Welcome to the Jungle

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Hi and welcome to TFH's new planted aquarium column. I'm Rhonda Wilson and I'll be your guide. Today I'd like to tell you a little bit about me and why I'm here. Then I'll give you a brief history of the planted aquarium so you will have an idea of how it got to where it is today. Finally I'll tell you about the different general styles of planted aquariums because these different types of tanks are very often referred to when discussing planted aquariums. Next month I'll start talking about the plants.

I've always loved the wet miniature world. When I was a little girl I used to love catching frogs, minnows, and insects. I could spend hours in a creek looking under rocks or starting at the mosses and ferns growing alongside the water. When I was older and would go lake fishing with my family I would love to look over the boat into the water at the plants and rocks, logs and fish.

My first aquarium was a 6th birthday present. It was a ten gallon metal frame tank with a metal hood. The back had a dark green and red, crystallizing paint, starburst design back ground. My Dad made a very simple metal frame for it. The original tank hood had an incandescent 3 bulb light in it but my mom later had it upgraded to a florescent light. The guys at the shop switched fixtures using the original hood. I was then able to keep some easy plants. In the late 70's I had a few tanks with a few plants in my room and was already reading TFH. By the time the 80's rolled around I had several tanks in a basement room, my first fish room. I was in high school by that time. Budgeting tanks and the cost of being a teenager became a problem. This is when I started ditching filters and using a lot more plants.

Life keeps happening but I always kept planted fish tanks. In the early 90's I kept about 25 or so tanks. Many of them were small tanks on glass shelves in natural sunlight. I also started joining and becoming involved in various aquarium clubs and organizations. I have a few more tanks since then and now have a fish room with about 75 or so aquariums in it and several more around the house. My tanks are heavily planted and not filtered. I keep my fish room warm so I don't use individual heaters. Most of my lighting is provided by shop lights.

My method of keeping planted tanks is just one of many possibilities. I'll review a few of the others below. Each individual hobbyist will have to choose their own methods and styles to suit their individual personalities, and tastes. Over the coming months I'd like to share with you a wide range of topics related to the planted aquarium. I'll be writing about different types of aquatic plants and plants in general, about algae eating fish, shrimp and snails, and even about the dreaded algae. I'll also be inviting experts in the field to come and share their thoughts, ideas and experience in aquarium planting styles and their use of equipment to get the optimum growth from aquarium plants.

The History of the Planted Aquarium

So there's a bit of my history, and what I hope to bring you in this column. But what's the history of the planted aquarium? Mankind has about 4500 years of experience in keeping fish, but ornamental fish keeping has mostly developed in less than 2000 years. Keeping fish and other aquatics in glass containers was occasionally done as early as the 1600's, by scientists of the time.

The square cornered aquarium as we know it today started to develop in the mid 1800's. The Victorians loved plants and nature and liked to find ways to bring nature into their homes. Wardian cases were created around the 1830's. These were ornate framed glass boxes that served as terrariums for ferns and other tropical plants for the Victorian collectors. Their aquarium counterparts were developed about 20 years later and were called Warrington cases. During this time the idea of balanced systems were popular. Fish, plants and invertebrates were thought to coexist in these aquariums to produce little fully functional natural systems. Plants listed in aquarium literature from the late 1800's included, several Sagittaria, Ludwigia, Cabomba, Myriophyllum, Riccia, Chara, Salvinia, and water hyacinth.

During the early 1900's houses were becoming electrified and so did the aquarium. Early equipment might look strange to us now, but by the 1930's many of the pieces of equipment used on aquariums looked very much like it still does today. The 1930's were really a decade where the aquarium hobby blossomed. The effects of pH in the aquarium were noted in the 1920's, and aquarium books of the 1930's discussed the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Equipment and knowledge of water chemistry and biology have improved. The smooth metal frame tanks and then frameless tanks developed, better filters, heaters and lighting and the introduction of CO2 for the aquarium have made incredible underwater masterpieces possible today.

What Types of Planted Aquariums are Used Today?

Putting a couple banana plants and hornwort in with the bubbling pirate's chest and moving skeleton is not really a planted tank, but there are several basic styles of planted aquarium that do qualify. The most commonly discussed are: the Nature Aquarium World style by Takashi Amano, the Dutch style, the natural style and the biotope aquarium.

The Nature Aquarium World and Dutch style of planted aquariums are both highly cultivated, heavily planted tanks that usually really on high lighting, a lot of equipment, and fertilizers. The use of CO2 for maximum plant growth is a major component in these types of aquariums. These aquariums are lush. Both the Nature Aquarium and Dutch aquariums are carefully planned. Drawings are often used to layout the tank planting arrangement before it's planted. Classic schools of thought in art architecture are incorporated into the designs. As much care is taken in tending these tanks once they're planted. They need a lot of pruning and care. Specialized tools, often improvised, are used to help tend these underwater gardens.

The main differences in the Nature Aquarium World and Dutch aquariums are the bases for the designs. Dutch aquarium techniques have been around for quite some time and were the first real style of planted aquarium, established by the 1930's. These aquariums are like miniature gardens. Plants are arranged with the tall in back the shorter in front, with the lowest point often the center front, or in larger tanks several front areas. These are focal points. Lines of plants with different leaf types and colors are often arranged in rows pointing to the focal point(s). Dutch aquariums are often compared to the beautiful fields of tulips, also from the Netherlands.

Nature Aquarium World made a big splash in the aquarium world a little more than 10 years ago. These tank designs are like a photo of a real natural place. The plants are arranged so the represent the real place. They can be based on a large scale natural place, such as mountains, scaled down and represented by plants or wood. Or it can be a 1:1 representation, like a small nook of moss and ferns by a forest stream, represented by moss and ferns in the aquarium. These aquariums can be very similar to and are often compared to Japanese gardens. The Nature Aquarium World system also brought the use of shrimp as algae controllers, such as the Amano shrimp, into widespread use.

If Nature Aquarium World aquariums are the Japanese gardens, and Dutch aquariums are the tulip fields of Holland then Natural aquariums are the humble cottage gardens of the planted aquarium world. Natural aquariums are generally lower technology, some as simple as a tank, water, gravel, and living plants and animals. Natural aquariums are usually much less structured than the more manicured aquarium gardens. Often these aquariums incorporate rocks or wood into the set up and may have fresh water invertebrates as part of the inhabitants.

Biotope aquariums are intended to be a representation of a specific aquatic system or place. These tanks may represent a black water river from South America, an African lake or, an Asian stream. Plants, substrate and other decorations are chosen to represent those elements found in the natural environment.

Hopefully this will give you a brief background of the planted aquarium and the different styles most commonly used, and maybe give you an idea for a planted aquarium you might enjoy. Next month we'll start talking about plants.

Questions or Comments?

If you have questions or Comments about this column, join the Natural Aquariums Forum and post them here.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

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For more information about planted aquariums, Natural Aquariums recommends "The Simple Guide to Planted Aquariums" by Terry Barber and Rhonda Wilson.

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"Nature Aquarium World 2" The second Nature Aquarium World book from Takashi Amano. Mr. Amano's aquariums and photography make him the most celebrated planted aquarist in the world today.

Christel Kasselmann's "Aquarium Plants" is the most complete encylopedia of aquarium plants to date. A must have book for the aquatic plant enthusiast.