which can be dissolved in water as carbonic acid. The consumption of this acid can cause the pH to rise (i.e., the water will become more basic). At night, plants respire as animals do, and along with the livestock and bacteria, will also add CO2, thus more carbonic acid, back to the system. This will lower the pH (i.e., the water will become more acidic). These swings in pH can harm fish and invertebrates, increasing their susceptibility to disease over time.
To buffer this swing, a carbonate acts by binding excess acid in the form of hydrogen ions to create bicarbonate. The reverse occurs at a more alkaline pH to produce a carbonate compound and release hydrogen ions and CO2 back into the water, which can create carbonic acid that once again lowers the pH. The CO2 released in this reaction can also be consumed by plants. Carbonates are also a source of carbon for plants when normal dissolved CO2 and carbonic acid is low or absent. When KH, and therefore carbonate levels, is very low, usually below 3 dKH or about 50 ppm, and all available CO2 in the water is used up by plant growth, carbonates will be rapidly used up and the buffering capacity will vanish. Without any buffering ability, plant cycles can now cause dangerous pH fluctuations.
What all this means is that it is essential in low-tech planted tanks to measure your GH and KH and ensure that both are kept above 3 degrees or about 50 ppm. A level of 4 to 6 dGH and dKH, or about 70 to 100 ppm, is ideal for both plants and most tropical fish (excluding brackish fish and African cichlids). To raise your KH naturally, you can add a little calcium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate to your water, making sure it is dissolved first. Calcium carbonate is preferred, as calcium is a far more useful supplement for fish. Do also note that adding bicarbonates may affect your pH by making it slightly more alkaline, so monitor this parameter in your tank and in any replacement water to ensure that your pH stays constant for the health of your fish and plants.
Many newcomers use an inert and/or non-nutritive substrate such as gravel, pebbles, rubble, or sand in their tank. The type used will affect what you can and cannot plant—or whether you can plant in the substrate at all. A key point is grain size.
Gravel larger than 5 mm in diameter may cause problems, with poor rooting of some plants, as gaps may be too wide for roots to anchor properly and let nutrients from mulm or fertilizer tablets dissolve out and away into the main water column.
Conversely, small-grained substrate like sand is likely to compact too tightly for roots to penetrate deeply, and deep sand beds may also cause anaerobic zones where there is no oxygen and the flow of water and dissolved nutrients also cannot penetrate well. While some anaerobic zones can be beneficial for reduction of nitrate into nitrogen gas by anaerobic bacteria, these areas may halt proper root growth if you choose to plant near them. An ideal grain size for a planted aquarium is about 2 to 5 mm.
If your substrate is within a good grain size, plant any stem plants by making a small hole with your fingertip, plant, and back fill with substrate. Bury the plant about an inch below where the roots emerge, and gently pull the plant upward to the right level after back filling. This will let the roots orient themselves a little better.
For any rooted plant, let mulm accumulate around the base. This will break down and act as a natural fertilizer, though if the plant is large and a heavy root feeder, such as a sword plant, a root tab is ideal to bury next to it to get it going. From there, accumulated mulm will generally do the rest. Still, utilize fertilizer balls/tabs if plants show signs of deficiency.
If you want to go ahead and use a non-ideal substrate, check out the TFH Extras blog for some tips on what you can do to still maintain a beautiful planted tank.
Aquarium Space and Livestock
Naturally, the choice of hardscape and plants for a narrow and tall tank full of peaceful tropical tetras will vary vastly from one that is half the height, 6 feet long, and full of boisterous cichlids. Again, much comes down to research. Choose plants that grow to a good size for the tank, will not overcrowd it, and are compatible with your livestock.
Larger fish, active fish, and those that dig may restrict your choices to strong plants that cannot be uprooted, such as Anubias, Bolbitis, Java fern, well-tied mosses, or maybe potted swords. Smaller tanks will also be restricted—a little 5-gallon tank will look lush with various crypts, dwarf Sagittaria, pearl weed, and mosses, but you’ll find that large swords and tall stem plants like ambulia, Vallisneria, and various hygros will soon overrun it and be bent out of shape in such shallow water.
A lot has been written about lighting for planted tanks, a complex topic, but success can be achieved in a simple setup with a basic understanding of the important aspects.
