Going High-Tech


(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

There are many options when keeping a planted tank. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. You can choose the method that’s right for what you want to grow, what sort of tank you want, and the time you want to put in to your tank. You can use your tap water as it is, change it with RO or distilled water or add CO2 and fertilizers, or any combination. Be sure to research what you’re doing first so you won’t be surprised by the results.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the water you grow your plants in will affect what plants will grow in it and how well they will grow. Many aquarium plant growers will go to great lengths to try to provide the optimum growing conditions for their plants. Me on the other hand, well I tend to prefer the simple route for myself. I pretty much like to grow what most likes to grow in my water as it comes out of the tap. It’s not just plants but fish too. I raise livebearers that come from waters south of the border, similar to the water we have here in Arizona.

On the other hand I do like to experiment. And though I’ve swapped some of the smaller tanks in my fish room out for larger ones, I still have about 70 planted tanks to play with so I do have a little room for experimentation.

It’s always been frustrating for me that Java ferns have been somewhat difficult for most of us down here in Arizona to grow in our tap water. I’ve always loved ferns and though I could grow it like crazy in Montana, water sprite (Ceratopteris species) just wouldn’t do well for me, or most of the other people I’ve talked to, here either. My water comes out of the tap moderately hard and at over 8.0 pH and settles down to about 7.8 in the tanks. I finally decided to start playing with the water a bit to see what would happen.

A Water Change

I started with a 20 gallon tank that was already set up. I replaced some of the water with RO water, to bring the pH down to 7.2. I had gotten lucky in my garage sale hunting and had found a small portable RO unit. Since we live in the desert and I worry about wasting water, I can set this up so all the waste water goes to my plants in the yard. Later I had another idea. In the summer, which can pretty much last p months of the year, we use an air conditioner. The air conditioner also produces water, which is basically like distilled water, it pulls it out of the air, and so I started collecting water from the air conditioner and use that during the warmer months. It’s also great for topping off tanks since I can set a hose up to it directly and dribble the water in to my tanks.

Regardless of where the water came from my goal was to lower the pH and hardness and see what, if any difference I had in growing some of the “easy” plants that didn’t like my Arizona water. The half and half solution was just the trick I needed for getting the Java ferns to grow, but the Ceratopteris still didn’t do real well. Still I was happy to be able to finally get descent Java fern growth and did another 20 gallon with the half and half method also and had equally good success with the Java ferns in that tank as well.

It’s not surprising that your water will affect the plants that can grow in it. In her book, “Ecology of the Planted Aquarium” Diana Walstad writes about the change in plant species along the Carolina river system. Different species live in the soft water areas than live in the areas where hard water is prevalent. She mentions that hard water species are more likely able to use bicarbonates and the soft water and amphibious species need CO2. She also mentions a Japanese study that had similar results.

A heavily planted aquarium with CO2

Giving CO2 a Try

Most of my resistance to setting up a tank with CO2 has been my concern for the well being of my fish, though the extra work wasn’t really making it all that appealing for me either. I finally was convinced to give it a try during the 2006 Aquatic Gardeners Association convention. It had been mentioned to me that everybody else was doing it and since I wrote about planted tanks I should try it too, which is a valid point. But the final bit of information that made me decide was the talk by Ole Pedersen from Tropica of Denmark. He had slides with the figures for the CO2 rates in naturally occurring waters in Europe, and some of them were even higher than the levels suggested for aquariums.

I was convinced to give it a try. I had purchased quite a few harder to find plants at the convention and I really wanted to get them growing before trying them in my other tanks.

I set my CO2 tank up with potting soil in the bottom layer then a thin layer with old black sand from another tank to keep the potting soil firmly down and then a final layer of black gravel. It's pretty basic for a CO2 tank. There are several premixed substrates available at many pet stores, but I had potting soil on hand and had used compost in pots for several of my aquatic plants previously with good results.

For the CO2 I purchased a small unit at a pet store. These are basically the same method as the Do-It-Yourself models but a little nicer looking and I didn’t have to make it. They are reasonably priced. Some of the other CO2 methods, using tanks of the gas, can be quite a bit more expensive, though they also can give you more CO2. They also don’t need to re-set them up every couple of weeks when your yeast factory burns out.

Extra Work for Improved Growth

With CO2 your plants will grow much faster. At first I was having a bit of trouble with algae and green water but that has mostly cleared up. Bi-weekly water changes were necessary at first but after a couple months weekly water changes seem to work.

For lighting I’m using 2 fixtures each with 2, T-5 bulbs. I tried using just one fixture but found it didn’t light the whole tank front to back, and it didn’t seem that all the plants were getting enough light. So I added a second fixture which really seems to have helped.

I’ve been dosing the tank with a variety of fertilizers. I had a little cache built up from aquarium club raffles. The plants use up the nutrients quite quickly in a tank with good lighting and CO2 and I can definitely notice problems in the plants when I stop dosing. Different plants show different issues, curled leaves, changes in color, and smaller leaves are some of the problems that crop up when I don’t keep up with at least weekly water changes and adding regular. I’ve also found the CO2 unit lasts about 2 weeks before it starts slowing and needs changed. All this means this tank is a lot more labor intensive than my other aquariums.

All this extra work does produce incredible plant growth and allows me to grow plants that I didn’t do well with before. The fast growth does add even more extra work to the tank keeping it trimmed. Weekly trimmings are really necessary to keep it looking good. If I wait a couple weeks it starts really getting out of hand. What has been the most amusing to me is the Glossostigma. This is a plant that I tried several time with only very moderate success. In the high light, regularly fertilized, CO2 tank it truly grows like a weed, easily covering everything else, including itself.

Some of my local plant club members have taken this all much farther. Roy Deki one of the founding members of Arizona Aquatic Plant Enthusiasts (AAPE), uses RO water and pressurized CO2 in his tanks along with special substrates, fertilizers and lights. All the extra work he does pays off with beautiful tanks. Roy was the second place winner in the 2006 AGA Aquascaping contest for the 70L to 200L aquariums with his tank called "Mizu Ikebana." Roy’s prize winning tank is 24 gallons and uses a 6700k, 72 watt power compact lighting. He uses a flourite substrate with silica sand in the foreground. The plants include Anubias nana, Blyxa aubertii, and B. japonica, Cryptocyrne petchii, Rotala rotundifolia, and 2 types of moss. It wasn’t hard to talk Roy in to sharing a few of his photos for this month’s column.

Since starting my first CO2 tank I have added CO2 on a second tank, my 50 gallon tank in the living room. I just have one small CO2 unit on it and haven’t added anything else to the tank. I have seen better plant growth in it and have added Glossostigma to this tank and both species of Ceratopteris, which are growing well. I am thinking about adding a couple DIY units with old 1 liter soda bottles to a couple other tanks. It is fun playing with the CO2 in some of my aquariums, though I still am not interested in using pressurized CO2 and I have no intention of doing my whole fish room with CO2. I don’t think I could possible keep up with all the extra work and I still don’t trust the CO2 enough to put it on my rare and much loved livebearers.

Choices for Everyone

There are many ways to have a planted tank, you can grow many plants in a simple set up with reasonably good lighting and tap water. Or you can change your water, add CO2, special substrates, fertilizers or more lighting depending on what plants you want to grow and how much work you want to put in to your tanks. No matter what your goals or interests are, or the time or money you have to devote to your planted tank, the aquatic plant hobby offers choices for everyone.

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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