Entering into the World of Aquascaping
The UK aquarium hobby has seen a surge of interest in recent years of the art of aquascaping. Aquascaping is best described as underwater gardening, with an artistic eye on the composition of the layout of the plants and decor. There are many styles of aquascaping that have developed globally. In Holland, the classic ‘Dutch Style’ focuses on layers of different coloured plants. Japanese styles, popularised by Takashi Amano in the 1990s, often gave focus to the hardscape (rock or wood used in the aquarium) to recreate a miniature non-aquatic scene. Carpeting plants would be used to recreate lawns and rocks used to create mountains. The thread that binds all aquascapes together, however, is the planting and care of aquarium plants.
What plants do I choose?
Choosing the right species of aquarium plants is an important step in planning a new aquascape. Aquarium plants can usually be categorised in to one of six groups:
- Background - Plants that will grow fast and tall are best placed here. Species include Hygrophila, Vallisneria, Echinodorus, Hydrocotyle, Aponogeton and Ludwigia.
- Midground - Mid-ground plants tend to grow to a medium height. These provide a good intermediate plant between foreground and background. Species include Alternanthera, Pogostemon, Rotala and Cryptocoryne.
- Foreground - These species are also referred to as carpeting plants. They can be very effective at creating a ‘lawn’ across the substrate and tend to stay low to the ground. Carpeting species include Glossostigma, Eleocharis, Micranthemum & Hemianthus.
- Floating - This category is self-explanatory. These plants do not root into the substrate as traditional plants do but have free floating roots that dangle into the water from the surface. Their leaves sit on the water surface for maximum light exposure. Species include Salvinia, Limnobium and Pistia.
- Epiphytes & Mosses - Another mould-breaking group are the epiphytes or rhizomatous plants. They also do not root in the substrate like traditional plants but prefer to grow and latch on to a piece of wood or rock. These will usually need training on the hardscape at first, using a special underwater glue or tying on with cotton thread. Species include Microsorium, Anubias and Bolbitis. Moss species including Taxiphyllum and Vesicularia are also grown this way.
- Terrestrial - This group has been included as a word of warning. Snuck in amongst the plant offering at many aquatic outlets will be species that are not true aquatic plants. They are often brightly coloured or patterned and this is what attracts many unwitting customers in to wanting them in their tank. If left underwater however, they won’t last long. Species include Fittonia, Hemiographis and Dracaena. While they can be useful in some setups, they are best avoided for true aquascapes.
Aquarium plants can be purchased in a variety of ways. At your local aquatic retailer, there will usually be a glass cascade bustling with hundreds of potted or bunched plants. Potted plants are grown in rock wool material. Used as an insulating material in the construction industry, rock wool has since proven to be a successful growing medium. In the hydroponics industry, it's used as it is inerted and has no effect on water chemistry and easy root penetration by the plants. This allows the customer to buy a better-established plant that has good root growth before planting in their aquarium at home. Bunched plants tend to be younger, less mature plants, with lesser root growth but will be generally be cheaper than pots.
There is also a new trend for laboratory grown plants offered for sale in small, sealed tubs. These are grown in a sterile environment and so can be ‘guaranteed’ pest and algae free. These tissue cultured plants are also grown in a way that means the plant produces immersed leaves. A common problem with bunched & potted plants is they are hydroponically grown - with only the pots in the water. The plants therefore grow emerged leaves, allowing greater light and carbon dioxide exposure in the air. When a plant is submerged after being grown emerged, however, the plant may lose those leaves and begin producing new, thinner leaves better designed for being underwater. In-vitro plants reduce this problem and tend to have accelerated growth as soon as they are planted in the aquarium.
Many aquatic plants now sold in aquatic retailers include a small label in their pot which should describe their basic needs. Look for the maximum height the plant is expected to grow to, to establish the best position for it to go in the aquascape. Also check out their requirements for best growth (CO2, light), as some plants are easier to grow than others. Many labels will simplify this by categorising plants into ‘easy’, ‘moderate’ and ‘difficult/advanced’ species.
