Well-planted aquarium vs stunning display
The difference between a well-planted aquarium and a stunning display aquarium lies in good aquascaping. Aquascaping is not just a matter of placing plants and decor in the right combinations or in the right places, it means being creative, imaginative – even inspired. There are certainly methods of planting and guidelines to positioning that will help you create a good display aquarium, but ultimately, the design should be the realization of your personal vision.
Suitable aquarium decor These days, aquarists are faced with a wide range of rocks, wood, and other decor, but not all materials are suitable for a planted aquarium. When making a choice, it is often best to keep things simple and stick to, say, one or two types of rock, rather than crowd the aquarium with all manner of objects. All the decor should, of course, be bought and not collected from the wild. Clean it well before using it in the aquarium.
Rocks Be careful when choosing rocks; most are inert and suitable for the aquarium. They will have no effect on the environment, but others are calcareous and will adversely affect
water quality by releasing calcium and carbonates that raise the pH and water hardness. There is a simple test that you can carry out on rocks to check whether they are suitable; simply put a few drops of vinegar on the rock, and if it fizzes or shows any kind of reaction do not use the rock. The fizzing is a result of the acidic vinegar reacting with the alkaline substances present in the rock. Calcareous rocks can be used in hardwater and marine aquariums, but not in planted or general community aquariums.
In the planted aquarium, rocks fulfill a number of roles, both practical and aesthetic.
Smaller cobbles and pebbles can be used in the foreground, creating gaps between smaller plants and making open spaces more interesting. Larger rocks in the midground can also be used as breaks between planting areas and as bolsters to create raised substrate areas. Porous rocks, particularly lava rock, can be used as rooting media for plants such as Java fern (Microsorium pteropus) or Anubias species.
Wood Although natural, or normal wood cannot be used in an aquarium because it will quickly rot and produce fungal growths, other forms are suitable.
Bogwood can play a large part in the design of the planted aquarium. There are many different forms of bogwood, although these often arise from the different cleaning methods applied to the wood before it reaches the retailer. Some woods are precleaned using sand as an abrasive, which gives the wood a smoother and two-toned appearance.
Bogwood from aquatic retailers is safe to use in the aquarium without any prior treatment. This is because it has been dead and soaked for many years, during which time any harmful organisms will have been removed. Although you can safely place it directly into the aquarium, it is not inert. Various humic and tannic acids continually leach from it over a long period of time and although the effect is minimal, these acids will lower the pH and hardness of the aquarium water. This is not harmful to plants and may even benefit many species. Soaking bogwood for a week or two can help to remove some tannins.
The other side effect of using bogwood is that the tannic acids will color the water slightly, often making it a light “tea” color. This coloration can be removed using carbon or other absorptive media. However, these media should be used only temporarily in a planted aquarium, as they also remove nutrients vital to long-term plant health.
Bogwood is a good medium for planting up in the same way as porous rock and is suitable for mosses such as Java moss. Twisted roots, another form of bogwood, are particularly effective in the planted aquarium. Being long and thin, they do not take up too much space, but still become a dominant presence in the aquarium.
Cork bark can be used in some circumstances, as long as it is old and completely dry. The major problem with bark is that it is very buoyant and must first be fixed to a weight of some kind. It can be particularly effective if fixed to unsightly items such as bulky filters, or when used to hide inlet and/or outlet
pipes. In this instance, the best method is to silicone the bark to the object whil both are dry, before the aquarium is filled with water.
Brushwood is simply a term for the dead twigs and small branches from trees or bushes. Because the wood is very thin, it dies quickly and dries easily making it safe for use in the aquarium.
When using brushwood, it is important to make sure that it is completely dead, with no green areas present within the wood. If it is clearly dead and dried out, it should be brittle and will snap easily rather than bend when pressure is applied.
Bamboo is another form of wood with decorative possibilities in the aquarium. Various lengths of bamboo cane, placed randomly among dense planting, will add a natural and attractive element to many aquascapes. In time, it begins to rot and will need replacing, but this slow decay can be reduced – and in some cases prevented altogether – by coating the wood with a polyester resin or varnishing it before use.
Woods such as bamboo, brushwood, and cork bark will need preparing before use. Dry woods such as these may contain fungal spores and are prone to rotting when wet. If they are placed in the aquarium without prior treatment they quickly decay, producing bacterial blooms that will appear as a slimy film over the wood and/or cloudy water.
Many types of decor, such as lava rock or cork bark, can be used to create a three-dimensional background in the aquarium. An almost vertical (rather than sloped) background will need to be firmly fixed in place to prevent any rocks from falling and damaging the glass panels of the aquarium. Silicone sealant is ideal for fixing items to glass and to each other, although the items must be fixed whilst the aquarium is dry. A good method to use for creating a backdrop is to carry out a dry run first and work out where you want each item of decor to be placed. Once this is done, clean and dry the individual items of decor to remove any dust before siliconing them securely in place.
In most cases, the silicone will be applied in areas that will not be visible, so it does not have to be very neatlydone. It is usually better to use too much, rather than too little silicone. Any excess that can be seen from the front of the aquarium can be removed later with a sharp knife.
If the background is quite steep and likely to collapse until fully secured, place the empty aquarium on its back while you fix the rocks in position. It is a good idea to build up larger backgrounds in stages, allowing each stage to set so that you can check that everything is firmly secured before attaching another group of rocks. Placing the aquarium on its back while fixing rocks also gives you the opportunity to create overhangs and outcrops of rocks that can be used as planting areas and that also produce interesting shading effects in the lights.
Silicone sealant can also be used to fix together smaller individual rocks to create caves and hiding spots for the aquarium fish or to fix buoyant items to glass or rocks. Silicone sealant should be used only on dry items and you must wait for about three days before adding any water to the aquarium.
Laying out a design Providing you have access to a good range of materials, it is sometimes possible to design and create a good display on impulse, but results are often far better if you do some preplanning. Sketching out a rough design for the aquarium allows you to assess the number of plants you will need and check the practical aspects of the display. Taking an overhead view, make a sketch of the aquarium, showing all the filtration, heating, and other equipment that will be present inside it and then divide the space into foreground, midground, and background areas. This sketch then becomes the framework on which you can build up the planting areas and position the decor.
When deciding where to place decor other than plants and designing the display as a whole, a good rule is to have one main focal point to attract interest and, using similar decor, a second, smaller area to provide a counterbalance. For example, you could complement a large, central group of