The Joy of Planted Aquariums

The Joy of Planted Aquariums

Keeping plants in the home aquarium is not new. However, the interest in keeping aquatic plants has blossomed into a complete hobby unto itself. You will hear the term “aquatic gardening,” which shows that the emphasis has gone from fish keeping to plant keeping.

A modern, fully planted aquarium is a beautiful thing to behold. The plants make the aquarium look like an underwater forest or jungle. Plants of all sizes and textures are used to create the lush landscape. You will see fish dart in and out of the scene—red, blue, and flashing silver.

You can create this lovely scene in your own aquarium. A little knowledge, a little work, and your own special sense of design will help you create a magic water world of your own. This article will give you the basic knowledge that you will need to get started.

Planted aquariums can make beautiful additions to any home.

History of Planted Tanks

The earliest verifiable evidence of fish keeping dates back to about 2500 B.C. Ancient people such as the Persians, Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans kept live fish for food or ornament. There are many ancient mosaics and other works of art depicting fish. The origin of goldfish may have been in Persia, but it was in China more than 1000 years ago that they really started being bred and developed. Goldfish moved to Japan in the early 1600s. Our fascination with aquatics has developed over a great deal of our recorded history.

The real foundation for the modern aquarium was set in the mid 1800s. The Victorians loved nature. They made nature crafts and tried to find ways to bring nature indoors. They also loved plants, particularly ferns and palms. In the 1850s, the real popularity of aquariums was underway. The Wardian cases were lovely ornate terrariums, and the Warrington cases were their lovely aquatic counterparts.

Fish and Plants
Part of the art of planted aquarium keeping is matching your animals to the environment. Many fish species are not good candidates for a fully planted tank. Many are ideal but may be predators of other animals that you want to keep. You will need to know about your plants and animals to create your perfect “waterscape.” It would be really frustrating to create a salad for a fish or buy that really cool fresh water shrimp and see it get eaten as soon as you put it in the tank.

The aquariums from this time period were incredible works of art. Public aquariums were also popular during this period, and it was during the late 1800s that many great advances and introductions were made to the aquarium hobby. The first aquarium magazine appeared in the United States at this time; it was published by Hugo Mulertt, a pioneer of the hobby. An engraving of the Madagascar Lace Plant was included in a 1916 edition. Near the turn of the century in Germany, Adolph Kiel had 32 greenhouses full of aquatic plants. In Europe, he was known as the “father of aquatic plants.”

During this time, the theory of aquarium keeping was the balanced aquarium. Plants, snails, fish, and other animals were to balance each other out to make true miniature systems. Though popular at the time, this idea has since been refuted. Plants were very important to the Victorian aquarium. Some plants that were available to hobbyists in the late 1800s included Sagittaria, Ludwigia, Cabomba, Myriophyllum, Riccia, Chara, Salvinia, and water hyacinth, all of which are still well known and still used today.

Early ideas for pumps, heaters, and other equipment really began to flow in the early 1900s. A lot of that equipment would be unrecognizable today. It was during this time that the Dutch aquariums were developing and had become an established style of aquarium by the 1930s. Vintage aquarium equipment also developed at this time. You probably wouldn’t recognize the equipment in the early 1900s, but it was starting to look similar to the equipment of today by the mid 1930s.

In the late 1700s, Antoine Lavoisier became the first person on record to keep fish in glass bowls and jars.

There were quite a few aquarium books being published in the 1930s. One of these was Tropical Fishes for a Private Aquarium, which was written by Christopher W. Coates and published in 1933. It lists quite a few aquarium plants and recommends Vallisneria, Sagittaria, Elodea, and Cabomba. He also recommended various Cryptocoryne species “where strong light is not available.” Floating plants mentioned in the book were Riccia and Bladderwort. Miscellaneous plants listed were Salvinia, Azolla, Duckweed, Hornworts, Myriophyllum, and Ludwigia.

As to the chemistry of the 1930s aquarium, the book does discuss the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and pH and the negative effects of acidity on fish. The effect of pH in the aquarium was introduced in the late 1920s. Of course, there was no mention of ammonia or nitrogen.

Ludwigia has been available to hobbyists since the 1800s!

Exotic Tropical Fishes was published in 1938. The book was written by Dr. William T. Innes and is often referred to as “The Innes Book.” This was the aquarists’ Bible for many years and is still regarded as such by many old-timers.

The aquarium hobby continued to grow. A 1953 book by Ruthven Todd, The Tropical Fish Book, shows pages of wonderful streamlined, shiny, metal-framed tanks. Of course, there were also ceramic divers in those large and clunky vintage diving suits.

Equipment has continued to improve, and the metal frames have left. New filters have been developed, as has a better understanding of aquarium chemistry. New and improved foods have been created. New fish and plants have come into the hobby, and hobbyists have learned how to take better care of them.

In recent years, new planted-tank techniques have become available with the use of better lighting and CO2. A wealth of new plants and animals has become available, giving hobbyists an exciting selection.

A Social Event

Sharing information with like-minded hobbyists is a wonderful aspect to the planted-aquarium hobby. I highly recommend getting connected so that you can bounce ideas off others and get quick help for any problems you may have.

You may have a local aquarium club. In that club, there are probably people who are keeping planted aquariums. Freshwater-focused clubs are the first place to look, but many saltwater fish keepers like planted aquariums, as you can approach their creation much like that of a reef tank—and there are saltwater plants too!

National clubs also offer more specific information on planted tanks. Most national clubs have a yearly convention. Attending a national convention is a great way to meet people who are specialists in the hobby. It is also a neat way to meet people from all over the world.

The Internet is the place to be for fast facts. There are many web sites devoted to planted aquariums. Even better, you can find bulletin boards where people post questions, answers, and ideas on all aspects of planted aquarium keeping. If you aren’t on the Internet yet, this is a great reason to try it out.

Play It Safe

Safety is such an important topic that it needs to be right here. I will point out safety issues as we go along, but there are a few that you should think about before you set up your aquarium. Aquarium keeping is a very safe hobby, but there are a few things that you should be aware of to keep you and your family safe. Let’s go over these safety items that you need to know.

Electricity and Water Don’t Mix

Everybody knows that it is unsafe to mix water and electricity. Water is a very good electrical conductor. When you stand in a puddle, you give the current a direct path to the ground, right through you! There is enough juice in your household current to kill.

There are building codes specific to areas of the home where water and electricity can come into contact. For example, it is now code to have a Ground Fault Interruption Circuit (GFIC) in bathrooms and garages. A GFIC is a simple device that can save your life.

In your household wiring, electricity flows into an appliance and back out again. The GFIC has its own little circuit that measures the current going out and coming back. If there is a failure to ground (in other words, the electricity doesn’t come back), it shuts off the circuit. No more current. This means if you have your hands in the tank and break the glass of the heater, you will live to tell about it.

GFICs can be purchased in many forms. The least expensive and most readily available is a replacement for your household electrical plug. It has a little red button that is used for testing and as a reset button. It is a very good idea to test the circuit once in a while to make sure it is working. Just push the red button and it should turn off the outlet. A good time to test is just before you plan to work around your aquarium.

GFICs can also be purchased as part of an extension cord. These are a little more expensive but are well worth the cost. Many folks have an extension cord running into the tank cabinet. This is a great place to put your GFIC. Most home improvement stores will carry both types of GFICs

Gas Cylinder Safety
If you really get into aquatic-plant keeping, you may decide to use bottled carbon dioxide. Using compressed gas also requires some safety precautions. We will discuss these more in detail in the equipment section. Just be aware that gas cylinders require careful handling.

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