those wonderful plastic plants

Except for utilizing nutrients in the water, all of the positive aspects for live plants aply to plastic plants. These cardinal tetra aren’t concerned that the plants in their tank are not real.

An Alternative Perspective On Aquascaping. Purists are appalled at the thought, let alone the sight, of plastic plants in an aquarium. In fact, they would go as far as to say that if you aren’t willing to care for live plants, you shouldn’t have plants in an aquarium at all. But this really is a silly attitude. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with live plants, and if you’re willing to make the effort needed, they can provide a truly beautiful display. But without the correct water conditions, lighting and fish, live plants can prove frustrating not only to grow but just to keep alive. The arguments for live plants go something like this: An aquarium with live plants looks more natural. Live plants can help reduce nutrients in the water that would otherwise be used by algae. Live plants provide security and hiding places for fish. Live plants offer spawning sites for many species of fish. And finally, live plants provide nutrition for the fish in the form of microorganisms that colonize the surfaces of the leaves.

While there is truth to these assertions, they are not unique to live plants. Indeed, except for utilizing nutrients in the water, all of the positive aspects for live plants also apply to plastic plants. And  even the concern with nutrient usage is somewhat overstated in that good aquarium management and partial water changes will easily control algae. So. let’s look at the case for plastic plants. There are, in fact, many reasons why plastic plants are an excellent choice. Before we begin, however, we need to get over the phobia about the word “plastic”. Plastic used to mean inferior quality and inexpensive price, but today’s plastics are the material of choice. Precision plastic engineering and the use of new plastic compounds are causing plastics to replace other materials in many products. Plastic also connotes “artificial,” as opposed to “natural.” While this sentiment is understandable, the reality is that when it comes to aquariums, there isn’t much that is natural about them in the first place. Aquariums are artificial aquatic environments that depend on filters, heaters, lights and so on, to provide a suitable home for fish. It makes little sense to insist that live plants are more natural in such an environment.

This is not to say that an aquarium with a lush growth of live plants doesn’t make an attractive and appealing display. It certainly does ! And live plants can grow and multiply, whereas additional plastic plants cost additional money and the total price can really add up. But if your success with live plants is not particularly good, and if you factor in I the replacement costs for live plants that didn’t make it, the total cost for plastic plants begins to look more and more reasonable. And, today’s live plants look very good. Although close inspection could reveal their plastic origin, at normal distances, particularly with some algae on them, plastic plants make an attractive, natural-looking display. There are also other costs associated with live plants. High-intensity lighting, fertilizers, a CO2 system and so on, are all part of the expense. Caring for live plants takes more work, too, plastic plants require no effort at all. It could be said that live plants are more for the benefit of the hobbyist than the fish. After all, the fish don’t care if the plants are live or plastic, except for those species that like to eat plants. These fish do care, and it doesn’t take too many hungry vegetarian fish to make a significant dent in the live plant population in an aquarium. In fact, keeping live plants could very well eliminate a number of fish species from consideration simply because they would use your live plants as a living bar. While feeding lots of vegetable foods might reduce the amount of damage the fish would do to the plants, in theory, there ar no guarantees that this will actually work. Being eaten is not always the problem, however.

There are numerous species of cichlids that will not eat plants, instead they simply dig them up. It is all but impossible to keep live plants ( or even plastic plants, for that matter) rooted in gravel when these fish are in the tank. At least with plastic plants you can push them back into the gravel. Live plants tend to suffer much more from this kind of treatment. Even if the fish in the tank aren’t going to endanger live plants, there is still the problem of keeping them alive long enough to grow. Different species of live plants, like different species of fish, do best under specific water conditions, which they have adapted to in their natural habitats. Some plants need soft, acidic water, whereas others do I best in harder, more alkaline water just like fish. This may limit or restrict the types of plants you can keep. Plastic plants, on the other hand, are inert and thus unaffected by water chemist y. You can choose whatever species of plastic plants you like, and they will look fine regardless of the water chemistry. Water temperature also determines the kinds of plants that will do well in your aquarium. As with fish, different species of plants have different requirements. Keeping fish that prefer warmer water with plant species that do best at cooler water temperatures means that either the fish or plants will suffer, depending on what you set the temperature at.  Again, this is not a concern with plastic plants. Live plants require nutrients in the water to remain healthy, grow and reproduce. They seldom do well in nutrient-poor water. If there are no fish in the tank, it is usually necessary to add supplements (fertilizers, iron) to the water simply to keep plants alive. If there are only a few fish in the tank, their waste products will often be adequate (although an iron supplement will probably still be necessary). However, most hobbyists like lots of fish along with their plants, and here is where things can go wrong. Live plants are supposed to consume nutrients that algae need thus controlling algae in the tank. Reality, however, tends to be quite different.

