Get a greener start with plants

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Many of us are threatened by greenery, yet attracted to the lush growth of other peoples’ aquascapes. Pete Cookson explains that setting up a planted tank needn’t be hard.

Adding live plants to your aquarium is not only visually appealing, but also brings with it a host of additional benefits, including cleaner water and added security for the tank’s fishy inhabitants and their young.

If your aim is to create an authentic looking underwater world, then avoiding the plastic, man-made greenery (or purplery with yellow polkadots) is essential. However, there is more to successfully growing aquatic plants than simply picking the prettiest species and hoping for the best. Just as with house plants, aquatic plants have specific care requirements. For example, adding something like Hemianthus callitrichoides ‘Cuba’ — which demands bright light and high CO2 levels — to a dull aquarium with a gravel substrate and no supplementary CO2 will certainly end in the plant’s rapid demise. 

Experiences like these lead many hobbyists to conclude that live plants just aren’t for them, or that perhaps there is something intrinsically ‘anti-plant’ about their water. 

The trick to successfully keeping plants, not only alive but also thriving, is to select plants suitable for your setup, and a low-tech aquarium can be enhanced greatly with the addition of easy to grow species which will flourish in these conditions. 

If you’re like the majority of aquarium owners and have a tank running stock lighting, with no CO2 injection, and inert sand or gravel substrates, you may have had little luck with live plants in the past. But there are several beautiful species which can be added.

Plants which have adapted to attach themselves to wood or rocks are particularly well suited for aquariums were the substrate may not be optimal for their root systems — such as large or coarse gravel. Bucephalandra sp. is a plant rapidly growing in popularity, and for good reason. This stunning little genus, of which there are several species, originates from the rainforests of Borneo and can be attached to décor using aquascaping glue or tied in place using thread. The colours range from the leafy green of Bucephalandra sp. ‘Wavy Green’ to the deep blues and purples of Bucephalandra ‘Kedagang’ and ‘Brownie Ghost’. 

Other plants like this to consider would be Java Fern, Leptochilus pteropus. A planted aquarium classic which, given time, can boast a stunning ‘bush’ of long green leaves. They can even be purchased with their root systems already firmly anchored onto a piece of bogwood. Simply position it in your established aquarium and enjoy.

Anubias species also prefer lower light conditions. In fact, if given too much light they will become susceptible to algae. Plant them amongst shaded wood branches to fill gaps and create the perfect safe retreat for timid fish.

Sand substrates

With the abundance of specialised planted aquarium substrates on the market, you can be forgiven for thinking that inert sand won’t cut the mustard for anything that’s alive and green. While it’s certainly not optimal, there are some very attractive and easy to grow plants which will take to a life in sand moderately well. 

Hygrophila polysperma is a tall and fast-growing species which can thrive planted into sand. As with all new plants, ensure that it’s removed from the pot it came in and that the rockwool growing medium is discarded, then bury the roots into the sand using aquascaping tweezers. To give it a nutritional boost, consider adding root fertilisation tabs. These can be pushed deep into the substrate around the planting area.

Some other plants which can successfully be grown in sand include Cryptocoryne sp., Vallisneria, and with the addition of root fertilization, Amazon Swords.

Strategy — make plants the focus of your tank

To make the plants the main feature in your aquarium, you want to invest in a good quality, plant specific substrate, a higher output light unit, liquid plant fertilisers and even a
CO2 injection system. I must stress, these items are not necessary to add some lush greenery to your aquarium, but if the plants are to be the main focus, then the extra investment will open you up to a vast array of wonderful greenery and really broaden your options. 

If you’re starting an aquarium from scratch, it’s a good idea to make a planting plan. This can be either by choosing a planting scheme the same or similar to another aquascape which has inspired you, or by coming up with your own. Remember to consider how the plants will look when they are established and the aquascape is fully matured. For example, a mixed carpet of more than one species can look amazing for a time, but one plant can quickly become dominant and crowd out the others. Regular and intensive maintenance will be required in this instance to keep things looking just so.

Read the rest of the feature in the May issue, available to read instantly on our digital edition HERE  or purchase the print edition HERE.

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