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Creating Your Own Live Rock


Photographer: Richard Aspinall

A sustainable way of using live rock in a marine tank is to create your own. One reefer offers a step-by-step guide to forming the perfect pieces for your tank.

Live rock is readily available in stores and online, but there are some compelling reasons to try creating your own live rock structure. Making your own live rock can certainly save a whole load of cash, and it allows you to fabricate some structures and shapes that are hard to get hold of. It also reduces the pressure on areas where rock is harvested.

There is a tendency to really stretch your artistic muscles when making structures for your aquascape, but when possible, try to mimic real reefs and genuine coral formations to avoid the artificial look.

Having the ability to create small arches and more sculpted components that will fit together easily is also a great reason to make your own live rock. With the increasing popularity of nano systems these days, homemade live rock structures can offer more delicate constructions that still allow for an open aquascape replete with holes and crevices.

The process of making live rock is fairly straightforward. Mix the components, shape the rock, and allow it to dry. Cure in fresh water, add to an existing system to acquire the bacterial colonies necessary, and then add to a new or existing system.


This process yields what is, in effect, concrete. Concrete contains three principal ingredients: cement, water, and aggregate. In this case, our cement is ordinary white Portland cement available from any building store.

Our aggregate needs to be a mix of crushed coral, aragonite, coral sand, crushed sea shell, or oyster grit, in any combination. But best results are obtained if a good balance is maintained between larger and smaller particles.

Where this process differs from making concrete is the addition of rock salt. Coarse rock salt can be bought at some feed supply stores or (more expensively) from the supermarket. The addition of salt means that over time, as the salt dissolves during curing (we’ll come to this in a moment), small spaces in the rock are created. These are ideal for bacterial colonization and mimic the structure of real live rock.

Mixing is easy. I prefer a ratio of three parts aggregate to one part cement, which should be mixed with water to make a thick, oatmeal-like consistency. Take care not to breathe the cement dust, and wear breathing protection. Only when it’s ready for molding do you add the salt. This stops the salt from dissolving immediately.

Forming Your Live Rock

Once the salt is in, you can start having some fun. A good tip is to make the structure by scooping your mixture onto a bed of coral sand to harden. For good three-dimensional shapes, you can make hollows in this sand bed and place newly fashioned rocks over the holes or into the cavity to create shapes with depth. I should add that you should wear gloves at this point, as cement can be very corrosive to your skin. As you build up your structures, place extra sand around the rocks to support them and stop them from slumping and losing their nicely shaped structure.

It is tempting to try to create even more realism by sticking pieces of broken coral into your new rocks. This can work, but it can also look very fake. If you want this look, you may be better off using your DIY rocks as base rock, and then adding some real branching live rock to your aquascape later on.

It’s also very useful to make smaller components for fragging, such as small domes and mounds onto which you might attach zoanthid frags to create attractive dome colonies or perhaps some shallow, slightly stretched bowls, which are great for clams to use for attachment points.

You will now need to leave your rocks for no less than 12 hours to cure, or as we say in the UK, “go off.” I leave mine in a shady spot in the garden. If you are lucky enough to have a very sunny climate, cover the rocks in a tarp—you don’t want the rock to dry before the cement has time to work. If you live in a cold or rainy part of the world and are subject to English weather as I am, avoid frost and the rocks getting washed away!


The next step is to make the rocks suitable to be placed into an aquarium, and that requires soaking your rocks in fresh water. First, wash off loose material, and then soak the rocks in water that you change every couple of days. This allows the salt to fully dissolve and the cement to stabilize. When the water is at a pH of around 7.5 and salt content is zero, the rock is ready. This may take up to a week depending on the size of your rocks, but don’t rush it.


Your rock is now ready to form your basic reef structure, but there’s nothing about it that’s live—it’s very much dead rock. You can add it to a new system that will be getting a load of real live rock added as well, and it will slowly begin to function as live rock in time. However, if you rely on this rock alone, without any seeding, it will take many weeks if not months before the rocks are effectively colonized by bacteria that complete the nitrification process.

For best results, your rock should be added into the sump of an existing and healthy aquarium. This will allow it to gather a good assortment of microorganisms and other life, including copepods, gammarus shrimps, fan worms, coralline algae, and so on—it will be a more representative slice of marine life.

I have seen systems set up where hobbyists have sacrificed a household blender to macerate live rock into a paste. This is then added to a new tank of homemade rock or reef ceramic to speed up the colonization process and by all accounts worked very well.

Is DIY Rock as Good as Ocean Rock?

Determining if DIY is as good as ocean rock really depends upon your definition. It is likely to be more environmentally responsible, and it is very likely to be much cheaper than rock from the ocean.

However, DIY live rock will only ever have the same subset of marine life on and within it as the rock or sump it sat next to or in as it was seeded. So if your current rock stock has limited species diversity (bacterial and microfaunal), your new rock will be poor as well. A system-seeding DIY live rock that is packed with life and has occasional boosts of diversity with the inclusion of some rock from the ocean can generate great results.

A good compromise, as I mention above, is the use of some DIY rock for structural elements in your aquascaping or as a base for real live rock that will help save you some cash. As ever, take your time and be patient, and you will succeed.

Author: Richard Aspinall Issue: March 2013

Posted May 9th, 2016.

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The Dramatic Design of Driftwood


Photo Credit: Mike Tuccinardi

The Dramatic Design of Driftwood by Mike Tuccinardi

Over the past 50 years, much has changed in aquarist culture when it comes to developing an aquarium’s milieu. The art of decorating the inside of our home aquariums has evolved considerably, reflecting not only personal taste, but current trends and cultural backgrounds as well. Recently, the predominant trend has been toward creating a more natural look, as aquarium owners seek to capture a little slice of nature in their living rooms. This shift has brought about an enormous interest in natural décor—in particular, with something common to many freshwater habitats worldwide: driftwood.

Unlike artificial plants, resin ornaments, or natural stone, real driftwood can present a number of challenges to the aquarist. However, when done well, a driftwood-dominated aquascape is one of the best ways to create a natural habitat for fish, while also providing an awe-inspiring display for the home.
One of the most interesting properties of driftwood is that its benefits in the aquarium extend beyond mere decoration. It can serve many useful functions, including water conditioning; acting as a substrate for biofilm, algae, and mosses; and providing a source of food for a number of fish. In this regard, it is almost like a living thing that will change over time while interacting with your tank’s water, filtration, and inhabitants.
In this article, I’ll be looking at various types of commercially available driftwood and their relative benefits, as well as providing some insight on utilizing them in the aquarium.

