When I first became obsessed with freshwater aquariums, one of the things that attracted me was the idea of having live plants.
Rather than simply having brightly colored gravel and a fake castle at the bottom, I wanted a tank that looked like I was seeing an actual piece of nature sat right in my living room.
Many first time aquarists think keeping live plants will mean more work and less chance of success, but nothing could be further from the truth. Having them in an aquarium can actually make the fish happier, the water cleaner, and the whole experience more enjoyable.
Here we will briefly touch on some of the benefits of keeping live plants in your aquarium. Once your appetite is whetted, we’ll give you some links for further reading.
Hopefully by then you’ll be halfway towards your local fish shop or sucked into Google searches for “nature aquarium” and “aquascaping.”
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To my mind, the first benefit of live plants in an aquarium is their beauty.
They can create a naturalistic setting. I’ve always preferred “nature” aquariums, ones that look like an actual slice of a river or pond is sitting in the corner, rather than novelty tanks full of plastic and weird objects.
Live plants will also grow and change over time, making the aquarium much more dynamic. It’s a great joy to come back to the tank after a week of not paying as much attention as I should, only to find new leaves or sometimes even a flower I wasn’t expecting.
Whenever I rescape and replant an aquarium, I like to take a picture of it when I’m done. Then I can look back several months later and be surprised at just how much it has grown and changed.
They also add a wonderful touch of extra life to a house or apartment. If you live somewhere that gets dark or gloomy in the winter, a green growing aquarium can make a home feel much brighter and more vibrant during the cold months.
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Plants Encourage Natural Fish Behavior
In the wild, our fish would live in complex environments. Growing plants, dead leaf matter, fallen branches, and rocks would all create an elaborate underwater landscape. The fish are able to hide and swim and even play in the chaotic setting.
All too many aquariums in the home are simply a glass box with a few decorations and some gravel at the bottom. The fish in these aquariums might never reach their full potential for color and behavior. They feel exposed and constantly stressed. This can lead to poor health and disease.
The addition of some living greenery gives the fish an environment closer to what they might have in the wild.
They are able to work in and around the plants, hunting for bits of food and hiding under leaves. The fish remember a bit more what it is to actually be a fish, and you will see more natural behavior.
Artificial decorations can serve this purpose, but many will have rough exteriors and sharp points. Live plants give a gentle and safe environment to work in.
They Help Toward Algae Control
An extremely common problem faced by aquarists is the issue of algae control. No matter how skilled the fishkeeper is, eventually algae will rear its ugly head to tarnish our painstaking efforts.
The first thing to remember is that algae are a plant. It needs the same things any other live plant does: food and light (and CO2, but that’s not as relevant here).
If there aren’t any live plants in a tank to use the food and light, algae are more than happy to step up to the job.
One of the nice things about algae is it’s a pretty weak competitor.
With a few pieces of living vegetation to absorb the food and light that is naturally occurring, the algae won’t have enough left over to get a foothold.
If you saw one of my tanks right now, you might be amazed at the lack of algae visible. My snails and plecos help with that, but the main line of defense is the living foliage. They are using up any nutrients faster than they are created. The algae never get a chance, and I almost never have to scrape it off my glass.
Plants Benefit Filtration and Nutrient Cycling
If you’ve read our articles about Cycling a Tank and Aquarium Filtration, you know that fish create waste. This waste, along with uneaten food or other contaminants, will rot and turn into harmful ammonia and nitrites. We use the biological cycle of beneficial bacteria to naturally remove these toxins.
Turns out, plants can help too!
Not only are they good at removing these toxins from the water, they view them as food. If you buy common fertilizer for houseplants, you’ll find that it’s often made from fish waste!
Simply having live plants in your tank will help keep the water cleaner and safer for your fish.
It is actually possible to have them be the only method of filtration in a tank, but this requires some pretty hardcore fish keeping skills (check out the Walstad Method if you’re curious).
Besides absorbing fish waste from the water, live plants provide more surface area in your tank for the friendly beneficial bacteria to grow on. The plant’s roots will also work through the soil, helping to prevent pockets of harmful gas to build up in your substrate.
Plants Provide Oxygenation
You know that noisy air pump that keeps you up at night or interferes with the sound of the movie you’re trying to watch? Live plants can actually replace that little electricity hog.
In nature, plants are constantly releasing oxygen into the water, just like trees and other vegetation does for us on land.
In an aquarium, they’ll do the same thing. A well-planted aquarium won’t need a bubbler to keep the oxygen moving.
In conclusion, the addition of live plants to an aquarium can make it more beautiful, reduce stress on the fish, help reduce algae, and help keep the water quality stable.
There are many wonderful varietiess to choose from, many of which require very little effort and maintenance.
Once you’ve chosen to try a planted tank and achieve some success, we’re sure you’ll almost certainly never want to go back to synthetics.
Happy fish keeping!