(This article is part of the keeping tropical fish series)

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If you want the challenge of growing aquarium plants as well as fish for the most natural environment you can provide there are a few tips and pieces of advice that will make your life easier.

Plant types
There are 3 plant types that are commonly sold

True aquatic plants
These plants spend all their time under the water.

Marginal Plants
These spend part of the year above water in the dry season but then spend part of the year under water during flooding.

Land plants
Some of these are capable of looking food for weeks at a time in a tank but are not good for the fish’s environment in the long run and some can be downright poisonous so be careful of them.

Plan your underwater garden

find out what plants are readily available from your local dealers and what size they get to and if you can find out what conditions they like. It is not necessary or even desirable to plant all your plants at once so do some research and find out what you can get and ask your local dealer to hold special plants for you.

Some plants are cold water, some plants are warm water
Do not let your true tropical plants dry out or get chilled/bruised. Treat them as you would a new fish. When you want to trim them or get cuttings use a sharp pair of scissors and do not simply tear the plants because this lets in rot and also destroys plant tissue.

If you put cold-water plants in your tank they will last for a short time but then simply die and pollute your tank so my suggestion is do not bother with this potential problem in the first place. either use plastic plants or those that grow, not plants that simply rot.

You can get cuttings
This is a fine leaved plant. It has a bushy leafy appearance and looks good at hiding pipes and things but it is very fragile and not suited to the beginner.

Green Cabomba

Their leaves and stems are far more sturdy and depending on when they were harvested they will either do well straight away or take some weeks before their first shoots appear. The leaves may fall off but be patient and they may well regrow. These are Marginal plants and what is happening is that you may have got dry season plants that need to have a wet season to regrow. Once the stems grow they can be cut and transplanted around your tank.

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Hygrophilia is a Marginal plant that can make a big difference to your tank.
This plant is often able to provide a very welcome amount of cover for smaller fish.

Tropical Sword Ferns
Tropical sword ferns are an all time favorite and do very well if there is enough lighting. You can find these in many sizes so don’t just buy an old one, find out what they look like as adult specimens.

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A tropical sword fern. The plant is great but I wouldn’t recommend the colored gravel, all fish I’ve kept have performed better with a darker colored gravel although the effect is minimal on most species


Is a good old standby and does really well but when planting make sure that the crown of the plant (where the leaves start) should be just out of the gravel. If you bury them too deep they will gradually die back and not reproduce.

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Vallisneria – for this type of tropical plant, make sure the crown is just above the gravel

Plants in pots
This is a good way of buying plants that are normally difficult to transplant. These can be teased out of their mix and planted properly.

Just like fish, plants need feeding and there are a number of *products* on the market which will do the job.

Do not use many floating species unless you want to breed certain types of fish. duckweed is the worst offender and is a serious environmental hazard. It looks like small clover floating on your tank and if you see it, remove it quickly. It can clog filters and deprive other plants of light. Seeing a nature force grow in your aquarium can be beautiful especially if it is the lush green leaves of a foreign plant – be careful, beauty can be deadly, in the case of a potential duckweed infestation – remove it as early and quickly as possible to avoid future problems.

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Duckweed – a floating type of aquatic plant for tropical fish aquariums

Tropical plants need the light they would get in the tropics and not the soft light you might want to highlight your fish or provide dark shady corners. The best thing to do is reconstruct the 1 hours of light they wold get at the tropics. You can buy a *special grow light* with an *automatic light timer* for your lights. The automatic lighter will save you a lot of time because your aquarium’s light settings will be turned on and off automatically.

This will happen in your tank because algae grows faster than plants and will settle down and do all its growing while your plants are still deciding if they are going to live or die. Don’t worry about it and don’t use algae killer because it will put a strain on the filter system and will affect the nitrogen cycle.

Green algae is not that bad because it can be cleaned off surfaces and as your plants grow they will overcome it but brown algae is a sign that your tank is either new or is in major trouble.

