Easy Plant Care
Most aquariums look undeniably better when they are stocked with a thriving growth of well-established aquatic plants, and the effect is not only aesthetic, but also health giving to your livestock. Growing plants play a vital role in removing pollutants and toxins from the water, more efficiently than any filter, and give your fish a much more pleasing environment to live in. In addition to this, when fish are able to nibble continuously at leaves and the algae and organisms which live upon them, they receive a more varied and frequent diet, resulting in improved health and colour.
Success and failure
Unfortunately, many fish keepers have problems keeping plants successfully, and those which fail often end up considering plants too difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to replace and so eventually give up entirely. It is possible however, to keep plants successfully without learning any of the ins and outs of nutrient supplies, carbon dioxide systems, light spectrums, photosynthesis, and all of that complicated malarkey which goes with it. I should make it clear here however, that the best displays, and proper plant care does rely on learning these things, but in this article the aim is to just get plants growing in the easiest and least technical way possible for the benefit of all the fish and aquariums out there without expert carers. Notice that the emphasis is on growing plants, not just having them, since it is the healthy growth of plants which has benefits, and simply having plants and replacing them every few weeks does not count.
Golden rule number one - Strong light
There are two essential things you will need for growing plants, and assuming you do not have the knowledge to work around these, without them failure is almost inevitable - Strong light and correct substrate (gravel). With regards to lighting, normal fluorescent tubes on their own are bordering on unsuitable since they simply do not have enough punch to provide all your plants with the light-energy they need. What you really need is something a bit more powerful, and T5 fluorescents, which have seen an upsurge in availability in the last few years, are ideal. Most reasonably sized aquariums can be adapted to fit some form of T5 tubes and for Juwel aquariums, which are widely used, Arcadia make a product which will fit nicely as a replacement T5 light unit for Juwels, and many other tanks. You can also get overhead luminaries housing T5's that will fit on any rectangular aquarium, providing you remove the hood and have a cover slide instead. Be prepared to fork out a bit of expense for these lights, but in the long run they could save you money through not spending masses on plants and extras. If there is no possible way you can replace your standard fluorescents then the best you can do is change your tube for a high intensity or full-spectrum tube, add reflectors and make sure any cover slides are cleaned weekly to maximise the amount of light passing through.
Golden rule number two - Good substrate
This is where most fish keepers fail with plants. A basic substrate of 'pea gravel', round stones about 3mm upwards, is of no use to plants except to keep them in position and coloured gravel is even worse (and looks horribly unnatural) What plants need is a fine, lime-free, substrate which is loaded with available nutrients, without this they simply starve. I will avoid discussing the technical details of substrate for this article, but a good basic substrate should consist of 1-2mm grade quartz or lime free gravel at between 4-7cm depth. In addition to this should be added a nutrient rich additive that can be either sandwiched between the substrate or mixed in with the bottom half (not in the top layer where the nutrients will be oxidised). Avoid using larger gravels, except possibly for a very thin top layer, and avoid sand at all costs unless you know exactly how to maintain it correctly. Trying to solve a plant growing problem by going down every possible avenue is useless if the substrate is not suitable, however, it is very difficult to change once the aquarium is up and running, and this is why many fish keepers have no luck with plants.
What about all the other stuff?
Just strong light and good substrate? Surely it can't be as easy as that can it? Well actually, yes it is, but only because with this method we are not looking to keep difficult plants, or create truly stunning aquascapes, just to achieve a healthy growth of popular plant species. Sticking to hardy and popular species such as vallisneria, cryptocoryne, hygrophila and so on, you will not need any of the tricky extra stuff to get your plants established and thriving. Nutrients and carbon dioxide will be available in sufficient supply if you have a well stocked selection of fish, which will provide all your plants need from their waste products. You will need to carry out a little bit of trial and error to find out which species do well in your particular tank, but apart from that, you should be able to get your plants growing with hardly any intervention.
A few notes on water conditions
Keeping plants without knowing too much about them seems to work best in slightly harder water, thankfully, most people in the UK do have hard water, but if you live in a soft water area it may be worth experimenting with adding minerals to your water, providing it suits the fish you keep. Hardy plants also seem to thrive if there is a slight level of nitrates in the water so it can sometimes be better to reduce the amount of water changes you carry out, even going as low as about 20% per month. External filtration seems to be much better than internal filtration for plants, and providing the flow rate remains strong (i.e. not reduced) keeping maintenance to a minimum also helps. This may be because the processes that break down a build up of waste products in the filter also provide the plants with essential nutrients. You can only reduce things like water changes and filter maintenance when you have a healthy plant population, since the plants will partially carry out the roles of these essential practices.
The aquarium above is one of my own, residing in the living room and much more watchable than the television. The tank measures 90x45x45cm and has good lighting provided by four T5 tubes and a substrate as outlined above. Whilst not quite up to the standard of the best planted tanks, for a low maintenance setup suited to the fish and pleasing on the eye, it is more than adequate. After running for three years the tank has never had carbon dioxide, fertilisers, or any chemicals other than a de-chlorinator with water changes (carried out monthly at about 15%) The plants in this tank need to be trimmed back on a regular basis, removing roughly about 20% of the plant material due to strong growth, including the removal of around 4-5 lily leaves (which are flowering regularly) the size of a large hand every month. In addition to this the fish are mainly reasonably sized barbs and rainbowfish, who regularly tear up the plants, and even with this abuse I have not added a new plant for around six months. As a professional fish keeper, I do enjoy testing out new theories and keeping different species, but that is kept for my other tanks, for a nice easy life, this aquarium is ideal for the living room and proves that it is possible to keep thriving plants with very little effort, so now you have no excuses!