Decorations in the Planted Tank

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Whether you want a lush garden, a natural looking biotope or a collection of aquarium kitsch, your tank can be a fun and attractive addition to your home. Decorating your aquarium is a reflection of your personality, and with a little information you can make the right decorating choices for your planted aquarium.

Start at the bottom, substrate

Let's start at the bottom. The options for the bottom of your aquarium are quite varied, from a bare bottom tank to a carefully layered mix constructed in hopes of obtaining maximum plant growth. The type of substrate you choose will depend on your personal style tastes, and goals and the aquarium inhabitants.

Many people have fish rooms full of bare tanks, it's handy for keeping tanks clean and breeding some fish. Other than floating plants and moss this really isn't an option for a planted tank. Plants need substrate to anchor roots and to hold the nutrients the plants will use.

When the current planted tank craze was getting started the only available option for most aquarists was plain aquarium gravel or make your own mix. There was a lot of interesting experimenting going on at the time, some of it reportedly successful and quite a few stinky murky messes. I think my favorite in terms of the "who thought of this" factor has still got to be kitty litter. Though I have to say I didn't try that one myself I have heard from many folks who had success with it.

Fortunately today there are a number of already made substrates available, specifically designed for the planted aquarium. You can choose complete mixes, gravel additives to mix with your other substrate(s), and just plain gravel. Of course you still have the option of mixing your own secret concoction.

Remember when choosing your substrate that it will make up a large part of what you will see in your aquarium. Generally darker natural colors are chosen for the planted aquarium. Lighter colors and unnatural colors, say hot pink, are more likely to show mulm and fish waste. It's also debated whether some fish are less comfortable with lighter substrate.

The size of your substrate will make a difference too. Fine sand will easily become compacted making root growth more difficult. Sand has an affect some what like a bare tank, in that every bit of mulm or fish waste will sit on the surface. It will need to be cleaned a lot, have strong filtration, or will look dirty quickly. Larger gravel will have too much space between pieces so roots won't have a place to grow and large deposits of mulm can form between spaces. The regular sized pea gravel or very large sand will generally work best.


When I started with my first aquarium the rage was to use crystallizing paint in star burst patterns on the back of tanks. My first metal framed tank had a red and green background. Background posters with photos of tanks were also available and still are, though I haven't seen a tank with crystallizing paint for many years. Painting the back of your tank is still a legitimate option. Blue and black are often used. Remember the paint or photo backgrounds go on the outside of the tank, and are best installed before the rest of the tank is set up.

Today there are also a number of very cool looking 3-D backgrounds with various types and colors of rock cliffs, and tree roots available. These are made specifically to fit into the tanks so you just have to pick your size and style.

There's also the option of creating your own background. There are several methods to make a living moss wall on the back of your tank. Using 2 sheets of plastic canvas or mesh, the moss is carefully placed between the sheets, spread evenly. The sheets can then be placed on the back of the tank with suction cups where the moss will grow out, quickly covering up the mesh.


Rocks are everywhere outdoors and can bring a more natural look to your aquarium. They're also useful to create hiding places for fish, both for safety and breeding purposes, and some fish just like living under a rock.

However not all rocks are created equal and just any old rock may turn out to be a problem for your aquarium. The easiest way to get an aquarium safe rock is at your local fish store. You can also mail order rocks or buy them on line. Remember though, that real rocks are heavy. And yes there are fake rocks, man-made rocks and rocks with holes drilled in them for the fish. Sometimes you can even find real rocks for sale.

If you can't find the rocks you like for sale or would rather collect your own there are a few things you should keep in mind. First you have to make sure the rocks you collect aren't contaminated with insecticides, herbicides, soaps or chemicals, then you have to collect the right kind of rocks. Most rocks are OK, but watch out for any rust or metal in the rocks, and rocks that will easily break apart or crumble.

My favorite rocks for the aquarium are the rounded rocks you can find in and along creeks, streams and rivers. These rocks have worn away in the water, if the water was going to melt them in your aquarium, or they were going to leach anything in to the water, they would have already done it long ago.

You can also test your rocks. Regular kitchen vinegar is a mild acid and if you soak your rocks in the vinegar and they fizz then you shouldn't use them in your aquarium.


Wood can be one of the most dramatic decorations you can put into your aquarium. It's interesting shape and branches can really add that special touch to your tank. It can also add colors more natural colors that aren't in your plants, so wood can really stand out. And some fish, such as Plecos, actually will eat the wood. You can't just put any old piece of wood in your aquarium though. There are several things to consider when adding wood to your aquarium.

Remember that wet wood will expand. I forgot that little thing myself once and after setting up a lovely new 10 gallon tank with a nice piece of wood stretching across it's length, had it burst in less than 24 hours. The wood expanded farther than the tank was wide, and glass isn't that flexible. It's not fun to clean up 10 gallons of water from your living room carpet and doesn't make you very popular with the rest of the house.

Another thing you should keep in mind is that in reality that pretty piece of wood is a dead plant. It will leach tannins into your fish tank. Tannins are a pretty complex subject that could cover a column all on their own, but what you really need to know about them in this instance is they will turn your aquarium water yellow. Think of tea, the wood basically will make your aquarium wood tea. This may be helpful in a black water tank but most people don't want their aquarium water dark yellow.

You should soak all new wood before adding it to the aquarium changing the water regularly until the water stays moderately clear. You can also boil the wood to try to get more of the tannins out faster. Depending on the individual piece of wood this could take anywhere from a few weeks to months. Even after soaking tannins will still leach into your tank but they will do so much more slowly.

You can purchase wood for your aquarium on line, through mail order, or at your local fish store. This wood will be clean and safe to use, though you will still want to soak it. You may also be tempted to collect your own wood. You can do this but you have to take a lot of precautions. First it's rather hard to find nice pieces that look good and will fit in your aquarium. Even if you do find a good source, you will really have to be careful to make sure you don't introduce anything into your tank with the wood. Chemicals, pesticides, or living organisms like algae, fungus or invertebrates can all easily be in the collected wood. Personally for aquarium wood I've always found it easier to just purchase it.

If using real wood sounds too difficult you can even get imitation wood. This can look very real and comes in shapes nicely suited to the aquarium. It won't turn your aquarium water yellow and you don't have to worry about it rotting in your tank.

Other decorations

The bubbling pirates chest, complete with skeletal figure, is the first thing that pops in to my head when I think of aquarium decorations, but there are many different types of decorations for the aquarium, some for fun and some more realistic than plastic piratical remains.

Lately I've seen some attractive new aquarium decorations in the form of old bomber planes and even the titanic. You can look to the past for aquarium decorations too. Vintage ceramic pieces can fetch a nice price from collectors on eBay and at antique shops. I've also seen a couple other people tanks that use miniature Asian statuary in their planted tanks. The effect is a hidden jungle ruins and is surprisingly attractive.

Remember your aquarium is a reflection of you and the decorating styles you like. Don't be afraid to add a little whimsy to your tank. A small figure that reminds you of a personal joke or just something you like the look of can add a little smile to your day. Whether for fun or to enhance an imitation of nature aquarium decorations can add a bit of personality and fun to your planted aquarium.

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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