Planting stick
Buy yourself a long *planting stick* which is very helpful for planting plants in established aquariums as well as making sure that plants like vallisneria have their roots properly covered but crowns kept clear.

This has already been dealt with but if you are truly going to be successful at keeping tropical fish you need to closely monitor the quality and condition of the water in your tropical fish aquarium.

You need to know more than just the basics.

Fish require certain conditions to do their best. Even if they survive in less than adequate conditions they seldom breed or look their best unless conditions are ideal for them. Most of us get our water from a “Water Authority” so how do we check on whether or not this is water acceptable for a healthy fish?

The answer is to know whats in the water!

Chlorine and chloramine
These chemicals are normally put into the water we get from taps to kill off some of the “nasties” that might make us sick. The problem for fish is that it will kill them by destroying their gill function.

Luckily tap water with chlorine you can leave standing for a few hours, preferably in sunlight and it is gone quite naturally.

Chloramine is a different issue and doesn’t disperse naturally. Check with your local water authority if they add chloramine into your tap water then you can either choose to collect your own rainwater for your fish or buy the powder to neutralise the chloramine (available from a pet shop).

For a fresh water aquarium there are four tests that can be done. It is best to buy a water testing kit and make the testing of your system a regular activity.

Test One

Why test for it and what is it?
In short pH is a measure of the water’s acidity. A pH of 7.0 is neutral lower than that is acidic and higher is alkaline.

In nature all rain is slightly acidic through rain near big cities can sometimes be very acidic. When the rain falls substances from the ground start dissolving into the water and depending on the natural surroundings the water can be either slightly acidic and support fish and plant or slightly alkaline and support fish and plants.

pH testing machine – recommended equipment if you can afford it
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pH testing kit – the cheaper way to test pH – adequate but not accurate

Follow the instructions on the labels of kits that you can buy to either raise or lower your tank’s pH.

It is always best to dissolve any chemicals before you put them in your tank and be cautious. Put the chemicals in over a number of days rather than at one go otherwise any resident fish may die of toxic shock because of the sudden change.

Test two – Ammonia

Where does it come from?

This is excreted from the fish. There will always be a trace of ammonia in your tank but it is a poison. Well think about swimming in your toilet! If you have too many fish in your tank or it is new and there are not enough micro-organisms to break this ammonia down then it can be a lethal brew!

Ammonia can also be tested for, a good tank should have a reading of as close to 0 ppm (zero parts per million) as possible.

Luckily, ammonia is fairly quickly turned into a nitrite which is slightly less toxic for your fish. The next set of micro-organisms turn the Nitrites into Nitrates, which are far less harmful.

Test three – Nitrate

Having said that Nitrates are far less harmful, there is another story. Long-term exposure to this chemical can lower resistance of fish to disease and a short-term exposure to high concentrations can kill fish. Where you can get very *expensive filtration systems* to deal with this it is far easier for a fish keeper to change the water in the tank regularly to keep it healthy.

Fish tanks need 20% of their volume changed weekly with  water that is aged

Test four 

Water hardness

This measures the amount of dissolved calcium carbonate present inside the water. In nature this is picked up when some rocks release calcium into the water.

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Limestone is the biggest source of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) naturally released into the water from the environment

Luckily, very “soft” water can quite easily be made “hard” by adding a special chemical sold at your pet shop and is quite easy to do. It must also be said that most fish which would really prefer a hard water don’t object if it is too soft. (African Cichlids)

However fish from the Amazon river where there are very few dissolvable rocks to make the water hard really do need a soft water.

Luckily, provided you avoid limestone rocks in your aquarium and don’t use seashells (calcium) or dissolvable metals you won’t, or shouldn’t have, a problem.

Daily – feed fish
Check *temperature* / *heater* / *thermostat*
Check *pump* / *filter* / *aerator*
Check on health of fish or count them!

*Clean* the floor of the tank.
Replace 20% of the water.
Check pH
Check Ammonia Levels

Check nitrate levels
Check hardness

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