There are two key components to aquarium lighting. The first is the output, measured in lumens. This is the amount of light energy reaching an area, and while few light bulbs note the lumens, you can assume in the case of your standard fluorescent bulb that more watts mean more lumens. Do note, though, that more efficient bulbs like compact fluorescent lights and T5s produce more lumens per watt than the older T12s and T8s, and LEDs are even more efficient.
The second is the color spectrum it emits and what intensity of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) is contained therein. Essentially, PAR means the type of radiation or energy with the correct wavelength that plants can use. Happily, most aquarists need not be too concerned with these details, as most hardy plants requiring low to medium lighting will perform well under the light fixture setup provided with your tank when used with bulbs rated for plants. Still, it pays to know why, so let’s explore more.
Light Intensity and Output
Regarding light intensity and output, more light output is required with larger and deeper tanks, as lumens decrease with distance and some light wavelengths plants require do not penetrate water as well as others. If you have a larger aquarium, chances are your accompanying light fixture contains long bulbs and probably a couple of them. Together, this will keep the length of the tank well lit with intensity high enough for your plants.
If your tank came without lights, buy a fixture suited for your tank, and if you have an option, get the fixture with room for more bulbs (better to have more than less). A 3- to 4-foot tank or larger will require two to four bulbs overhead, though you can get by with less if you choose to use only lower light and/or floating plants, which will linger near the surface. For smaller tanks, a single fluorescent tube will likely work well for a normal 2-foot tank or less, as they are more shallow.
If you need to boost your lighting intensity, purchase bulbs with a higher wattage, but if you want or need more bulbs and your fixture will not accommodate them, another tip is to purchase a strip of high-intensity (and proper spectrum) LED lights. The benefit of LEDs is that they produce more lumens for a lower wattage and will save on power consumption.
For standard fluorescent bulbs, the common rule of thumb is to aim for 2 to 4 watts per gallon, and this is generally not a bad rule to follow if you are working with standard fluorescent bulbs and low- to medium-light plants. However, I find this often misleading, as a lower output will still serve well in smaller tanks that are considerably more shallow, and even a high output will fail your plants if the spectrum is not correct.
Natural plants are the perfect choice for any aquariums, and they’re almost a required for Aquascapes. To do it right, you’ll need to choose plants that won’t immediately die. (It happens to all of us at some point.) Here are the best freshwater plant choices for beginners.
This is the most common plant you’ll see in aquariums. It literally grows like a weed. While it thrives when given pressurized CO2, it also grows relatively quickly in medium light conditions. It’s usually trimmed early & often to maintain a sort of ‘carpet’ across the bottom of the aquarium. It’s also great for shrimp keeping, as it provides good cover for baby shrimp. Note that this plant needs to be anchored to something heavy to prevent it from floating to the top of your tank.
Here are the ideal conditions for Java Moss:
Water Conditions: 72-90 Degrees Farenheight. (Fastest at 73 degrees.) High water movement helps increase growth rate.
Lighting Conditions: Highly tolerable. Best growth in Medium to High light.
Appearance: low growth pattern; tends to create ‘carpets’ if trimmed correctly.
If you keep it trimmed tightly, this plant carpets quite easily. It’s also very easy to determine whether it’s getting enough nutrients, as well: it’ll start losing its vibrant green color, yellowing over time. That’s when you know to modify your dosing!
Marsilea Minuta grows best in these conditions:
Water Conditions: 73-78 degrees Farenheight; tolerable of most conditions.
Lighting Conditions: Grows best in medium light; will tolerate other situations.
Appearance: Has a ‘clover’ appearance. Creates a unique ‘carpet’ of sorts.
Pygmy Chain Sword
This plant is a particularly familiar feature to most of us: it’s the aquatic version of what’s in your lawn. When it’s taken care of, Chain Sword can give your aquarium that extra ‘finished’ look. (It’s also quite tolerable of many water conditions.)
Chain Sword’s best conditions:
Water Conditions: 72-78 degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Grows best in high lighting situations.
Appearance: Looks astonishingly like the grass in your lawn.
This is a hardy, easily-grown plant that’s perfect for the foreground of your aquarium. Originally found in the Amazonas, it’s quite bushy, and grows small green leaves. It’s perfect for placement around the hardscape of your aquarium, and looks great when it forms bushes around your stone!