Driftwood Requirements

Although it may seem obvious, it is important to note that aquarium keepers—and the general public—often have a very different concept of what driftwood is. In its broader use, the term tends to refer to the heavily weathered and eroded pieces of dead wood (ranging from small branches to entire trees) that wash up on shorelines from time to time. Steeped in salts and generally floating, this wood has no place in a freshwater aquarium.
When aquarists talk about driftwood, we are generally referring to minimally weathered, branching pieces of hardwood with very specific qualities that render them safe for use in our home tanks. Often, this wood doesn’t even originate from an aquatic environment—and never from saline or brackish water areas. These important criteria, which are detailed below, largely determine how useful or desirable the various commercially available types of driftwood are.
Driftwood must be nontoxic, which should be obvious. Wood is capable of leaching all kinds of chemical compounds into water. For example, many conifers produce copious amounts of sap, which can wreak havoc in an aquarium. Likewise, the bark of many trees contains compounds that can have a detrimental effect to your tank in a number of ways.
Proper preparation can help alleviate these issues, but it is very important to thoroughly research (and often, carefully test) any unknown wood before adding it to an aquarium. Of course, all of the commercially available driftwoods I’ll be discussing are nontoxic.
Though it may also seem rather obvious, driftwood generally can’t be bobbing at the surface if it’s going to achieve its desired effect in the aquarium. Some woods perform much better than others, but there are a few fairly simple workarounds to get even stubbornly buoyant pieces to sink. How quickly it will sink—or if it submerges at all—is largely a function of its density.
Perhaps less obvious than the prior two criteria, but equally as important, is the rate of decomposition. Driftwood is dead, organic matter. When placed in a warm, wet environment, it will begin to decompose. This is a natural process and can be a beneficial one, as it fosters the growth of a healthy community of microbes and, occasionally, multicellular organisms—which can be a great source of food for small fish and fry. But for aesthetic purposes, few of us would like to see the centerpiece of our tank fall apart over the course of just a few months.
Furthermore, any wood that will begin to rapidly decompose when first placed in the tank can trigger bacterial blooms, algae, and fungus growth. Therefore, it is best to seek out wood that will take years (not weeks) to break down, and won’t cause an organic explosion when first introduced.

Malaysian Driftwood

The majority of driftwood purchased for aquarium use is exported in large numbers from Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Durable, dense, generally sinking, and rich in texture and character, Malaysian driftwood is popular in the hobby for a reason. It also tends to be the most reasonably priced of the commercially available types, adding to its appeal.
This driftwood tends to be dark in color and comes in a variety of shapes, most commonly in small, stump-like pieces and root masses. It does not tend to occur in branching pieces, although you may occasionally come across a larger piece with these features.
In terms of aquarium use, it is one of the easiest to handle with regard to required preparation. Like all wood, it will leach a substantial amount of tannins into the water, staining it yellowish or almost tea-brown. If this is undesirable for aesthetic purposes, it must be soaked before placement in the aquarium to remove the bulk of its tannic acid.
I’ve found that heavy, dense pieces will leach tannins for much longer periods of time than more light or slender pieces. Generally, a week’s soak in warm water in a 5-gallon (19-liter) bucket will suffice (or a 30-gallon [114-liter] plastic trash barrel, if you’re soaking larger pieces). If possible, spend some time rinsing off the driftwood under hot water before soaking to remove any dirt or debris from the exterior. A coarse brush can be helpful for this task.
If the driftwood is causing discoloration in the water even after a thorough soak, a few water changes and the addition (or replacement) of activated carbon or other chemical filtration should do the trick.

African Root Wood

Also sometimes referred to as Mopani wood, African root wood is exported—as the name implies—from Africa, where it is harvested from the gnarled root masses of a few species of hardwood trees. One of its most distinctive features is that pieces tend to have a notable dual color scheme—the smooth exterior is a light tan, while the heavily textured interior surfaces are a dark mahogany. This contrast makes it especially eye-catching when used for aquascaping.
African root wood is very dense and often quite heavy. In terms of shape, it tends to look a lot like the roots of a tree, with many interesting whorls and knots. It’s not uncommon to find pieces that create natural caves, which many fish will appreciate. One downside, however, is that it tends to fill horizontal space as opposed to vertical, so it may not be the best choice for a tall aquarium. On a positive note, due to its density, this wood will generally sink immediately even without soaking.
Keep in mind that African root wood has a tendency to release a lot of tannins into the water and will continue doing so for some time. As of this writing, I’ve been watching a newly introduced piece turn a 15-gallon (57-liter) tank’s water tea-colored over the course of a few days. For my purposes, this is exactly what I wanted, but many aquarists (and some fish) prefer clearer water for their display tanks, which is perfectly understandable.
I recommend a thorough rinse in hot water before an extended soak of approximately one to three weeks. If at all possible, boiling can help speed up the tannin removal substantially.
It is not uncommon for African root wood to develop a certain amount of “fuzz” during the preparation process, which may continue even after being placed in the aquarium. This is largely harmless, although it can be unsightly. It is simply a result of opportunistic bacteria and fungi decomposing organic matter off the surface, which will dissipate on its own in time.
To expedite the process, rinse it under very hot water and thoroughly scrub it with a toothbrush or other coarse brush. This may need to be repeated a few times before the fuzz finally disappears.

