A Basic Approach to the Natural Planted Aquarium--Part One
A Basic Approach to the Natural Planted Aquarium—Part One
For those considering their first planted tank, the varying methods and advice can be daunting. But setting up and maintaining a thriving planted aquarium need not be expensive nor difficult. In this series of four articles I shall describe the simple basics—water parameters, substrate, and plant requirements (Part One), nutrients (Part Two), filtration (Part Three), and lighting and maintenance (Part Four)—that I have used for more than 15 years to create and maintain aquaria like those shown in the photos of my South American and SE Asian aquascapes.
This approach is basically low-tech, although I also like to use the term “natural” because it takes advantage of nature rather than significant intervention by the aquarist beyond providing the essential elements and minimal maintenance. As plant authority Rhonda Wilson has pointed out, while we cannot make an exact representation of nature in our home aquarium, we can try to get closer, and the low-tech approach is the way. The vast majority of available aquarium plants will grow quite well under this method, though some will exhibit slower growth than they would in a high-tech tank. The lighting is not as intense and there is no CO2 (carbon dioxide) diffusion, and nutrient fertilization is minimal.
Water parameters: In their natural habitat, most aquarium plants occur in soft slightly acidic water. However, they are for the most part quite adaptable to moderately hard and slightly basic water. If fish can live healthily in your water, so should most plants, although some adapt better than others to different water parameters. Adjusting water chemistry (hardness and pH) is outside the scope of this article. Heat should be provided according to the needs of the fish, and here again most aquarium plants will adapt. Lastly on salinity; salt should not be added to a freshwater aquarium unless it is needed for purposes of specific medication. Relatively low levels of salt are detrimental to many plants.
Substrate: Options for the substrate include aquarium or landscape decorative gravel, sand, soil covered by a layer of fine gravel, or one of the specific plant substrates. Plants will grow in any of these, but some are less risky than others; I currently have tanks using all of those mentioned except for soil, and as soil can cause significant issues I do not recommend it if this is your first planted tank.
Regular (inert) aquarium gravel is preferred by the majority of planted tank authors. Particle size is important. If too large, water will pass through too easily, removing nutrients from the plant roots, and debris may collect and decompose. If too fine, the substrate may compact, preventing adequate movement of oxygen and nutrients and damaging the roots of the plants; this is the danger with sand, and if sand is used the depth of the substrate should not be more than 2 or 2.5 inches. A gravel particle size of 1 to 2 millimetres is best; it provides good anchorage for plant roots and it encourages good aerobic and anaerobic bacteria colonies with less chance of compacting. It should not exceed 4 or 5 inches, and this can be restricted to those rear areas where plants like the larger Echinodorus (swords) with more extensive root systems will be planted.
Choose a natural or dark colour; not only will the plants look better, so will the fish. Most of the fish in planted tanks are “forest fish” that occur in habitats having a dark substrate and dim light, and they will both feel “at home” and display their best colouration in such an environment. A white or "bright" substrate will cause many fish stress.
Enriched substrates can sometimes benefit, but are useless with respect to plants that are not substrate rooted. Floating plants, most stem plants, and plants that affix their roots to wood and rock will not benefit from nutrients in the substrate. Substrate-rooted plants such as Echinodorus (swords), Cryptocoryne (crypts), Aponogeton, Vallisneria, Sagitarria, etc., will benefit and show somewhat faster growth, but since all nutrients must be dissolved in the water before they can be assimilated by roots, this is not essential. With plain gravel or sand, substrate fertilization in the form of tablets or sticks is useful for heavy feeders like Echinodorus and Cryptocoryne, but even this is not mandatory for healthy, lush plants.
Aquatic Plant Requirements: Aquatic plants require light and nutrients; if these are adequate [= available in the amount needed by the plant] and in balance with each other, the plants will flourish. Botanists refer to “Liebig’s Law of Minimum” which states that plant growth will be limited by the factor necessary for growth that is least available. When one required factor is missing, not only will the plants cease to grow, but the chances are that algae will take advantage. In a well planted balanced aquarium, algae will often be present but will seldom if ever be a problem. Balance is the key: keep everything in balance, and the plants will use the light and nutrients before algae have the chance.
In Part Two, nutrients will be discussed in more detail.
 Rhonda Wilson, “Low-Tech Tanks” in her column “The Planted Tank,” Tropical Fish Hobbyist, December, 2005.
 Karen Randall, “Equilibrium in Planted Aquaria,” Aquarium USA 1998, pp. 26-33.
hey this is great, thanks so much!
Very nice article! Thank you so much!
Great Write up it has gave me a good starting point about my 55gal live plant setupp thanks
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