Water Conditions: 76 Degrees Farenheight; Highly tolerable temperature range
Lighting Conditions: Carpets in high light situations; tolerable of medium light
Appearance: Bushy growth with horizontally spreading patterns
Anubias Nana grows quite well from trimmings, so it’s quite easily propagated in an aquarium. It’s hard for beginners to kill, and its size makes it perfect as a midground plant. Also, this is the plant you see on many aquarium videos producing the stream of bubbles from its leaves. (It’s an interesting addition to your tank, and one that’s sure to attract attention!)
Water Conditions: 72-78 degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Optimal growth in medium-high lighting
Appearance: Curved stems with rounded leaves
These are another extremely popular plant for most aquariums. They’re hardy, tolerable of many common water conditions, and easily maintained. I’ll warn you, however: these get large. A full-size Amazon Sword when fanned out can be as large as 24″—around the size of a beachball. However, regular trimming tends to help keep it to a manageable size.
Water Conditions: 74-82 degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Growth is best in low-medium lighting
Appearance: Very large, broad leaves. Grows to large size
Other than an awesome name, these plant is one of the most unique you’ll find for freshwater aquariums. You might also see this plant referred to as ‘Downoi’, but they’re the same plant species.
Water Conditions: 74-78 Degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Growth is optimal in medium lighting
Appearance: Detailed ‘zigzag’ pattern; unique to freshwater aquariums
If you read a bit about Crypts, you’ll probably find a few horror stories of purchasing this plant, only to have it completely ‘melt’, or decay, away.
Water Conditions: 72-78 Degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Grows best in low lighting due to slow growth
Appearance: Varied, thin to medium-thickness leaves that grow quite long
This is a beautifully-carpeting plant that’s at home in any beginner’s aquarium, as well as veteran aquascapers alike. It’s primarily meant as a foreground plant, never growing above ~2 inches in height. It grows exceptionally fast, so give it even the most basic care, and it’ll give you a beautiful carpet in return.
Water Conditions: 70-83 Degrees Farenheight
Lighting Conditions: Carpets in medium to high light
Appearance: Short, plentiful leaves that appear to ‘carpet’ the substrate
Tiny aquatic gardens are all the rage; perfect for the aquarist with limited space, or for those who simply enjoy the aesthetic of a scale-model planted layout, with all the benefits and challenges that come with it.
Most people get started in the hobby with the typical 10- or 20-gallon tank because these sizes are widely available as inexpensive starter kits. Those who get hooked on the hobby quickly find that this not enough, and the desire for a bigger tank sets in. For some a 55-gallon tank may be enough, while others lust after a 6- or even 8-foot tank.
Big tanks can be a lot of fun, and larger systems are often more stable than small ones, but big tanks are also a lot of work and are more expensive to set up, stock, and maintain. Whatever the reason, in recent years, nano tanks have become a popular alternative to explore the hobby in greater depth, particularly for those of us interested in aquatic gardening.
What’s a Nano Tank, and Why Bother?
The term “nano tank” is not precisely defined in the industry, and, especially in terms of reef systems, tends to include tanks much larger than the tanks I consider true nanos, which, for the purposes of this discussion, can be defined as tanks no larger than 10 gallons—and some significantly smaller than that.
For years the industry has sold bowls for keeping goldfish and bettas to inexperienced hobbyists. Knowledgeable hobbyists realize that these small containers are not suitable homes for either of these species, as the former are large fish most suited to the garden pond and the latter are tropical fish requiring a heated tank.
In recent years, however, many aquatic gardeners have experimented with small planted aquariums and have found that when these tiny tanks are appropriately stocked and managed, they are actually quite stable habitats and can be maintained for long periods of time with little effort.
Nano tanks have some real advantages over their larger counterparts. They are perfect for displaying small plant and animal species that would be lost in a larger tank, and for those who are seriously interested in the art of aquascaping, nano tanks allow the opportunity to experiment and rearrange, or even add more nano tanks at a tiny fraction of the cost of larger tanks. For those with limited space, nano tanks are an ideal way to enjoy the hobby. A beautiful nano tank also never fails to draw the attention of visitors.
Obviously, you want a small tank and equipment suitable for that tank. One choice, though not the most attractive, is to use the standard 2½-, 5-, or 10-gallon tanks available at any chain pet store. Getting a filter for such sizes isn’t usually a problem, as there are several small external power filters available that will do a nice job on small tanks. There are other small aquariums and bowls available that are inexpensive options, too, so look around and see what you can find.
