Converting from Plastic to Live Plants in a Community Aquarium

Aquarium plants with fish
Thomas R. Reich, PhD

Many aquarium owners have gazed at planted aquariums and wished that they could have live plants in their own aquarium. Plastic plants look good initially in an aquarium, but over time the colors fade and the plastic gets covered with algae. Plastic plants can be removed from the tank and cleaned, but why not start with real aquarium plants instead?

Aquarium plants vary in size and coloration, and can be purchased at most fish stores. Some plants only grow in the water and are sold in bunches, others can grow out of the water as well and are often sold in plastic tubes. The advantage of these plants is that they are free of snails and parasites that plants from the store's display tanks could carry to your home aquarium.

There are no real rules or formula to the amount of plant cover to provide in a community aquarium. Just providing enough hiding places for the fish to feel safe, and creating a natural environment that the fish will be comfortable swimming around in is a great improvement.

Selecting Live Plants

When selecting live plants for the aquarium, it is nice to have a floating plant, like water sprite or hornwort, in the collection. These plants will provide diffused lighting into the aquarium and help hide newborn babies (fry). The fish will be encouraged to breed and the fry will hide in the plants and will be more likely to grow up in your tank. This is a great experience for children, and something to think about for adding interest to your community aquarium.

Tall plants, such as sword plants and anacharis, should be placed in the substrate along the back and sides of the aquarium and in the corners, and smaller plants like hair grass and anubias nana can be placed in front of them. Leave the front center of the aquarium open for fish to swim in. The fish will be more active if they know they have a place among the plants to dart into if frightened.

In larger aquariums, a large leafy plant or a plant on a rock or sunken log can be placed in the middle of the tank as a centerpiece.

Other benefits of real plants are that they can be a food source for the fish and provide algae prevention the natural way. 

Benefits of Real Plants

  1. The only source of food in a fish only aquarium (one that has only plastic plants and no live aquatic plants) is the packaged food fed to the fish in the aquarium once or twice a day. (aside from algae that grow on everything due to the lack of live plants). That means the fish are entirely dependent on the fish keeper and the food introduced into the tank on a daily basis.
    If wise choices are not made in feeding a varied diet, the fish may not be as healthy and can become more vulnerable to disease. Also, if you forget to feed the fish, they have no other source of food. In a planted aquarium, the fish have a choice; they have a natural mid-day snack. Although not all fish will eat plants, most will pick at the leaves and microorganisms that can grow on them if no other food is available. It also helps to vary a diet fed to community aquariums, since there are many different kinds of fish, scavengers, and snails with varied tastes and needs. Many fish are omnivorous or herbivorous and need to eat plant material to be healthy and thrive.
  2. Algae grows when there are nitrogen and phosphorus containing nutrients in the water and there is light (even low light), and nothing else to absorb the nutrients. In a planted aquarium, plants can outcompete algae and use much of the nutrients in the water. Once a planted aquarium is balanced, the live plants will help keep the aquarium free of algae, reducing the need to scrub algae off decor. Remember, a little algae is normal and some fish love to eat algae, finally a little algae gives an aquarium a natural look. But live plants will make your aquarium look great and will help keep the algae growth in check.