Live plants are an important element of any aquarium. There are species suited for every size tank and every level of light. Aquatic plants offer many benefits to the fish and invertebrates you keep by providing hiding places, shade, interest and even oxygen! There are some aquarists who primarily raise plants, and others who raise crops with their aquariums through aquaponics. With so many benefits to aquatic plants, you might ask yourself: Can an aquarium have too many plants?
The answer to this question is layered. No matter how many plants you include in your aquarium, you won’t harm your fish. However, there are some downsides to having too many plants when it comes to maintenance for your tank. Live plants are an additional facet to your aquarium that will require separate care to keep them healthy and alive. Luckily, there are plenty of plants that are low maintenance and great for beginners if you aren’t ready to maintain additional living things in your aquarium. There are also plenty of artificial plants that will spruce up your space that require no care at all!
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Benefits of Aquatic Plants
Aquatic plants are a basic component of a fish’s natural habitat. In ponds, rivers and oceans different species of plants have evolved to thrive in almost any conditions. In the wild, these plants are important to fish looking to hide from predators, build nests, and find food. In an aquarium environment, these same characteristics make aquatic plants a great choice for the home aquarium.
Providing cover and shade are important in home aquariums as well as backyard ponds. For community tanks, plant cover can provide hiding places for timid fish as well as breaking up the line of sight for territorial or aggressive fish. In outdoor tanks and ponds, floating surface plants provide cover from wild predators such as birds, and provide protection from the sun. Many fish use plant cover as a nest for laying their eggs. If you are breeding fish, providing them with some plant matter is a great way to encourage them to lay their eggs.
Many fish are herbivores or omnivores, and providing aquatic plants can help supplement their diet. In fact, some fish- like goldfish- are difficult to keep with live plants due to their penchant for nibbling them down to the roots. If you keep some invertebrates, such as shrimp, providing plants is a great way to help them scavenge for food. Aquarium shrimp often use plants to collect debris, algae and leftover fish food which they enjoy eating.
Aquatic plants also play an important role in adding oxygen to your aquarium environment. They naturally absorb ammonia and carbon dioxide from the water, which is immensely helpful in controlling the nitrogen cycle in your tank. As a part of this process, plants also produce oxygen as a byproduct- which helps aerate your tank. If you have a large tank and want to help combat stagnation and oxygen-deprived dead zones, try adding some more plants to the mix.
The Basics: Planted Tanks
There are a few things to consider when adding plants to your tank. As mentioned earlier, there are a huge variety of aquatic plants to choose from. Some species are very low maintenance and easy to care for, while others require special equipment in order to help them thrive. No matter what kind of investment you’re willing to make, you will want to choose a good substrate for your tank.
Pea gravel is a common substrate for aquariums, but can be tricky to use for plants. The larger the gravel pieces are, the harder it will be for your plants to anchor properly. Sand and aquarium soil are great choices for most plants, as it will offer a secure anchor and hold nutrients close to the root system longer. Some even come infused with fertilizer to give your plants a boost! Just like gravel and sand, there is special soil designed specifically for aquarium use. Don’t use any substrate from the wild or that’s not specifically formulated for aquarium use.
Aside from substrate, the other main requirement for aquatic plants is light. LEDs are the preferred aquarium light, and are great for supporting plants. However, you will have to keep in mind the light requirements for each specific plant. Low light plants will be fine with a smaller aquarium lamp, but some varieties require strong light. Lights that don’t cover the entirety of the surface will also pose problems to the plants that don’t receive the light directly- so the size of the lamp does matter. The closer your aquarium lamp is to the surface, the more light your plants will receive- which can help if you are trying to increase your plant’s light exposure.
Since plants absorb carbon dioxide, there are also systems on the market designed to periodically inject your water with C02. This can help plants grow rapidly, and spread to make a “carpet” for your tank. These systems are considered high-tech and require an investment, so they are most appropriate for experienced aquarists and aquascapers.
Once your plants are established, they will need routine care such as fertilization and pruning. Fertilizer tabs are easy to submerge in your substrate and last for a long time. Pruning is also important for keeping your plants looking nice and staying healthy. Prune off any dead stems and leaves as you notice them. If your plants grow so well that they’re taking up valuable swimming space from your fish, that’s another good time to give them a pruning. Scoop any plant debris out of your tank with a net so that it won’t decompose in your tank, or consolidate your fish tank chores by planning your pruning and water change for the same day.
Precautions with Aquatic Plants
Whenever a new foreign entity is introduced to an established tank, it’s important to take precautions. While most aquatic plants are perfectly safe, they might be contaminated with something less agreeable. Some suppliers use chemical based pesticides and other treatments to make their plants thrive. These can upset the fish in your tank and diminish water quality.
Pests are another common problem with aquatic plants. Snails, planaria, algae and other microscopic hitchhikers can hide on your new plants and quickly infest your aquarium. It’s also possible for aquarium plants to carry fungus and disease, which might affect other plants and possibly fish in your tank. To avoid these problems, it’s important to quarantine your new plants the same way you would a new fish. Observing the plants for a week or so might seem inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as an infestation of hungry snails.
Fish to Avoid with Planted Aquariums
Although it’s rare for an aquarium plant to injure a fish, it’s very possible for your fish to injure your plants! If you have invested a lot of time, money and effort in establishing your planted tank, you will probably disappointed to find it ruined by a gluttonous fish. Not only can fish eat your plants, but species that are fond of digging and rooting in substrate are likely to dislodge plants and destroy their root systems. Here are a few of the most common plant destroying fish:
- Goldfish: Although goldfish are extremely popular fish, they are not a good match for a planted tank. Goldfish can be imagined as the cattle of the fish world- they love to graze all day long. Additionally, goldfish grow to be up to 8” long and can mow through established vegetation in a day.
- Plecos: Plecos are another popular aquarium fish. They get along well in community tanks and are prized for their scavenging habits that keep tanks clean. However these fish are oafish and clumsy, and grow quite large. When they are active at night, they are likely to uproot plants as they search for food debris.
- Cichlids: Cichlids are a beautiful tropical fish with amusing personalities. One of their habits is rooting through their substrate. Although entertaining to watch, this practice is disastrous for plants.
Aquarium plants are a fantastic addition to any fish tank- and you can have as many as you’re willing to maintain. There are options available for every size tank and every level of green thumb. Plants provide many benefits to your fish including shelter, food, nest material and oxygen. The equipment required for a planted tank can range from basic to high tech, so there is always an option for everyone. Maintenance for your aquarium plants will depend on the species you have and how fast they are growing in your environment, but all plants will need occasional fertilization and pruning.
Before introducing new plants to an established aquarium, it’s wise to clean them thoroughly and observe them for a few days in quarantine in order to avoid bringing pests and diseases into your tank. Once you have established a planted tank, it can help to avoid introducing fish that will damage your plants. Avoid fish that love to snack on plants, or fish that like to root around in the substrate, such as goldfish and cichlids.