The larger problem is lighting. Most commercial hoods available for tanks this small simply do not have an adequate amount of light to grow healthy aquatic plants. For a 10-gallon tank, one option is to purchase a regular 10-gallon hood and then retrofit the light fixture with compact fluorescent bulbs. A quick Internet search will give you a number of sources for kits to do this. For the smallest tanks, a compact fluorescent desk lamp on a swing-arm base can be purchased at any home supply store. These provide plenty of light for a tank up to about 5 gallons, and the amount of light can be regulated simply by changing the height of the lamp above the tank.
Much more attractive tanks are available if you are willing to spend a bit more money, however. Several major manufacturers offer complete nano tank systems that have light and filtration conveniently built in. The best of these tanks have good-quality glass or acrylic with no seams to spoil the view.
If you choose one of these systems, make sure you choose one built with adequate light for growing aquatic plants (a minimum of 2 to 3 watts per gallon). There are also a few specialty sources that import small tanks from the Far East specifically for the aquascaping hobby. These tanks range from moderately priced to very expensive but are fashionable, open-topped, rimless tanks with excellent clarity and no front seams. Some are sold with a filter and light fixture, while for others these pieces of equipment are available but at an added cost. Unless you are lucky enough to live near one of the handful of aquarium shops in this country specializing in planted aquariums, you will probably have to order these tanks online.
For most nano tanks that will house fish or shrimp, you will have to purchase a heater. I prefer the very small, thermostatically controlled submersible heaters for any tank that is appropriately sized for them. There are now heaters that fit this description for tanks as small as 2 gallons. Unfortunately, for tanks below this size there are no good options for thermostatically controlled heating.
Don’t overlook other types of containers for nano tanks either. A large flat-sided vase can be a lovely little planted tank. I’ve seen aquascapes done in petri dishes, and even inside a light bulb! Obviously, these smallest containers are not suitable for animal life, but that also means that you do not need to worry about filtration or heaters.
While it is perfectly possible to choose plants for a nano tank that will not require supplemental CO2, the use of supplemental CO2 will open up a world of exciting plants to you. If you use CO2 on your larger tanks, I’m sure you would want the same for a nano tank. If you haven’t quite dared make the leap to CO2 supplementation, a nano tank is your opportunity to get your feet wet. Chances are, once you’ve tried it, you will be a complete convert!
CO2 for a Nano Tank
While most aquatic gardeners use pressurized-gas CO2 systems on their larger tanks, a yeast reactor is more than adequate for nano tanks. There are wonderful small commercially made yeast reactors, or you can easily make one from a soda bottle, a rubber stopper, and a piece of airline tubing.
To diffuse the CO2 in a nano tank, you can either feed the CO2 into the filter or use a glass diffuser specifically sized for nano tanks (again, you can find these with a quick online search if your local pet store doesn’t carry them). Neither of these methods are terribly efficient, but you don’t need a lot of CO2 in such a small tank anyway.
Setting Up Your Nano Tank
Equipment set up on a nano tank is exactly the same as for any aquarium unless you are using a really tiny container. For these very small tanks, you don’t need a filter or heater.
I use the best substrates available when setting up a nano tank. There are several good commercial substrate alternatives on the market these days, and while these might seem expensive when used in a large tank, even a small bag of substrate will be more than enough for several small nano tanks.
If the substrate you choose has a fair amount of organic material, consider using it only as a base layer, and covering it with a layer of fine, well-rinsed quartz gravel. This will save you a lot of early water changes while excess nutrients leach out of the substrate.
Similarly, because the tank is small, consider treating yourself to some of the fancy rock and driftwood that is available. You won’t need that much to make a stunning display. Alternatively, you can collect your own. That way these design materials are free, and collecting them is half the fun. (Use standard precautions when collecting any materials for use in an aquarium.)
Plant Choices for the Nano Aquarium
Because the tank is small, you need to choose plants carefully. It is important that the leaf size is in good balance with the size of the tank—large leaves will simply look cramped and out of place in a nano. You also want to avoid plants that grow so vigorously that you need to trim them every few days to prevent them from overflowing the tank. This still leaves you many choices, however.
