Crytocoryne walkerii

This lovely Crytocoryne walkerii will do fine without any high-tech help.



Raising aquatic plants in freshwater tanks is one of the fastest growing areas of fishkeeping at the moment, and boy am I glad! For the first time, products are becoming generally available that make growing plants a heck of a lot easier--like excellent light fixtures that actually supply enough light, good new fertilizing products, and most importantly, a plethora of plants that are now available from a variety of sources. The number of species available now include many beautiful plants that will grow in low or moderate light and less than ideal plant conditions, which means pretty much anyone who would like to try adding live plants to their tanks can do so, as long as they're willing to work within their tanks' limitations and pick compatible plants.

Frankly, I think planting a small tank under low or moderate light, without all the high-tech additives available now, is by far the best way to get started with plants. It gives you the opportunity to learn how to keep them happy without having to make a high dollar commitment or invest huge amounts of time keeping them in shape. It actually lets you enjoy them right from the beginning--and I guarantee you you'll get suckered in and decide you MUST have bigger tanks and more and better plants. Time enough then for the 3 watts per gallon pc fixtures, pressurized CO2 system and specialized substrate. In the meantime, you can relax and learn! If you can afford to make your first planted tank a high-tech affair, with all the lighting, CO2 and nutrients necessary for demanding plants to grow, well--more power to you. But you had better be prepared for the fact that you may be in for quite a struggle for quite a while. On the one hand, raising nice plants is not nearly as difficult as some people would have you think; on the other, however, managing a high-nutrient tank is not as easy as some people make it sound, either. It's not just a matter of adding 3 watts plus per gallon, CO2 and fertilizer, and VOILA, you have a beautiful tank--there's a tad more to it than that! Balancing a high nutrient tank is a tricky task, even once the tank is matured (which you need to figure will take at least six months, and a year is really more like it), because the more nutrients you make available, the easier it is for things to get out of whack, and you'll discover you're growing tons of plants, all right--except that the only ones you can actually see are the microscopic green ones floating in the water. It's kind of like getting your driver's permit and taking your first lesson in the Daytona 500; I really think it's better if you make a few circles around the parking lot first. Trust me, balancing a new high nutrient tank is tough enough when you have plenty of experience; for somebody who's just getting started, it can be the ultimate experience in frustration. Starting with something just a little less demanding will yield you a beautiful tank with much less effort and a LOT less expense, and will be so much fun that you'll be down the high-tech road soon enough anyway!
anubias blossom

An anubias blossom in a 10 gallon--under one 15 watt bulb.

Below is an example of a planted tank that anyone can do, and do successfully. If you have a 10 gallon tank that's already mature and just has a few small fish in it, that's the perfect place to begin. Many low-light plants will do better and start growing sooner in established tanks--there's an existing nutrient base in the gravel that's a big help to them. All you need to begin with is the standard 15 watt fluorescent bulb that comes in a normal 10 gallon hood (replace it, however, if you've had the bulb in there for more than six months), and a substrate with small enough gravel so that the plants will stay planted and root well. You can do this with "normal" size gravel, which is about 5-6 mm, but 2-3 mm. Is better. If you have that "normal" size, you might want to think about mixing in an equal amount of smaller gravel (if you really want to help out the plants, pick up a bag of SeaChem's Fluorite and use that--one bag is more than enough for an entire 10 gallon, so you'll have some left over for another project); you can remove some of the larger stuff if you want, but the average unplanted tank probably needs to have additional gravel added for plants anyway; you should have an average of at least two inches of gravel throughout the tank to give the plant roots room to grow. If you have an adequate HOB filter (an AquaClear 150 is perfect), you're done there, too. All you need to do is go get some plants!

fluorite/gravel substrate

I know, the cardinals and the platies clash something awful. The platies were just supposed to be temporary residents--but I discovered the cardinals were much happier having somebody else in the neighborhood to prove to them there were no giants in the shadows, so I left them there--until I can come up with some other dither fish that matches better!

This 10 gallon has a fluorite/gravel substrate, one 15 watt bulb that I replace every 6-8 months, and an AquaClear 150 for filtration. I don't add any kind of CO2 to this tank, it's not necessary with the plants growing here or at that light level. I do add one teaspoon of Yamato Green, my favorite plant fertilizer, once a week, and I use two Flourish Tabs in the substrate, one on each side of the tank, to help the rooted plants, every three months or so. The plants in this tank are as follows

Front left, Cryptocoryne lutea.

Back left, java fern (microsorum pteropsus).

Back center, hygrophila polysperma

Back right, cryptocoryne walkeri.

Front right, anubias nana.

Front center, Cryptocoryne wendtii.

Center: java moss and African bolbitiis is growing on a small piece of driftwood behind the C. wendtii.

When you go shopping for cryptocoryne species, you'll be happiest if you start with a nice crypt plug; that's a group of plants grown together in the same pot or bunch, and they will look nice right from planting and spread much quicker than single plants will. Plant your crypts so that the line between the roots and the top part of the plant is even with the gravel and they'll do fine. When you first get them, most of the crypts will probably look like they're low growing plants, but over time, many will get much larger. No problem--if you wind up with the big ones in the front, just move them to the back. Half the fun of a planted tank is the way it constantly evolves; the plants are tougher than you may think, and can be transplanted or rearranged as you see fit. Just try not to do it TOO often; give them a chance to settle in and grow in one spot before you try to move them. Case in point:

This is the same tank, taken about a month before the picture above. For reasons known only to myself which I subsequently forgot, I planted that nice clump of crypt wendtii in the back, and the java fern in the front. See, plants really do grow in conditions like this--six months ago that java fern was just one small clump with leaves no more than four inches long. Obviously some rearranging was in order, you couldn't even see the pretty crypt in the back corner--so the crypt and the jave fern changed places, which hasn't bothered either one of them a bit. You'll hear a lot about "crypt melt"--a condition peculiar to cryptocoryne species, where a change in their environment will cause all of their leaves to dissolve away, but generally you can transplant crypts without any problem as long as the light level over the plant remains the same. If you abruptly change the amount of light they're getting (especially if you increase it), they will indeed melt several of their leaves, at least. Even that isn't a disaster, though--generally, after a few weeks, they'll put out nice new growth, and you'll have a lovely plant again. a month before the picture above
None of these plants will grow really rapidly--but if you take a picture when you first plant it, and then take another one six months or a year later, you'll be amazed at the difference. And during all that time, unless you decided to rearrange things, you won't have had to do any pruning at all, except maybe to break off a piece of java fern or tidy up the java moss. If during that time you've kept your filter clean and changed a portion of the water once a week, your plants and your fish will be happy and thriving--even more so if you go the extra mile and add a teaspoon of Yamato Green once a week, and those Flourish Tabs that I told you about every three months.

Other planting tips:

Anubias: Can be attached to a rock, piece of driftwood or other decoration with string, rubber band, etc. You can also plant it in the gravel if you like, but only bury the roots that are coming off the horizontal green stalk (rhizome) the leaves are growing out of. An easy way to do this is to just attach the anubias to a small, flat rock with string or a rubber band and bury the rock most of the way into the gravel; the anubias roots will then grow down in to the gravel. Java fern and African bolbitiis can be treated exactly the same way.

Java moss: attach a ball of it to driftwood or rocks with fishing line, it will attach to almost any surface in a few weeks' time. Java moss also makes a great place to plant java fern--you can just stick the java fern rhizome into the ball of moss, and it will stay right there. This works for African bolbitiis, also.

I guarantee you once you've had a tank like this, you'll want to take the next step and you'll be looking for a larger one and all that fancy stuff we were talking about. That will be Chapter Two!



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