Red Spider Wood

A relative newcomer to the aquarium driftwood scene, red spider wood (sometimes called Indian spider wood or rosewood) is fast becoming enormously popular among aquascapers. It is branchy, gnarly, colorful, and has undeniable character.
Spider wood varies widely in shape and overall form, from branches to stumps to mini trees. I’ve come across some genuinely bizarre-looking pieces that would delight any creative aquascaper. It tends to be on the larger side, and it is one of the most effective types of driftwood for scaping a very large aquarium.
Unfortunately, for all of its positive attributes, it does come with a few drawbacks. First and foremost, almost all spider wood will float when placed in water. It can take some time (up to a month for some “stubborn” pieces) to completely sink and will require some effort to do so.
I have found that the best method for soaking, sinking, and prepping spider wood is to use a 30-gallon (76-liter) plastic trash barrel filled with very hot water. With all the pieces being prepped placed inside, put a heavy, inert object (a paving stone or large piece of slate works well) on top of the stack so that it submerges and is held in place. A water change with hot water once or twice weekly over the course of two to four weeks will ensure the wood is thoroughly soaked and will sink when placed in the aquarium.
Alternatively, I have used a “shortcut” method that involves attaching the wood to a slate base. Use a masonry bit to drill a small hole into a sufficiently heavy piece of slate. Then, drill an appropriately-sized screw through that hole and into the base of the driftwood. It will sink immediately, and the slate can be hidden by substrate. However, it is important to keep in mind that the wood will continue to leach a substantial amount of tannins into the aquarium for some time.
Spider wood is a particular favorite of some of the xylophagic (wood eating) loricariids, which will also find shelter in its fine branches and crevices. Some loricariids, especially the royal types of the genus Panaque, will chew right through entire branches. Over the course of a few months, one of my L330 watermelon plecos (Panaque cf. nigrolineatus) has significantly worn down a beautiful piece with its rasping teeth. It has a strong preference for the small branches of spider wood, even when offered other food.


Not quite as readily available as the preceding options—but still obtainable for the persistent hobbyist—manzanita driftwood is like no other type of wood out there. Faint in color and extremely lightweight, it is the very fine, spindly, twig-like branches that make manzanita stand out in the aquarium.
Like spider wood, a certain amount of ease of use must be sacrificed for aesthetics—manzanita doesn’t sink, and it is very prone to developing fuzz or slime when first introduced.
In my experience, the best preparation for it is a thorough soak (weighted down if need be), with repeated scrubbing under hot water throughout. I usually use an old toothbrush to clean off areas where a noticeable amount of slime or fuzz has built up, afterwards returning the piece to a bucket to continue soaking. After three to four weeks, even the more stubborn pieces will have sunk and should be finished sprouting patches of fuzz along their surfaces.
Manzanita’s light white color is quite striking when first added to an aquarium, but unfortunately it will tend to darken over time. Having algae eaters in the tank—such as shrimp, flying foxes, or a pleco or two—will help keep the surface free of algal build-up or detritus.
It’s also important to keep in mind that manzanita branches can have some sharp edges. If you keep large or very active fish in your aquarium, they could potentially injure themselves against these branches. Usually, injuries are minor and can heal without special care, but I try to keep the swimming patterns of the tanks’ inhabitants in mind when using it. Allowing plenty of open space and breaking off or dulling any particularly sharp points will help reduce the risk of any problems.

Other Driftwoods

There are, of course, many other types of driftwood available, though they are rarely marketed for aquarium use. Grapevine—widely available for terrarium use—is not suitable for aquariums because it will rapidly decompose when wet.
Ghost wood, another terrarium favorite, can be adapted for aquarium use but requires an extended soak before it will sink. This wood is useful in a riparium-style setup (only a partially filled tank with plants emerging from the water’s surface) because it has a tendency to grow a coating of moss in a humid setting.
Some aquarists even use natural driftwood they collect outside from ponds, streams, or vernal pools. This is certainly a feasible (and free) option, though care must be taken not to introduce anything potentially dangerous into the aquarium. Be sure to dry any driftwood from the wild for some time before using it.

Drifting Away

Whether you are looking to create a striking aquascape or desire to replicate a specific aquatic habitat in detail, driftwood offers endless possibilities for creating an aquascape that is both aesthetically pleasing and distinctly natural. It also supplies benefits beyond just aesthetics—driftwood provides cover for some species, a grazing area for others, and even a surface on which to grow aquatic plants and mosses. It is also dynamic, changing in color and shape over time as it erodes and gradually decomposes, just as it would in the aquatic habitats from which our fish originate.
While not without its challenges, this is a great way to transform an otherwise uninspired glass box into a living patch of nature in your home. Each piece is a unique creation, and with the wide variety available for aquarists, it is no surprise that this form of aquarium décor is growing in popularity.

Posted April 4th, 2016.

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The Foliage Spectrum: Yellows and Golds


Ludwigia x lacustris is a naturally occurring cross between its parent plants, L. brevipes and L. palustris. Photo Credit: Jeff Ucciardo

Color is one design element that can add great contrast and visual drama to an aquascape. In the culture of aquatic plants, this is typically discussed in terms of red plants and green plants—as it probably should be, since the bulk of aquatic plants fall somewhere loosely in these two color categories. However, red and green are not the be-all and end-all of colors in the aquatic plant spectrum. Even within each of these two opposing colors is a wide range of shades and hues—greens come in dark and light, olive and emerald, lime and forest, while reds vary between scarlet, maroon, burgundy, fuchsia, and so on.

In the next couple of columns I’ll be exploring some of the additional colors that aquatic plants can display, starting this month with yellows and golds.

Generally speaking, yellow foliage is a bad sign. In most plants it indicates some form of nutrient deficiency, and starving plants for the sake of color contrast is, of course, rather counterproductive. It’s also extremely difficult to induce in just one plant in the tank for contrast purposes. Fortunately, a handful of aquatic plant species and cultivars offer this part of the spectrum when in perfect health.

Ludwigia Species

Although many Ludwigia species, L. ovalis and L. inclinata var. verticillata “Cuba,” for instance, can display yellow-gold to orange foliage in certain conditions, two species in particular come to mind as being more consistently gold than others, one being a hybrid with the other as one of its parents. Ludwigia brevipes, native mostly to Virginia and the Carolinas, is the species in question. Though extremely high lighting and fertilization can produce orange-red coloration in the growth tips of the plant, its overall color is more of a gold than a red and can act as a foil to both green and red plants. Though not as demanding as many of the more intensely colored Ludwigia species (e.g., L. glandulosa, L. senegalensis, or L. inclinata), L. brevipes does like fairly strong lighting.

The hybrid, Ludwigia x lacustris, is a naturally occurring cross between L. brevipes and L. palustris. Interestingly, its distribution includes isolated pockets scattered well outside the fairly narrow range of L. brevipes (L. palustris being a rather cosmopolitan species between its natural distribution and naturalized introductions), including points along the Atlantic coast between Rhode Island and Georgia. This could be evidence that L. brevipes once had a wider distribution, or perhaps the plant has hopped from pond to pond, stuck to the foot of a goose (I firmly believe this is a major source of so-called “invasive” plants that occur natively in nearby states, but that’s a debate for another day). In any case, L. x lacustris is colored very similarly to L. brevipes, with slightly broader leaves. Like L. brevipes, it will attain some degree of reddish-orange coloration in the most intense growing conditions, but it’s otherwise more or less golden in color.