One way to go with a nano tank is a slow-growth/lower-light setup based on mosses, small Microsorum varieties, Anubias barteri var. “nana” and “nana petite,” and possibly small Cryptocoryne. While regular Java moss Taxiphyllum barbieri grows too quickly and tends to overrun a tiny tank, some of the other mosses, such as Christmas moss Vesicularia montagnei, and other decorative mosses such as flame moss and weeping moss, grow more slowly and are very beautiful. There are also a number of species in the genus Fissidens that are wonderful accents in a nano tank.
For a brighter look, dwarf hairgrass Eleocharis acicularis or E. pusilla will make a dense carpet without growing too tall in all but the smallest tanks. A tank like this can remain very stable and look very good with very little maintenance for a long period of time.
If you are willing to do a little more pruning and maintenance, there is a whole world of possibilities. While the plants I mentioned above will grow best with supplemental CO2, most of them will do okay without it as long as there is organic material in the substrate. For most of the more delicate plants, supplemental CO2 will make a huge difference.
One of the most beautiful ground covers for small CO2-enriched tanks is Hemianthuscallitrichoides. This prostrate plant, with its tiny, bright-green leaves, really makes a tank sparkle. Other lovely low-growing species to consider are Pogostemon helferi and Staurogyne sp. “repens.”
Stem plants to consider for the nano tank are numerous, but a few of my favorites are Rotala wallichii, Didiplis diandra,and Mayaca fluviatilis. For the midground, Micranthemum umbrosum and Hemianthus micranthemoides are both nice choices. This list is far from exhaustive, however; look through any good book on aquatic plants and you will find many lovely possibilities. Just avoid stem plants with large leaves or extremely fast growth.
What About the Animals?
Whether you should put animals in your nano tank is dependent on the size of the tank and the amount of work you are willing to do. In my opinion, tanks under 2 gallons should be for plants only. Kept this way, they will be a beautiful gem on your desk that you can enjoy with just regular top-ups of water and perhaps a bit of careful fertilization. Tanks this small are very difficult, if not impossible to keep at a comfortable temperature for most fish and inverts, and if you are feeding animals in such a small container, you will be committing to very frequent water changes, both for the health of the inhabitants and also to avoid algae problems.
Tanks that are between 2½ and 5 gallons are still too small for most fish, but they are big enough that you can control the temperature better. If they are heavily planted with healthy plants, they are also more able to absorb the nutrients added to the tank with judicious feeding. This size tank can be easily livened up by a colony of brightly colored shrimp, such as cherry red, crystal, or bee shrimp. These shrimp all eat a certain amount of algae, so it’s fine to keep them a bit on the hungry side. They will keep your plants clean as they find their own dinner.
Concerning tanks of 5 gallons or more, there are many wonderful tiny fish that make good inhabitants. Many of these fish don’t do well in larger tanks because they can’t compete well with larger or more boisterous fish. A nano tank gives them the perfect place to shine! As with plants, there are just so many possibilities that I can barely scratch the surface, but here are a few of my favorites.
From South America, the ember tetra Hyphessobrycon amandae is a tiny red tetra that does best in a school of at least 8 to 12, but they are so small that this is fine in a 5-gallon or larger tank. Many of the dwarf pencilfish do very well; a real crowd-pleaser at the moment is the ruby red pencilfish Nannostomus mortenthaleri.
Moving on to Asia, the fish that top my list are the scarlet badis Dario dario and the incredibly beautiful celestial pearl danio Danio margaritatus. The celestial pearl danio, on top of being beautiful, is a fairly quiet fish, and happy in smaller numbers than true schooling fish. A group of six will be perfectly happy. Another Asian fish that is beautifully suited to the nano tank is the White Cloud Mountain minnow Tanichthys albonubes, an old-timer in the hobby. These fish don’t look like much in the pet store, but put them in their own heavily planted tank and watch them glow!
There are many small killifish that are suitable for the nano tank. One of my favorites is Pseudepiplatys annulatus, the clown killie. Any of the blue eyes, such as Pseudomugil furcata or P. tenellus, are also good choices. All of these fish really need a tank of their own if you want to enjoy their interesting natural behavior.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of potential animals for nano tanks. Just remember to choose small fish, and don’t overstock your tank. (If you want more fish, set up another nano tank!)
Maintaining a nano tank isn’t much different from maintaining any planted tank; you just need to think in scale. For a scraper, a single-edge razorblade does a great job. A brine shrimp net is a useful-sized net for all but the smallest nano tanks. For the tiny ones, you may have to make your own. It will be very difficult to remove fish from a fully planted nano tank, but a net is still very useful for skimming plant debris from the surface after pruning.
