The Design of Plant Aquaria

Before laying out a plant aquarium, one should first think about how to give it shape and where to place plants along the side panes and back wall. This is especially important for a harmonious effect. In order to make them natural looking, for example, structured plates made of pressed natural cork or synthetic resin are available in pet shops. Recom-mendable and, what's more, inexpensive, are polystyrene plates in which you can burn or melt a relief-like pattern and then paint black with nontoxic paint. Small-leaved forms of Microsorum pteropus and Anubias barteri var. nana can be used for planting on these decorative plates. The rhizomes are pinned down to the structured plates with short, curved pieces of PVC-covered wire. Anubias, Microsorum and Bolbitis can also be used for planting on stones and roots, as can mosses and algae balls. The latter can best be tied down with thin nylon thread. A fashionable, very effective planting is created with a cushion of commercially available Riccia, which, following the examples of Japanese aquarium art, is tied down with a hairnet.

Before choosing and buying the desired plants, it has proved useful to make a drawing (planting scheme) which indicates where the plants will be placed, either singly or in groups. In setting up the planting scheme, a plant street should first be planned, reaching diagonally from the front preferably far to the back in a sloping way. Such a street not only produces a striking three-dimensional effect, but also has a pronounced optical effect. In Dutch aquaria, which are often used as an example for plant lovers, the undemanding and slow-growing Lobelia cardinalis and the more light-requiring Saururus cernuus are often used in a plant street. Sometimes the fast-growing species Alternanthera reineckii and Hygrophila corymbosa are also used. With a bit of skill, species like Isoetes velata, which have a rosette-like growth, or the adventitious plants of Echinodorus bleheri, can be used in a plant street. Never plan the beginning of a plant street exactly in the middle of the aquarium as this divides the aquarium optically into two halves, harming the total effect. Furthermore, attention should be paid to designing a preferably dense and close grouping. Do not economize on plant material! An unusual and attention-drawing eye-catcher is formed by a second, parallel plant row consisting of plants clearly different in both color and shape.

The next thing to decide is which solitary plants should be used. Solitary plants are those species which are used singly and give good optical effects. All other species are always used in groups. Especially recommended as solitary plants are the large-growing sword plants, Echinodorus bleheri, E. parviflorus, E. cordifolius, and E. urugua-yensis, and also some Echinodorus cultivars like Echinodorus 'Rubin', E. 'Ozelot', and E. 'Rose'. The color forms of Nymphaea lotus and Crinum species are quite decorative. Some species of the genus Aponogeton also have great decorative value as solitary plants. In very small aquaria with a capacity less than 60 L, one usually has to refrain from using solitary plants as they dominate the aquarium. However, in larger aquaria, one should also be satisfied with only a few solitary plants.

Now to plant the aquarium's front section. This is a very difficult job since the choice of available fast-growing, but at the same time undemanding, foreground plants is not very large. Well suited are the stolon-producing species Echinodorus tenellus, E. quadrico-status, and Sagittaria subulata, which rapidly cover the bottom like a lawn. Just as undemanding are Eleocharis acicularis and various Li-laeopsis species; the latter should always be bought in large amounts as they grow slowly. Crptocoryne parva, C. X willisii, C. wendtii, and C. walkeri are also decorative and slow-growing, but are satisfied with an average lighting intensity. Absolutely recommend-able as a foreground plant is Anubias barteri var. nana. Extremely light-demanding and therefore only fit for the experienced plant lover is the Australian Glossostigma ela-tinoides. The planting of small foreground plants often leads to the largest problems. Your patience will be especially put to the test with the fragile shoots of Glossostigma and Marsilea, since they become loose time after time. A pair of blunt tweezers can be of great help. At last, when planting the foreground plants, one will notice that sand or finegrained gravel is more appropriate for planting than gravel with a diameter of more than 3 mm. It takes a lot of effort and time to plant the smallest sword plant, Echinodorus tenellus, because each small plant should be planted singly, not together with others in the same planting hole. This also applies to the somewhat bigger, stolon-producing species like Echinodorus quadricostatus and Sagittaria subulata.

After the plant street, solitary plants, and foreground plants have been drawn on the planting scheme, one needs to start thinking about which middle and background plants should be used. Strongly recommended, small-leaved stem plants for the middle parts are Bacopa caroliniana, B. monnieri, Hygrophila polyspermia, Hemianthus micranthemoides, and Heteranthera zosterifolia. Ranking among the more tender and very light-demanding plants are Didiplis diandra and Micranthe-mum umbrosum. Depending on the size of the aquarium, the following species are fit for planting in the middle or background: Limno-phila species, Ludwigia hybrids, Rotala ro-tundifolia, Hygrophila difformis, and various shape and color forms of Hygrophila cor-ymbosa. Light-demanding and tender plants are Cabomba and Myriophyllum species, Eichhornia azurea, and the intense red-colored Alternanthera reineckii, Ammannia gracilis, and A. senegalensis.

Of the large number of species with a rosette-like growth, the following are especially well suited for middle and background planting: most of the Echinodorus species and cultivars, although many of them are very light-demanding. Others include almost all commercially available Cryptocorynes, which grow well at lower light intensities, but in the aquarium need several months to take root. Also highly recommended are Vallisneria and Ceratopteris.

In the realization of middle and background planting, a few basic rules must be followed. For example, stem plants will catch the eye only if planted in a gradually sloping way. A larger group always looks stronger than a smaller one. Fleshy-leaved, strong shoots (e.g., Ammannia gracilis and Eustera-lis stellata) are planted singly and at such a distance that they will neither impede nor shade each other. Also most of the ground-covering species, like Cryptocoryne and the stolon-producing Echinodorus, should always be planted in larger groups in order to achieve a harmonious effect. To create a large contrast, similarly shaped or colored species should not be planted next to each other. For example, it is not wise to place the similarly shaped species of Myriophyllum and Cabomba together, or the red Ammannia gracilis next to the red-brown Cabomba jurcata.

Therefore, the most important rule of planting is to create striking contrasts with the help of plant colors and shapes. Please note when buying plants that more money is spent for dense planting than for fish! Furthermore, take into consideration that most of the plant species (excluding solitary plants) will only catch the eye effectively if planted in larger groups. Therefore, always buy several bunches or pots of each species!

Small Aquarium Plant
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