Both L. brevipes and L. x lacustris are most easily obtained via trade with other hobbyists, but L. brevipes is distributed by a handful of international nurseries.

Ammannia pedicellata “Golden”

Known as Nesaea pedicellata prior to the recent studies resulting in the folding of the genus Nesaea into the genus Ammannia, A. pedicellata “golden” is one of the most spectacularly colorful aquatic plants I’ve ever had the fortune to lay eyes on. Its only drawback is that it’s a somewhat finicky plant with sensitivity to both nutrient deficiencies and excesses, requiring very consistent fertilization. In emersed culture, I’ve found it’s rather prone to both spontaneous and seasonal diebacks, though it always seems to bounce back eventually, no matter how close I think it is to death. Despite its sensitivities, a healthy hedge of this cultivar is positively stunning. The leaves are a bright golden yellow, and the stems offer great contrast with their magenta hue. The colors are even more riotous in emersed form, where the new leaves display bright orange fading to gold as they age, the stems are more red than pink, and the flowers add an intense pink-purple to the mix.

Though the supply is limited, A. pedicellata “golden” is cultivated in the United States by at least one major nursery, and it can be special-ordered from time to time from a plant-savvy local fish store (LFS), online retailer, or fellow hobbyist.

Lysimachia nummularia “Aurea”

L. nummularia “aurea” is perhaps one of the most easily obtained aquatic plants out there due to the fact that it’s not solely used by the aquarium trade. Although it’s a true aquatic, capable of sustained submersed growth, L. nummularia is also a popular terrestrial plant, used as both a ground cover and as a filler plant in hanging baskets and planters. It’s readily obtainable at any nursery and many LFS and pond plant retailers.

Due to its uniquely colored bright, lemony foliage, the cultivar “aurea” has virtually replaced the wild-type plant, which is a more mundane, medium-green color (for those interested, the green version is still available from both terrestrial and aquatic nurseries, albeit in much smaller quantities).

A prolific grower, aquarium-cultivated L. nummularia “aurea” sheds the creeping habit of its terrestrial form and grows as a strongly upright plant with medium-sized round leaves. Though best coloration is achieved in strong lighting with CO2 supplementation (lower light can result in a somewhat lime-green cast to the otherwise lemony foliage), the plant is not particular about its water parameters, and, save for a fondness for high nitrate levels, it does not require any particular fertilization in moderate growing conditions.

As a side note, this plant has the dubious honor of having numerous common names—among them “golden creeping Jenny,” “golden lloydiella,” “golden pond penny,” “moneywort” (which it shares with numerous other species, including fellow aquatic Bacopa monnieri), “herb twopence,” “twopenny thot,” and quite possibly others I’ve yet to hear. This is, of course, a prime example of why plants should be identified by scientific names.

Golden Melon Sword

A recent cultivar developed by Florida Aquatic Nurseries, the golden melon sword (Echinodorus osiris “Florida gold”) was released for sale in aquarium shops in 2012. Its needs are few, much like its original form, the ubiquitous melon sword, requiring little more than moderate lighting and sufficient fertilization at the roots. New leaves are pinkish, fading to a greenish gold as they mature. Though rarely employed in formal aquascaping due to their large size and bulky leaves, sword plants make excellent centerpieces in specimen tanks or casually planted setups of sufficient size.

In addition to “Florida gold,” Florida Aquatic Nurseries also introduced a gold-and-green-variegated melon sword, E. osiris “marble,” in the same year. An interesting alternative to more typical white-and-green variegation seen in other plants, this plant can offer a touch of gold in place of the solid-colored foliage of “Florida gold.” The more established, readily available variegated form of E. cordifolius, “marble queen,” serves much the same function, though the variegation is less obvious in its submersed form.

Hygrophila polysperma “Ceylon”

Though legally unavailable to US hobbyists (H. polysperma is on the federal ban list), this gold variant of a popular and widespread aquarium plant deserves mention for offering golden hues for even very-low-lighting aquaria. A rampant grower frequently used for “nitrate busting” in the establishment of new tanks, H. polysperma is one of those plants that is nearly impossible to kill. “Ceylon” is apparently no exception and offers another interesting coloration from this species (H. polysperma comes in a fascinating array of shape and color morphs—one could probably create a reasonably attractive Dutch-style aquascape with just this species). With narrower, longer leaves than the more common green version of the plant, this is apparently a native variation originating in Sri Lanka, introduced into the European hobby sometime in the 1970s.

As a side note, I have no idea if the name “Ceylon” is a reference to the plant’s origin locality of Sri Lanka (formerly the British colony of Ceylon up until 1948) or a reference to Ceylon yellow, a mustardy gold color associated with yellow sapphires from the same country. Both are very much applicable to this plant, and both place and color names are frequently used in describing variants and cultivars of plants.

Gold Anubias

There is also a yellowish cultivar of the classic dwarf Anubias, A. barteri var. nana “gold.” Though not truly yellow, the yellow-green leaves of this cultivar do offer great contrast to greener plants and red species alike. New leaves are the yellowest, gaining greener hue as they mature (this process is not unique to this cultivar; A. b. var. coffeefolia leaves do much the same, except the yellow new leaves mature to a deep hunter green). A. b. var. nana “gold” is a rather rare cultivar, in part due to its snail-paced growth, reportedly even slower than the already slow-growing standard A. barteri var. nana.

Go for the Gold

With a diverse selection of gold and yellow plants available to the hobbyist, there should be something available for any kind of tank, and yellow-stem species are particularly good for increasing variety and contrast between hedges in Dutch-style aquascapes.

Next time, I’ll introduce some great options for adding purples to your palette of aquarium plants!

Author: Amanda Wenger (Originally published in our March 2014 Issue)

Posted March 22nd, 2016.