To begin with, a large number of plants are required to consume enough nutrients in the water to control algae. As soon as there are nutrients in the water and sufficient light, the algae population explodes. Long before the plants have had a chance to grow (and reproduce), algae will be everywhere. In fact, some forms of algae coat the leaves of plants, making photosynthesis impossible thereby weakening and eventually killing the plants. Yes, you can try and remove the algae, but it willl return again and again, and you will soon tire of the  tedious task of physically removing algae from plant leaves. Using an algicide might work, but even at recommended dosages it can injure, and even kill, all but the hardiest aquarium plants. The only way to overcome this algae problem is to add dozens of plants to the tank at once, a fairly expensive proposition more expensive than even plastic plants. However, algae on plastic plants that are already rather authentic looking, almost makes them indistinguishable from live plants. It should be noted that algae is very much a natural part of all aquatic environ-ments and isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. The algae on the plastic plant leaves offers a supplemental source of food for the fish in a tank.

For that matter, the leaves and stems of plastic plants are also colonized by microorganisms, just as with live plants. Fish will graze on these organisms, which are an excellent food source for fry, as well as adults. Lighting becomes extremely important when keeping live plants, and thus becomes a source of difficulty, for several reasons. Live plants must have sufficient light for maintenance and growth. Sufficient light is really a combination of intensity and duration. Duration will not substitute for inadequate intensity the result is weak and spindly plants with more stems than leaves. Supplying sufficient light requires far more than the single fluorescent tube that the hoods on most aquariums allow for. At least two, and sometimes three, tubes are needed, depending on the depth of the tank. So you have to find a way to provide room for this number of tubes (and they must be suitable for plants) or use specialty lights, such as metal halides.

those wonderful plastic plants

The key to aquascaping with plastic plants although this also applies to live plants is to group them so they appear natural.

Of course, once you have enough light for the plants, the algae really takes off. The combination of warm water temperature, nutrients in the water and lots of light causes maior algae blooms that will coat the aquarium glass and the plants. It can be very difficult to control this situation once it gets out of hand. As noted earlier, it requires a large number of plants to consume the nutrients that would be used by the algae. Plastic plants obviously will not consume nutrients, but because they do not require the bright lighting that live plants do, it’s much easier to control algae in the tank. An added advantage of being able to use less light is being able to keep fish that prefer low light levels. These species don’t do well and tend to be nervous when maintained in aquariums with intense lighting. And, speaking of fish, while they do appreciate having plants in the tank for shelter and security, and sometimes as a place to breed, they most certainly don’t know or care whether the plants are live or plastic, unless, of course, they happen to like to eat plants. Fish will graze on the algae and tiny organisms that take up residence on the leaves and stems of plastic plants, which will supplement  the diet provided by the fishkeeper .

The key to aquascaping with plastic plants (although this also applies to live plants) is to group them so they appear natural. In nature, you won’t find a hodgepodge of plant species but rather large numbers of a relatively small number of species. Plants of a species will tend to be grouped together and will consist of individuals in a range of sizes from fully grown to new shoots. In the aquarium, you want to use the same concept. Place a number of plastic plants of the same species in a group in one area of the tank, with taller ones toward the back and medium to small-size plants in front of them. Do this with two or three species for the entire tank. You can use one large plant of one of the more spectacular species (perhaps a Brazilian sword) as a “center-piece” for the display. This plant should actually be placed off-center rather than being exactly in the middle. You should also make sure that some of the plants are near other aquascaping items, such as rocks and driftwood, much as they would be in nature. The taller plants are also great for hiding the uplift tubes of undergravel filters and siphon/in take tubes of filters, as well as heaters. By following these simple suggetions, you will have an easy to care for, natural-looking tank with none of the headaches that live plants can bring. I can already hear the screams from live plant enthusiasts, but the fact is, aquarists really do have options when it comes to aquascaping an aquarium. If you want live plants and are successful with them, that’s wonderful, but there’s no shame in having a wonderful aquarium filled with plastic plants. Trust me.