How do I plant them in my aquarium?
Every hobbyist tends to have their own method for planting in the aquarium, and it is difficult to argue which ones are right and wrong. Potted plants, for instance, can safely be left in their pots and rock wool medium in the aquarium. The extra weight of the pot will help stop the plants from being uprooted and float to the surface. But unless there is a substrate depth of 5cm or more, the pot will remain exposed and may look unsightly.
If it is more desirable to remove the plant from its pot, the best method is to carefully prise the rock wool away from the roots under running water, trying to prevent too much damage to the delicate roots in the process. Bunched plants, of course, won’t have this problem and removing their weights is less of a complicated issue.
Tissue cultured plants need removing from their pots and gently rinsing under running water to remove the growing-medium jelly from their roots. The plant mass can then be separated into multiple clumps ready for planting.
Planting ‘bare’ plants usually requires the use of aquascaping tools. Using a pair of stainless-steel plant tweezers allows accurate planting and minimal disruption when placing into the substrate. More often than not, if attempting to place plants in the substrate by hand, the plant has reached the surface before your hand has left the water! This is due to the void and subsequent displacement of substrate left by the fingers, which is greatly reduced by using a narrow pair of tweezers!
Substrate choice also plays an important factor in planting. There has never been a better variety of aquarium substrates available on the market and, for long-term plant care, some thought should be given to the choice of substrate used. Traditionally, for excelling plant growth, a soil-based substrate was used underneath a layer of inert gravel or sand. The plants would be planted in the gravel / sand and their roots would eventually grow down into the bottom soil layer. This is still used today as it allows a greater choice of visible substrate on offer (colour, grain size). Many soils quote a life span of 5 years before needing replenishment. Japanese style soils are proving a great alternative substrate for planted aquariums. The granular style soil allows easy root penetration and porous structure allows optimum water flow and colonisation of nitrifying bacteria. Many will also have an acidifying effect on the water, slightly lowering the pH values which many plants, fish and shrimps will appreciate. Their lifespan, however, is usually less than 5 years.
How do I feed and maintain my aquarium plants?
For healthy growth, aquatic plants need feeding just like fish do! This is overlooked by many hobbyists and all-to-often plants are simply repurchased once they’ve died off after a couple of weeks.
To improve plant growth and health, there are 4 main things to consider:
1) Plant fertiliser
2) Carbon dioxide
3) Plant substrate
4) Correct lighting
Liquid plant food, such as NT Labs - Plant Boost, is an easy to apply, comprehensive plant food that provides all essential trace elements that are removed by growing plants. It is also high in iron, which is a significant plant nutrient and is not naturally found in high concentrations in tap water and cannot be replenished by water changing alone.
Aquatic plants, like all plant species, absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) as part of photosynthesis to produce its own food. Under water, CO2 is in lower concentrations than in the air, so aquatic plants often need extra CO2 to remain healthy. CO2 can be injected via pressurised systems, or liquid carbon alternatives are readily available. NT Labs Liquid CO2 Boost provides an easily dosed method of increasing dissolved carbon without any extra equipment needed. This is best used in conjunction with Plant Boost as dosing CO2 alone will increase growth, but without the correct food will not grow healthily.
Along with the previously discussed substrates, good lighting is vital too. Lighting technology for aquaria has come along inleaps and bounds in recent years making iit ever easier to provide the right environment for aquarium plants. In the perfect setup, aquarium plants will rapidly photosynthesise releasing their oxygen into the water. This photosynthesis can occur at such a rapid rate that rather than dissolving into the water, the oxygen produced by the plants will pour out of the leaves as a string of fine bubbles. This phenomenon, known as ‘pearling’, lets you know your plants are doing well and add that extra sparkle to your aquascape.
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