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Creating an Aquascape with an Iwagumi Layout


  • The aquatic plants were planted after dampening the mounded soil with a misting of water. Growing aquatic plants over the entire substrate helps to keep the sloping substrate from disintegrating. Photo Credit: Takashi Amano

It is quite evident that the iwagumi layout style has become very popular in the world when you look at the results of this year’s International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest. The very first Nature Aquarium layout that I created was an iwagumi layout as well. However, the iwagumi layout entries in the recent contests have been quite a bit more like a landscape on land compared to those that were submitted in the earlier years. Although the iwagumi layout style in the image of a vast grassy field or the one in the image of a precipitous mountain were also my original creations, the recent contest entries are more realistic and more like diorama-type layouts.

Comparing Diorama and Iwagumi Layouts

Although a diorama-style layout, which is created by using aquatic plants quite skillfully, is worthy of high regard, it can present a challenge as an aquascape in which fish are kept, such as a Nature Aquarium. The presence of fish may not seem appropriate for those that are created quite realistically. An iwagumi layout in a Nature Aquarium is fundamentally intended to include fish, even if it is created in the image of a grassy field or a mountain range. Since the Nature Aquarium aquascape and fish go together well, it is not unnatural to have fish in it. The very presence of fish makes an iwagumi layout appear more natural as an aquascape.

A Nature Aquarium is an abstract expression of nature rather than a practical visualization of nature. Therefore, precisely recreating a landscape on land is not its intention. A layout that depicts a grassy field or a mountain range is fundamentally a representation of a landscape under water (aquascape). Therefore, it does not reproduce a minute detail of a landscape or produce a small tree or waterfall in a layout as is done in a diorama-style layout that has been modeled after a landscape on land. This is the biggest difference between a Nature Aquarium layout style and a diorama layout style.

The abstract expression in a Nature Aquarium resembles an expression in a Japanese garden. Natural scenery, such as mountains, rivers, ocean, and islands, are depicted using rocks and sand in a Japanese garden. However, it is unquestionably an abstract expression of nature. The interpretation of the scenery is left up to the individual’s imagination.

Likewise, a Nature Aquarium incorporates various sceneries and appearances of nature into a layout, and viewers can expand their own ideas because it is an abstract expression. For example, a bush of stem plants under water may conjure up an image of a mountain with trees or a dense forest. However, it is actually a bush of aquatic plants that fish hide in at the same time. The aquascape does not appear unnatural if fish are swimming in it.

Creating a Flowing River

The layout in this article is an iwagumi layout that features hakkai-seki stones, which is a continuation of the theme from the previous article. The first one in the series of iwagumi layouts was an aquascape of underwater scenery with stones. The stones in the layout were also river stones that were similar to hakkai-seki stones. River stones are distinctly rounded. No other stones are as suitable as those for recreating scenery in a flowing river. Such underwater sceneries with stones exist in many parts of the world.

In some places, such as the Amazon, where the water level changes drastically between the dry season and the rainy season, the stones that were exposed during a dry season are often under water during a wet season with fishes swimming around them. The types of plants that grow in such areas are aquatic plants that take on a terrestrial form in the dry season and change their form to a submersed form during the rainy season. In this layout, stones were arranged by keeping the water flow in mind.

Then, hair grass, cobra grass, and Cuba pearl grass were planted after mounding soil around the stones. The hair grass in particular develops thin, long, submersed leaves and enhances the impression of the presence of water along with a school of cardinal tetras. It is a plant well-suited for creating a natural appearance in an aquascape. It sways in the current created by the outflow of the filter and conjures up the image of underwater scenery in nature.

Short-growing cobra grass and Cuba pearl grass were added to the layout, since hair grass, if used alone, can hide the stone arrangement and makes the aquascape plain and less interesting. Planting these short-growing aquatic plants in front of the hair grass keeps the stones from getting hidden too much and enhances the appearance of the stone arrangement.

(Originally published in our January 2014 issue)

Posted February 24th, 2016.

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Nonaquatic Plants to Avoid


While peace lilies of the genus Spathiphyllum are found in humid environments, their leaves cannot grow underwater and, therefore, they are not appropriate for aquariums. Steve Bower/Shutterstock

Despite the sometimes dizzying array of aquatic plants available in the hobby these days, beginning hobbyists still frequently run into the trouble of inadvertently acquiring non-aquatic plants sold as aquatics when they start to stock their tank. The presence of such plants in the hobby is a bit baffling, but their introduction may have stemmed from the earlier days of the hobby when a smaller selection of true aquatics was available and anything new and interesting-looking was welcomed. In any case, they never seem to go away, bolstered by purchases from hobbyists who are looking to put something green in their tanks and either don’t know or don’t care that they’ll die in a month or two.

It is worth mentioning that many of these plants (though not all) are, in fact, semi-aquatic and make excellent specimens for terrarium and paludarium setups, where high humidity levels and water around the roots are par for the course. Many have particularly attractive foliage that provides great contrast in more terrestrial applications.

Nonetheless, should you inadvertently acquire a non-aquatic plant, don’t assume it’s a deliberate attempt to scam you on the part of your local fish store (LFS). Many local shops don’t have plant specialists who can tell the difference between true aquatics and imposters, and an order placed with a nursery for an assortment of plants may contain a few non-aquatics slipped in. If you find you’ve got such a plant, a reputable store should accept a return or exchange based on the mistaken impression that the plant was truly aquatic, and bringing back the plant helps raise awareness of the nature of the species and may aid your store in avoiding future orders of the plant in question.

Bog Aroids

Though there are many truly aquatic aroids, including hobby staples like Anubias and Cryptocoryne (“crypts”), other species occur in wet, but not submersed conditions. Two common aroids mistakenly sold as aquatics are the peace lilies of the genus Spathiphyllum and “arrowhead plants” of the genus Syngonium.

Spathiphyllum are popular houseplants due to their low lighting needs, slow growth, attractive Calla-like spathes (the sheath enclosing the flower), and adaptable watering requirements. However, while they are known to occur in boggy jungle environments, their leaves are never found submerged and long-term growth underwater is not viable.

While the peace lily is the most popular common name for the plant when sold as a houseplant, in aquarium shops, it is often sold under the misleading name “Brazilian sword plant.” While the leaves are somewhat reminiscent of the sword plants of the genus Echinodorus, there is no relation to speak of. Hobbyists are better off purchasing true Echinodorus specimens, distinguishable from Spathiphyllum by the parallel venation in their leaves.

