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Low Tech Planted Aquarium
By Tony Griffitts
Planted aquariums have become the very popular in the last decade. They are the freshwater hobbyist's equivalent to the marine hobbyist's reef tank. As with the marine hobbyist's reef tanks there is a low tech approach to the planted aquariums. You do not have to have high intensity lighting and CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) reactor to have a thriving planted tank.
Aquarium choice is important to the esthetics. As far as whether the tank is made of acrylic or glass is a personal choice. Look at the glass or acrylic box as blank canvas in which you can create a piece of living art. Tanks that are wide (front to back) are better for creating aquascapes with depth. Tanks 24 inches or less in height are preferred for planted aquariums, as most aquatic plants are adapted to growing in shallow water.
The type of substrate you use in the aquarium is probably the most important factor when determining whether or not you will have success with live plants. There are many companies promoting substrate for planted aquariums. They come in many natural colors, with some having a natural affect on keeping the pH up. Some plants do better when the pH is above 7.0, while others are perfectly happy in acidic water. Some of these substrates work better than others. Many of these substrate have a natural iron content that is beneficial to plants. I prefer to use a substrate that is more like sand than gravel for a couple of reasons. First it helps keep detritus on top of the bed so it can be remove by mechanical filtration, second plants tend to do better.
As an alternative to pre-packaged plant substrates, I like to use #60 natural sand. This sand is available at some rock yards, and hardware stores. One hundred pound bags can often be purchased for less than $5US. With this sand I inject Seachem's Flourish into the bed with a plastic syringe (available at many plastics hardware/supply retailers). Other brand name aquarium plant liquid supplements can be used, but it is important that the contents have iron (not all do).
The first step to setting up a planted aquarium is to clean the sand in a container to remove dirt and dust particles. If you are adding any large rocks or drift wood to the aquarium it is best to place them in the empty tank first and then add the clean sand around the objects. Placing large rocks and driftwood in contact with the bottom of the tank will help prevent shifting in the event you have a fish that decides it wants to dig. I recommend a minimum 2 to 3 inch (5 to 7.5cm) sand bed. After all the sand has been added, place a plate on top of the sand. Slowly pour water on to the plate to try not to disturb the sand as much as possible. You can fill the tank all the way to the top, or part way up, and then plant your plants. Which technique you use is up to you, but for deeper tanks part way up is often preferred. Once the plants have been planted, I mix one part Seachem's Flourish to 20 parts aquarium water. I then take the mixture up in a plastic syringe and inject the mixture into the sand bed around the plants. This technique gets the plant supplement directly to the roots of the plants with less in the water column for algae to take up. I usually inject the bed every two months or when the plant growth seems to have slowed down.
Filtration can be as simple as a air driven sponge filter or as complex as a trickle filter. I prefer a hang on the tank power filter like a Marineland Penguin Bio-Wheel for smaller tanks, because of the easy maintenance. If a filter is easy to clean, you are more likely to clean it more often. Choose a filter that will turn over the tank volume 1 ½ to 4 times an hour. If you plan on having a lot of fish, 4 times an hour would be best. Little or no carbon filtration is best, as carbon can take up some trace elements beneficial to plants.
If you like the look of plants growing on wood or rock, some great choices are Anubias nana and Anubias barteri, Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus), Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana), and African Bolbitis Fern (Bolbitis heudelotii). All of these are excellent plants that do well under standard fluorescent lights, and they can take nutrients out of the water column. To attach these plants to wood or rock use a 2 to 4 pound test fishing line to tie them on. You can do this before you add your sand and water to the aquarium.
Anubias nana tied onto driftwood.
Some of the plants you should consider for a low tech system are Corkscrew Val (Vallisneria americana), Italian Val (Vallisneria spiralis), Cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), common Hygro (Hygrophila polysperma), Amazon Sword (Echinodorus amazonicus), Cryptocoryne wendtii, Cryptocoryne walkeri, Cryptocoryne spiralis, Cryptocoryne retrospiralis, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris pteridoides and Ceratopteris thalictroides), Aponogeton natans, and Aponogeton crispus. There are many more plants that do well with this type of system, but before you buy, be for warned, there are many plants being sold in aquarium and pet shops that are not true aquatic plants. A good retailer should be able to tell which plants are true aquatic, terrestrial, or prefer an emerged condition (roots wet, leaves exposed to air).
Right to left, top to bottom, Anubias barteri, Amazon Sword (Echinodorus amazonicus), Cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), Corkscrew Val (Vallisneria americana), Cryptocoryne walkeri, Cryptocoryne wendtii, Hygro (Hygrophila polysperma), Italian Val (Vallisneria spiralis), Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus), Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana), Water Sprite (Ceratopteris pteridoides) floating at surface, can also be planted, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides).
Lighting can be supplied by standard fluorescent tubes. There are many opinions on how many watts per gallon you should use. This method is highly subjective, and not one I use. When using standard fluorescent tubes, my recommendation is 1 tube per 6 inches (15 cm) tank width. If your tank is 48 inches (120 cm) long by 13 inches (32.5 cm) wide, and less than 24 inches (60 cm) high, two fluorescent tubes (40 watts each) is sufficient. Generally 8 to 12 hours of light per day is sufficient. A timer is very useful in controlling when the lights come on and go off. Even while on vacation timers can make sure your plants are getting the light they need.
Malaysian Live Bearing Snails are very helpful with algae control and getting oxygen to the roots of the plants.
Malaysian Live Bearing Snails are used in all of my planted aquariums for algae control. These snails have a couple of beneficial affects on planted tanks, first they eat algae, and second they burrow in the top ¼ inch (6 cm) of sand which helps bring oxygen to the roots of the plants. These snails can be hard to find in aquarium and pet shops, but members of local fish clubs often have these snails and often are willing to share.
I prefer to keep plants in water that is between 80° to 85° F (26° to 29° C). I find that most aquatic plants thrive in this warm temperature. Cooler water slows down the growth.
While injecting CO2, and using metal halide lights will make your plants grow very quickly, they are not necessary to having a beautiful planted aquarium. High tech planted tanks require more maintenance because of the rapid plant growth. Gardening the tank on a weekly basis is quite common with high tech systems. As long as it is set up properly, a low tech planted tank can be very enjoyable and easily maintained.