Many aquatic gardeners use specially designed tools for planting, and while these can be very useful for tanks of any size, they are an absolute necessity in a nano tank, where our fingers are just too big to work. Speaking of hands in the tank, make sure you remove enough water from the tank to make up for the displacement of your hand before working in the tank. Otherwise, your desk is in for a wet surprise!
Water changes are easy in a nano tank. You can use small-diameter tubing to siphon the tank, or simply dip water out with a cup. Remember to do water changes regularly, though. In a little tank, there’s no excuse not to. Try to change 50 percent of the water weekly. If you live in an area with very hard water, this is a chance to play with some softwater species using bottled water. This would be a drag with a big tank, but it’s easy with a little one. If your tank is open-topped, you will need to top up the water in between changes too. You will find that quite a bit evaporates.
Fertilization can be a bit tricky in tiny tanks. If you maintain larger planted tanks, one way to handle it is to do a water change on the big tank, dose your nutrients, and then use water from the big tank to change water on the little one. If that’s not an option, you will have to do some careful math, and either learn how to dose with an eyedropper or make diluted solutions.
If you have used a substrate with good nutritional value, you may not need to supplement much for many months. If you have fish in the tank, the food you give them will also help fertilize the plants. Err on the side of caution when fertilizing nano tanks.
The nice thing, however, is that if things go wrong, or if you just get tired of the way your tank is set up, it’s so easy to completely re-set the tank. Drain the water into a small waterproof container, put the plants and fish in there too, and start over. I have a friend who occasionally runs his small, seamless nano tanks through the dishwasher! I haven’t quite gotten to that point, but it is dead easy to do any cleaning that needs to be done right in the kitchen sink.
Aquascaping interview with Diego Marinelli, a talented aquascaper from Italy.
How did you get into the fishkeeping hobby and what was your first contact with aquascaping?
I want to premise that I have always had a strong attraction to the “nature” themes and “green”, in fact my other great passions are photography and naturalist excursions… About 9 years ago I saw on the internet the first images of a Nature Aquarium and I’m loving it since then.
There are different styles of aquascaping out there (Dutch, Nature Aquarium, Iwagumi etc.), what’s your favorite one and why?
My favorite style is the Nature Aquarium, is fantastic the idea to be able to replay in a confined space a true portrait of nature.
Please describe the most challenging setup that you made so far.
My work “One too many morning” of 2012 that I’ve had a lot of satisfaction to the most important contest was a complex layout. To get the depth I had to work for a long time on the arrangement of rocks and inclination of the woods. To get a natural effect was due spend a lot of time to grow, mix and contain several species of aquatic plants difficult
What’s your main source of inspiration for your aquascapes?
Forests, rivers and mountains from the area in which I live.
Do you have a favorite species of aquatic plant or fish which you like to work with more often?
I have no favorite species. But I choose plants that better adapt to the layout of my project. Many people starting with aquascaping complain about algae bloom and they usually give up when that happens.
How do you keep your aquariums algae free and what advice would you give regarding this matter?
To not see the algae you’d need to focus all attention on the plants. Making sure that the plants grow is the best way to combat algae, so you need to have a large number of fast-growing species.
What was the longest that you kept an aquascaping setup? How many tanks do you keep right now and how many hours per week do you spend doing aquarium maintenance?
Right now I manage 3 aquariums in my house, and other tanks of my clients. I managed a layout for more than three years.
Tell us a bit about the technical aspect of your aquariums, like filtration, light units, CO2, fertilization systems.
I created and managed in different types of aquariums using products from various companies, and getting consistent good results. As I prefer the neon lighting t5, I believe that LED technology needs to be improved.
How much of an artist do you have to be in order to create aquascape like the ones you see in the major aquascaping contests? What skills do you think differentiate a good aquascaper from the best?
The best aquascapers are those who manage to put in their work creativity and genius. But the basis is always a strong sensitivity to nature and ability to convey emotions.
Is aquascaping a big thing in Italy?
Aquascaping is not a big thing in Italy, unfortunately… But it is now in widespread use.
Can you tell us more about aquaproject.it?
Aquaproject has precisely the aim of disseminating information and aquascaping techniques among internet users. For a short time with an online store so you can also buy products for aquascaping.