Syngonium are frequently sold in little net pots and referred to as arrowhead plants due to the shape of their leaves. While they come in a number of attractive foliage variants (including pink, white, and a selection of variegated patterns) that may look nice in the tank, they inevitably die off. If you want variegated foliage in your aquarium, try variegated Anubias or sword plants or any number of reddish-pink aquatic plants like Rotala or Ludwigia. For exotic pink variegation, look for plants like Cryptocoryne cordata ‘Rosanervig’ or, in countries other than the US (where it’s banned), Hygrophila polysperma ‘Rosanervig’ (sunset hygro). “Rosanervig” is German for “pink veins,” so any plant with that as a variety or cultivar name should exhibit a pink variegation.

Hemigraphis Species

A few species of the genus Hemigraphis are sold for their vibrant purple colors. Common trade names include dragon’s tongue (H. repanda) and purple waffle or waffle plant (H. alternata). Their upper leaves are dark green to gray-green, while the undersides exhibit rich red-violet hues. Occasionally, new true aquatics filter into the hobby with tentative labels from the Hemigraphis genus, such as the introduction of “H. traian” a few years back, but further investigation into their identity has always led to another species—the aforementioned example turned out to be Hyptis lorentziana, a mint family true aquatic that has foliage vaguely reminiscent of some Hemigraphis species. There are, thus, no true Hemigraphis species known to be fully aquatic.

Alternanthera Species

There are truly aquatic representatives of the genus Alternanthera, notably the various color morphs and forms of A. reineckii (forms include cardinalis, mini, lilacina, ocipus, and variegated). However, a number of bog and terrestrial Alternanthera are also sold from time to time as aquatics. Most prominent among these is A. ficoidea, sold as the hedge plant, cherry hedge, or green hedge. This is one of the most common fake aquatic plants sold in stores, and it’s especially troublesome because, to the inexperienced eye, it resembles truly aquatic plants like Ludwigia repens.

Lucky Bamboo and Its Cousins

Though it may look like a fun thing to stick in the aquarium, the so-called “lucky bamboo” plant (Dracaena braunii) is decidedly a poor choice for a fish tank. Also sold are D. marginata and D. “compacta,” variously known as “pineapple plant” and “green sandy” (possibly from a synonym name of D. braunii, D. sanderiana)—there’s also a variegated version called “green and white sandy.”

Variegated Houseplants

The aluminum plant (Pilea cadierei) is another example of a houseplant somebody stuck in the water one day and decided to try to pass off as aquatic. It does have pretty variegated foliage, which has led to it occasionally being sold as “watermelon Pilea,” but as I mentioned earlier, there are other variegated plants better suited to the aquarium. More or less the same story can be applied to Aglaonema species, sold variously as the Borneo sword (A. simplex) and Chinese evergreen.

Grassy False Aquatics

A number of plants with grassy foliage are erroneously sold as aquatic, which is especially puzzling given the vast selection of truly aquatic grassy plants available for hobbyists. Most common among these is “mondo grass” (Ophiopogon japonicum), a pretty little ground cover species that quickly melts under water. Another example is Acorus gramineus. This species is a pond marginal with iris-like foliage that may last a little longer due to its pond origins, but it’s still a poor choice for underwater culture. Similarly, the rain lily or zephyr lily, Zephyranthes candida, is sometimes sold as a dwarf version of the onion plants of the genus Crinum, but unlike the fully submersible Crinum species, Z. candida is best suited to growing in moist soil or in 1 or 2 inches of water along the edge of a pond. They frequently produce white, crocus-like flowers after storms, hence the common name “rain lily.”

In place of these grassy nonaquatics, try using true aquatic grassy plants like Vallisneria, Sagittaria, Blyxa, Cyperus helferi, Helanthium (chain sword plants), or Eleocharis (hairgrass) species.

Nonaquatic Ferns

Commonly sold as “Borneo fern,” Trichomanes javanicum is an interesting little fern that makes an excellent paludarium plant but not so much an aquarium species. Its foliage superficially resembles the larger Bolbitis heudelotii, the African water fern, which is an excellent plant for the aquarium. On that note, however, not all Bolbitis species are good for your tank—a close relative, Bolbitis heteroclita, does not survive indefinitely underwater, though it can spend long periods submersed and likely spends periods under water during the rainy season in its native Southeast Asia. Unlike the very fernlike leaves of B. heudelotii, B. heteroclita often has trios of leaflets on a frond, giving it a vaguely poison ivy-esque appearance.

Buyer Beware

Ultimately, the best way to avoid the inadvertent purchase of a nonaquatic plant for your aquarium is through careful research—by reading this column, you’re off to a good start! Avoid impulse buys, especially on the basis of foliage, as these plants are often offered specifically due to their interesting foliage (there are, of course, plenty of true aquatics with cool foliage, too). It inevitably happens to everyone who buys aquarium plants, though, so don’t be too discouraged if you do end up with a fake aquatic plant—just stick it in a flowerpot and try again!

Originally from our February 2014 Issue, The Planted Tank

Author Amanda Wenger

Posted February 2nd, 2016.

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Planting from the Bottom Up: Substrate


There are a number of elements to consider when setting up a planted tank—filtration, lighting, livestock, hardscape—but it would seem that substrate is one of those things that especially intimidates the inexperienced hobbyist. With a dizzying array of substrate products on the market and veteran hobbyists that swear by every single one of them, it’s no surprise that it can be hard to pick out something that serves as the foundation of your planted setup. Which substrate is the best? Much like the matter of CO2 supplementation I addressed in TFH November 2013, this is not a question with a clear-cut answer. Ultimately, any type of substrate can work so long as the hobbyist keeps in mind the ways it impacts the delivery of nutrients to the plants.

What Does Substrate Do For Plants?

First (and arguably foremost), the substrate acts as a place for plants to anchor themselves. Unless a tank is devoted to floating species or being used to cultivate plants for a benefit other than aesthetics (e.g., providing shelter for newborn fry or a spawning surface for egg scatterers), one generally doesn’t want the plants to go drifting randomly about the tank—it makes preserving a layout nigh impossible and can clog filters and generally create havoc. Unsurprisingly, most plants aren’t keen on moving all over the place either—frequent relocation of many species will slow their growth rate as the plant takes time to adjust to its new environment every time it’s moved.

In the case of terrestrial gardening, the most important aspect of substrate is the delivery of nutrients to the plant, and a lack of nutrients will quickly result in a sickly or dead plant.

