A Wet Green Thumb - Using Live Plants in your Aquarium

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Where I'm Coming From

I have kept goldfish, on and off, for 25 years. Currently I have 3 tanks and a pond with a total of 18 fish spread between them. My largest fish is a year old veil tail who is 20cms in length.

Despite having fish as pets for all these years, live plants were by and large, a mystery to me. However, being a keen gardener and preferring a natural aquascape, I thought I'd dip my thumbs in water and try to create an underwater forest.

Live Plants V's Artificial

They make some great fake plants these days! My first plastic plant wasn't a replica of anything actually found in nature - at least not on this planet! A rather spikey conglomeration, I worried everytime the Black Moors went near it in case it poked their eyes out. Not so today. Gone is the stiff, immovable plastic artifacts to be replaced with soft latex that moves with the current. Virtually every species of water plant is available, even corals (yes I know, corals are animals)

So why buy live plants? It comes back to personal taste. Yes, artificial plants can look real but I know they're not. Live plants also re-oxygenate the water, use the fishes' waste product, and provide fresh food for fish. I can't argue with any of that, I'm off to buy some plants!

What plants should I get?

Well, that depends on what kind of fish you have. Because I keep goldfish I'm only going to talk about cold fresh water tanks - although I'm envious of some of the warm water plants that tropical fish owners have to choose from. Not that I've let that stop me entirely as I have purchased some plants on Ebay that the seller's have classed as tropical. Sometimes I've been pleased with the result, othertimes I should have listened to the seller.

My first plant purchase was a Giant Val (Vallisneria Gigantea) a large species with ribbon like leaves. It thrived and grew so quickly in my largest tank that I was constantly trimming around 30cms off of it every 2 weeks. It grows still, transplanted to my pond and presently 2 metres in length. A wonderful kelp like bed that the fish love to play and hide in.

Bouyed by this success I quickly purchased Hornwort (Ceratophyllum), not a great idea. A lovely plant but my fish ate every inch of it before it even established. Expensive fish food, but boy did those fish grow!

One plant I cannot speak highly enough about is Java Fern (Microsorum Pteropus). A great little slow grower that constantly reproduces. I've attached pieces to rocks, driftwood and ornaments with fine fishing line. They grow roots over the object they're attached to creating their own footholds. The fish barely nibble on their tough, bitter leaves making these one of the ideal plants for goldfish. They grow just as well floating around the tank, one of mine attached itself to the filter. Never plant them in a pot or under gravel, they'll die.

Cryptocoryne (Cryptocoryne Wendtii) - I've had great success with these lovely plants. There are several species of Crypts, and though some look delicate they are true survivors. My fish don't bother them at all. They do enjoy a good amount of light, the Crypts living in one of my tanks bend themselves towards the nearest window even though there is an aquarium light above them.

Banana Lilies (Nymphoides Aquatica) - I purchased 2 of these. They grew like mad, their stems seemed to grow inches everyday as the leaves reached out to the light. I was looking forward to great things from these plants until my fish decided, after several weeks of just looking at them, to take the next step and eat the entire plant. More expensive fish food and increased fish growth. It was around this time that I got my pond.....

What a funny plant Elodea is (Egeria Densa). Put it in the aquarium, it turns pale and the fish strip it back to the stem. Put it in a pond and it stays a beautiful bright green and the fish ignore it (except when I forget to feed them). An excellent pond plant. Grows quickly, puts out loads of oxygen, and is great for spawning.

Water Wisteria (Hygrophila Difformis) is an untidy looking plant with which I've had mixed success. I put it into one tank and the fish started chewing on it fairly savagely. I moved it to another tank and the fish only nibbled occasionally. I guess some fish like it and others don't. I have a large clump in my pond and it's looking a little sad. I think it prefers the artificial light of my tanks to the dappled winter sunlight outside. Still, it is an easy plant for the beginner and if it survives your fish it will send off lots of shoots to replant.

Cold water - but I really love that Tropical Plant...

Yes I'm guilty. Putting warm water plants into a cold water tank. Poor things, it must be like taking a camel to the antarctic. So why do I do it? Most of the best plant sellers will give you an idea of what temperature ranges the plant will live in. Coupled with the fact that my cold water tanks are actually at room temperature and I'm willing to take a risk. If you're not sure of your water temps buy a thermometer from an ebay seller who stocks aquarium equipment. Take an average over several days and then you'll know which plants you can try.

Won't the plant die before it gets to me?

Not to mince words, but yes they can. They can also start to decompose once they're taken out of their environment. Whether your plants arrive in a healthy state or not can depend on 2 things.

Firstly how does the seller pack them? I've bought plants from around 6 different sellers and they've each chosen different packaging methods. I've had plants arrive wrapped in damp newspaper, sealed in glad wrap, popped into a seal lock sandwich bag, and sealed inside a plastic takeaway container. The latter I preferred as it held in the moisture and the plant arrived uncrushed. If you're concerned ask the seller.

The second most important thing is to pay the extra cash and have it delivered via Express Post. Unfortunately for one of my purchases I chose regular mail. After already travelling for a couple of days it sat at my local post office over an entire weekend. What a glutinous mess that was when I picked it up Monday morning!

I have a plant, now what?

Some sellers may have already outlined plant care and conditions in the item description. If they haven't ask them, or do a google search for the species. Some plants like to put down roots, others like to float around. Some can do both.

Many people upon receiving their plant, push them into the bottom of the tank and weigh it down with gravel or rocks. This can damage the roots and stems and kill the plant. I prefer to pot my plants into tiny pots and then bury the entire pot under the substrata. My tanks have a mix of fine sand and large rocks. My pond plants grow naturally in a substrata of soil, rotted leaves, fish waste and tumbled stones - as you'd find on any river bottom. I spread out the roots and push the soil over them. Pond plants can also be potted. Floating plants can be left to float around giving the fish a feeling of security against any predators lurking above them. Or you can attach them to an ornament, this keeps your plants where you can see them and makes your ornament look more natural.

What else do I need to know?

Only that I'm not a qualified expert in plant or fish care, but I do believe there's a great deal to learn from hands on experience. Don't be afraid to try out something different, I know someone who grows bamboo in her fish tank. I will add to this guide from time to time as I purchase new plants, I'll also put some photos up of my tanks so you can see my plants (and fish) growing. I hope this guide has been helpful to some of you : )


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