What are your plans about your future as an aquascaper, would you like to share that with us?
I have many initiatives to be pursued in the coming months. My intention is to bring out the tanks from the shops of FISHES, with the aim to show the Nature Aquarium to people who do not know… I have already made preparations and courses to elementary school children, stand aquarium in shopping centers, during cultural events, etc.
When it comes to decking out a fish tank, a novice might purchase a bag of brightly colored gravel and a few plastic ornaments.
For Dan Crawford, a founding member of the UK Aquatic Plant Society (UKAPS), that simply will not do.
He and a growing number of “aquascapers” are creating underwater marvels that require knowledge of biology and design—not merely kitsch fish trinkets.
Using rocks, wood, fern-like plants, special lighting, and plenty of creativity, they are dreaming up seascapes that would leave Poseidon in awe.
“For me aquascaping ticks a lot of boxes,” Crawford says. “It’s relaxing, it’s artistic, it’s scientific and when done correctly it creates a piece of living art.”
For competitive aquascapers, their art goes on show at international aquascaping contests like Russia’s International Planted Aquarium Design Contest and the International Aquascaping Contest put on by the Houston-based Aquatic Gardeners Association (AGA).
Competitive designs may invoke the Wild West and include submerged cacti, or recreate the taiga of Russia, the valleys of China, or even lost beaches.
Cheryl Rogers, the president of the AGA, says the desire to innovate leads to a familiar pattern among aqua gardeners.
“For purposes of competition, most aquascapers of winning caliber create a layout, grow it to peak in a few months, snap the photos for competition, then tear it down and create a new one,” she says “This is what they do for fun.”
Interest in aquascaping is particularly strong in Asia.
Takashi Amano, the noted Japanese landscape photographer, helped popularize the hobby in Japan in the mid-1990s with his three-part book series Nature Aquarium World.
Westerners have been slower to latch onto the pursuit—and are often seen as slightly kooky when they do.
“It’s a very specialized hobby and because of this it’s rare that you’ll bump into a fellow aquascaper in the local pub or coffee shop,” says Crawford. “Generally we will convene at a chosen Aquatic Shop for a chin wag and a look around then move on to the pub to talk about the latest trends and ‘scapers.”
But today the Internet is helping grow the activity. Web sites connect existing enthusiasts who exchange tips and tricks, and help newbies learn the basics of building their very own marine masterpiece.
Started eight years ago, the UKAPS web site now clocks more than six million page views per month and has 9,000 registered members.
In the online forum they discuss topics like the best water filtration systems, appropriate lighting, why their shop-bought plants are failing to flourish and how to add Java moss to an aquarium.
Sometimes it’s a matter of life a death. As one user recently asked in the forum: “Does copper in fertilizer kill shrimp?
Suppliers are also waking up to the opportunities to cater to the aquascaping community.
Rogers of the AGA says these retailers are helping aquascapers source the plants and materials they need to make their gardens grow.
“Unless you have a local pet store in your area that specializes in our little corner of the hobby, it’s difficult to find quality plants, or new plants, or rare plants,” she says. “So we get our plants from other hobbyists and online retailers.”
Master aquascaping requires a lot more than goldfish and plastic rocks.
Among other things, enthusiasts must stock their supply cabinets with algaecide products that help control green water and systems that supply plants with the carbon dioxide they need to stay alive.
Art in a box
Mastering the hobby takes time.
Karen Randall, an author who has judged several international aquascaping competitions, says that aquascapers approach their work like any other artist would. They have to think about the rule of thirds, areas of negative space, and how best to utilize colors, texture and form.
Rocks and wood formations create the “hardscape”, which is used to support the plants in the aquarium. The hardscape also helps set parameters for the rest of the design.
“In the terrestrial garden, the gardener usually has to think more about the natural terrain he or she has to work with, along with large trees and buildings, and work those into the design,” she says. “In aquatic gardening, the only thing we start with is four glass walls.”
Judging art is always subjective. But competition organizers do their best to ensure fairness and impartiality.
For the Planted Aquarium Design Contest 2013, organizers brought together an international jury of nine aquascapers and aquarium designers from countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, and Turkey.
Judges praise and criticize aquariums in equal measure.
Critiquing “Charm of light”, a tank submitted by a Turkish aquascaper, one judge applauded its use of back lighting and left side reflection.