Nutrients take a more secondary role in aquatic substrates, however, because plants in the water can absorb nutrients in other ways. While some plants are heavy root feeders (these are also, unsurprisingly, the species most prone to forming large root systems), to varying degrees, all aquatic plants also take in nutrients through their leaves. This process, called foliar feeding, also can apply to terrestrial plants (some gardeners take advantage of this by spritzing fertilizer solutions directly onto leaves), but aquatic plants are far more efficient at it because they lack the waxy, protective cuticle that terrestrial plants use to prevent leaf desiccation. While emergent aquatic plants will develop this cuticle as they break the water line, it serves no function in underwater leaves, which, by definition, cannot dehydrate.

Stem plants are particularly efficient foliar feeders, to the extent that some forego producing root structures altogether. The most notable example of this in the hobby is hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum), which is found either floating or anchored by modified leaf structures.

Thus, while substrate can be used to deliver the bulk of necessary nutrients to aquatic plants, it does not have to do so, and this is the first point of division between substrate types: those that store nutrients and those that are more or less inert. Further divisions in substrate approaches for planted tanks occur in the method of nutrient storage/delivery.

Author: Amanda Wenger

Read full article here:

Posted January 4th, 2016.

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What a Mess! Hair Algae in the Planted Tank


Hideous, hairy, stringy, matted, algae is the bane of the planted aquarium keeper. It can run all over the bottom of your tank and pull up your carpeting plants when you try to remove it. It can grow in huge nasty globs on the surface of your aquarium, cutting out light. It can fill your tank and even sometimes trap and kill your fish. Of all the types of algae, it’s hair algae that causes the most problems for the most aquarists.

So What Exactly Is Hair Algae?

There are a number of algae species that grow into a hairy nasty mess. It’s difficult to specifically identify algae because there are so many kinds and they can look very similar. New types are discovered regularly, and there’s a lack of good reference materials with which to identify algae. In fact, algae is so diverse that some types are more closely related to fungus or animals than plants. If you think crypts, vals, and swords are hard to identify, try getting a good specific identification of your algae. Actually, your nasty ball of hair algae may contain several different species of algae. For the most part, then, we have to talk about algae in general terms and descriptions.
The hair algae I’ll be discussing in this month’s column can refer to any of the long, stringy, nasty, green algae that can invade your aquarium. Algae is often discussed in terms of its color, which is caused by its pigmentation. Chlorophyll is a pigment whose predominance makes most plants and green algae green. Green algae can have other pigments, but they have more chlorophyll. Even within the group of green algae, the organisms are not necessarily closely related. And even when two types of hair algae look the same, they may not be related, and different forms of treatment may be more effective for each type. You may have to experiment with several options before finding something that works.

Where Does It Come From?

Algae can come into your tank from many sources. Anything that goes into your tank that has been in another aquarium or natural body of water could potentially have algae on it. This includes plants, fish, snails, or any other living thing in your aquarium—including the water they came in with. Fish, shrimp, and most animals will be your least likely culprits. The shells of snails often have algae growing on them. Plants, as well as any decorations and equipment that have been in another aquarium, will most likely have some types of algae growing on them. There is even debate in the aquarium community as to what extent airborne spores might play in bringing algae in to the aquarium. Algae is very small and can come in to your tank from many sources.

Reducing Hair Algae
Manual Removal

The first thing you can do in your battle against hair algae is to remove as much as you can manually. Depending on how much you have in your tank, what kind it is, and if and where it’s attached, this can be a little difficult. If your plants have hair algae attached, you can pull them out of the tank to make it easier to manually remove the unwanted mess. Removing the hair algae will often take two hands, one to hold down your plant and one to pull off the algae. You can also remove parts of the plants that are heavily infested, but you don’t want to remove too much of the plants, as they are the warriors in your battle. Good healthy plants are a key to getting rid of algae.

Water Changes and Parameters

I like water changes as a next step. Most aquarium authors encourage water changes. If you have a problem with the buildup of excess nutrients, water changes will help that. Depending on the water you use, it should also add some micro-nutrients to the tank.

There are some aquarists who believe that water changes should be kept to a minimum in a low-tech tank for various reasons. One school of thought is that the water changes change the chemical composition of the water quickly, giving the algae the advantage, since it adapts to changes in the environment faster than plants do.

Plants like to get used to one particular environment and stay that way. Changes mean their old leaves are no longer optimal for their surroundings; the more change, the more they need to drop old leaves and grow new ones. When they have to do that, they spend a lot more energy, and the old leaves start decomposing and adding to the problem.

But I still believe that regular water changes in any tank are good. Twenty years ago I was in the lesser-water-changes crowd, but some friends convinced me to try doing more water changes. I gave it a try and now believe my fish and plants have done better because of it—so I have switched sides and now advocate regular water changes. I think the benefits outweigh the possible disadvantages. If you do them regularly, they won’t cause huge swings in your tank.

Speaking of water, what’s yours like? In her book Ecology of the Planted Aquarium (Echinodorus Publishing, 2003), Diana Walstad indicates that algae have the advantage in water that’s alkaline and has a high pH. If you have naturally soft water out of the tap, that’s a great advantage for you. For those of us with water like liquid rock, there are other options. First you can purchase or filter your own water. RO water is often used in planted aquariums. Usually it is mixed with tap or several additives are mixed with it to achieve the desired water conditions. Adding CO2 will also lower your pH and can be very beneficial to the plants, but it does require more tank care.

Plant Selection and Growth

Another option—something that I do in the majority of my tanks—is to just grow plants that prefer the rock-like water. Many plants will do well in this type of water, including val, hornwort, swords, and mosses.

Regardless of what type of water you have, it’s always a good idea to research your plants. I can’t tell you how many times people will tell me of their plant-growing woes and then send me a photo of a dying house plant in an aquarium. Many emergent and even terrestrial plants are falsely sold as aquarium plants. Be sure to research your plants and fish before purchase, or be prepared to spend money on things that just won’t work. You need to have healthy aquatic plants to compete with your algae. New growth should be noticeable and should continue indefinitely.

Speaking of healthy plants, another method used to keep aquarium algae down relies on optimal plant growth. Planted-tank expert Tom Barr came up with a method known as “The Estimative Index” in which he states that fertilizers and CO2 combined with good lighting can maximize plant growth, thereby inhibiting the growth of algae. Doses are added daily to several times a week and large water changes are carried out weekly to ensure there are no excessive buildups. Results can be impressive, but this is a labor-intensive way to grow plants. You have to stay on top of it to keep the tank levels consistent, and you will need to trim regularly to keep up with excess plant growth.

Another way to use desirable plants to curb algae is by letting your plants grow across some of the top of the tank or even out of the tank. More plant growth means less for your algae, and plants growing across the top and out of the tank have the added benefit of being able to use the CO2 in the air. Plants at the top of your tank can also provide shade, which can hurt some algae. Just be sure to leave enough light so your plants don’t suffer.

Make sure you have adequate lighting for your aquarium, and replace bulbs frequently. Most sources cite six months to a year as a good time to change bulbs. Ensure that your aquarium isn’t getting sunlight from a window. Often a patch of hair algae can be linked to a passing period of daylight that streams in to a tank from an open window across the room.

Algae Grazers

Good aquarium practices are a key in fighting hair algae, but you also may wish to employ a small clean-up crew to aid in your battle. Several fish and invertebrates will eat at least some species of hair algae. Some of the ones that I’ve found to be successful are Florida flagfish Jordanella floridae, Ameca splendens, and some mollies. Though most shrimp don’t seem to eat the hair algae, I’ve found that ghost shrimp often will. And if you want to try something really unusual, the tiny Gammarus crustaceans will also eat it.

Mollies are often available at local fish stores, but the other fish may be hard to find. Look for people interested in livebearers or native fish; the ALA and NANFA are good places to start looking. You can also check online for auctions or shops, or ask your local stores if they can order them for you.

Ghost shrimp can often be purchased at many aquarium shops. They are often sold as feeder shrimp. They usually do very well in the planted aquarium with smaller fish. They even breed in the aquarium, readily carrying their eggs and young fry under their bodies, and eventually releasing tiny replicas of themselves.

Gammarus and the very similar-looking Hyella are tiny freshwater shrimp. They are easiest to find in a local body of water. They are often in ponds (both natural and manmade), plants purchased at nurseries that sell pond plants, and in many if not most natural bodies of water. Some fish will eat them, but I’ve found that with small fish in the tank enough Gammarus survive. Unfortunately you won’t be able to grow mosses in a tank with these fish, as they see it as an appetizing meal.

A Slow and Steady Battle

You may notice that there are several different methods for dealing with the growth of unwanted hair algae in the aquarium. Often I find that it’s a slow process of making slight changes in different areas with small successes until finally a stable and satisfactory environment is achieved. Be aware that the advice you find is just that, advice, based on personal observations. Because our water is different to start with, we use different plants and animals and have different lighting, schedules, and species of algae, so our experiences can vary considerably. Using your own personal observations, knowing the options available, and being willing to experiment are key factors in controlling hair algae in the aquarium.

Author: Rhonda Wilson

Posted December 22nd, 2015.

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Creating an Asiatic/Oceanic Aquascape


The author’s 85-gallon (325-liter) tank with an Asiatic/Oceanic layout.

Being a professional photographer, I have enjoyed creating aquarium layouts that I believe anyone can build. I feel that I’m not alone when I say I’m constantly thinking about new aquarium layouts. However, I’m a bit impatient about aquascaping. I find it difficult to wait months for plants and mosses to become established before I can truly enjoy the tank’s appearance and use it for my photography.

I see many stunning displays from the world’s leading layout experts in such magazines as TFH. While incredibly beautiful, these layouts are not easily achieved, so I often use some of their ideas and convert them into my own techniques that I can easily apply to my aquarium. The layouts I end up with are not so time-consuming and result in an aquarium layout that is a little easier for the common aquarist.

Photo Tank Influence

I have solid experience with photo tanks, including how to decorate them to get the best background for my fish photography. Quite a few of these photo-tank layouts can be applied to bigger tanks, which can result in beautiful displays for tank inhabitants.

I recently tested this theory with my own home aquarium. I wanted to change the layout for my 85-gallon (325-liter) tank from an Amazon-themed design to something with more of an Asiatic/Oceanic angle, so I approached the layout of my home aquarium as I would for a photo tank.


I wanted to make a lush environment of green moss on rocks, but I didn’t want to wait a month for the moss to grow in and spread. I also wanted it to be a dense display, so I used readily available algae (“Marimo”) balls.

I found it easy to use my fingers to open the algae balls and make a small carpet of green growth. To fasten them to the “Pagoda” rocks, I tied them on with thin fishing line. It is a bit of a challenge to tie knots with such fine line, especially when I needed to tie enough rocks to create an attractive display in my tank.

However, with perseverance and a few breaks to give my crossed eyes a rest, it took me only a couple of hours to complete the job. The clear fishing line becomes virtually invisible in water, becoming noticeable only on close-up photos.

Natural vs. Functional

I used a mix of sand and river gravel, because I think that looks more natural for most of my general layouts. However, since I wanted to put the algae-covered rocks on a gentle slope, it was necessary to put in some filter-material barriers to stop the sand from sliding too much.

In between the rocks, I added a couple of pleco caves. These tubes are not very attractive, and they don’t have a natural appearance, so I hid them as much as possible while still allowing them to be completely functional. I placed them near the front glass so I would have the pleasure of being able to view the cave dwellers.

I already had artificial mangrove roots from my previous setup, but a variety of roots will suffice. I added a few extra details by placing some coconut fiber where the roots meet the sand to give the impression of ultra-thin roots extending from the main root.


My tendency in the past has almost always been to create Amazon layouts, because I love the fishes from the Amazon region. However, on this occasion, I wanted to keep some wonderful species from Asia and Oceania. It also enabled me to get some better photographs of them.

As of this writing, I have had my new tank setup for a month, and it has produced some awesome fish photos. The Rotala spp. plants have grown in nicely, which has inspired me to add a new batch of fish to photograph.

Author: Johnny Jensen

Original article from our April 2015 Issue. To order back issues, contact

Posted December 17th, 2015.

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Setting Up a Successful Low-Tech Planted Tank like a Pro

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.

Author: Lea Maddocks

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Posted November 23rd, 2015.

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Aquatic Gardening, Nano Style


Credit: Karen A. Randall

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.

Choosing Equipment

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 Hemianthus callitrichoides. 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.

Author: Karen A. Randall

See the full article on TFH Digital

Posted November 6th, 2015.

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