He still saw room for improvement: “White gravel and shape of small stones is inconsistent with bigger rocks and forest soil layer in nature. I would like to see some fishes or invertebrates in this tank.”
Competitions promote interest in the hobby and give enthusiasts a platform to share their love of aquariums. But aquascapes don’t have to impress a jury to create a sense of Zen.
“You can have a lovely planted tank in your living room that pleases you, even if it would never win a competition,” Rogers says. “Most hobbyists are not competitors. They just like plants.”
Mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus). Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir
By Joshua Wiegert
Brackish-water fishes are some of the most interesting and unique fishes available to the aquarist. At least three types of brackish fishes make perfect addition to the paludarium. The most obvious of these are the various mudskippers.
Mudskippers are small gobies that have evolved the ability to exit water. They are typically found in intertidal areas—tide pools and the like—where water levels vary dramatically throughout the day. They resemble a fantasy version of what we imagine the first animals to conquer land might look like. Evolutionarily, mudskippers evolved recently; they are not remnants. However, they may give insight as to how animals first conquered land. In the aquarium, they may be fed small crabs, shrimp, crickets, and various frozen foods.
Another option is archerfish. Maintaining the archer fish in a paladurium gives the aquarist the potential opportunity to witness one of the most fascinating feeding mechanisms among fishes. When archer fish locate a prey item on an overhanging leaf, branch, or other terrestrial structure, they spit a quick stream of water at it. The prey item falls into the water, where it is eaten.
An archerfish paludarium. Photograph by Abe Schwartz.
Lastly, the four-eyed fish (Anableps spp.) are brackish water fish that have developed a split eye structure allowing them to see both above and below the water. They cruise along the surface of the water, their eyes held at the water line. This allows them to locate surface prey items, such as insects, and avoid predators from below.
Four-eyed fish (Anableps anableps). Photograph by Edward Taylor.
All of these are brackish water fishes, which means they cannot survive in a standard freshwater aquarium. They require approximately marine salt in their water to survive. Unfortunately, this greatly limits the number of available plants–salt and plants tend not to mix well. There are a number of salt-adapted plants, though these are seldom available to hobbyists. The seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) is occasionally available at plant nurseries near costal areas, unfortunately at a rather large size. Fortunate hobbyists may be able to collect some shoreline plants, though check on the legality of collecting before you head out.
The best plant for aquarists to try, however, is the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). This plant has become a staple in the marine hobby, where it is grown paludarium style. Propagules are typically sold and they look like a large green bean. They may have some roots on the bottom, and some leaves at the top. Given time, they will quickly develop into a small tree, which must be trimmed to keep to a small size.
Mangroves can be grown in everything from brackish water to full seawater. Photograph by Nicholas Violand.
Mangroves can be slipped through the mesh of egg crate, though this will restrict their growth over time. More simply, the roots can be anchored to a large rock with fishing line, rubber bands, or the like until they develop a hold. A simple solution is to take a square of hard foam (ask your local fish store for a fish box) and cut a hole through it. Pushing a pen or a screwdriver through it will work just fine. Gently slip the leaves through the hard foam (be careful not to break them), and let it float. Once anchored, the foam can just be cut away, or the holes simply widened to allow growth.
Despite rumors to the contrary, mangroves can be grown in pure saltwater, brackish water, or even straight freshwater—I’ve put them outdoors in tubs during the summer.
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!
Jeff Senske’s (Aquarium Design Group) 90-gallon rimless aquarium features his signature hardscape-only design. He chose to use wild discus, penguin tetras, and gold tetras. Be sure to check out his articles on how he set up this tank. And here’s a gorgeous video by Jeff of the entire aquascaping process.
Photograph by Jeffrey Senske, Aquarium Design Group.
Goldfish are arguably the most popular fish for beginners, but few people know how to set up a truly spectacular tank for them. Jeffrey Senske, of Aquarium Design Group, found creating a layout for fancy goldfish to be a particularly daunting task—one he hadn’t succeeded in doing until now.
Given that goldfish are messy eaters and produce large amounts of waste, a primary requirement for any successful tank was that it must be easy to maintain. Another notable feature is that, since goldfish are herbivorous, plants could not be included in the aquarium. Jeffrey found that using sand for the substrate and river rocks for the hardscape created a simple, clean look, that was still easy to clean, to compliment his variety of fancy goldfish.