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That Darn Plant Tank
Part 5: Plants and Fish

photographs and text by Erik Olson
November 1997

Previously in this column, I detailed the planning and construction of a 75 gallon planted tank.

Finally! After months of designing, sawing wood, drilling holes and buying lights, my then-girlfriend convinced me that it was time to put the whole thing together. Time to deal with plants and fish!

Initially, it was pretty simple, because we had to move everything from the old 45 gallon tank into the new one. As time passed and the plants reproduced, I could start playing around more with the aquascaping, removing plants that didn't do so well, and adding ones that did.

The Plants

[Photo of Full Tank]
[Diagram of Planting Plan]

One of several planting arrangements used in That Darn Plant Tank.

[Photo] [Photo]
Microsorum pteropus "Windelov" (left) and "Tropica" (right)

Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus) has been a favorite of mine for quite a while because it still grows under low light, but under high light it grows furiously! I started with a a couple pieces tied to bogwood, and by the time I pulled the wood out of the last tank, it was crawling with rhizomes! In addition to the ``normal'' Java fern, I had been growing two unusual forms cultivated by Tropica, M. pteropus ``Windelov'' and M. pteropus ``Tropica''. A few years ago, Karen Randall sent me a few fronds of these, which I slowly grew into a forest. Eventually, I had so much of these that in the new tank, I decided to keep only these two. The former has the appearance of those little ruffly sock things you see on a cooked turkey, and looks great planted in small groups tied to different spots on a large bogwood root. The latter looks just like normal Java fern which has been serrated with a pair of scissors, and I keep it as a giant grouping on a single bogwood piece. One odd thing about all three varieties is their occasional tendency to mass-wither once or twice in the last three years, turning brown and losing many of their fronds. They always have come back with a vengance.

Giant Hygro (Hygrophila corymbosa) works, I think, only in big tanks like this. It can grow several feet tall, and will easily escape the tank and grow emersed leaves. I use it as a background plant.

Sunset Hygro (Hygrophila polysperma ``Sunset'') is a cultivated form of the standard green hygro, which makes it a little bit (but not much) harder to reproduce. This is a good thing, actually, because green hygro grows so fast I cannot keep up with it. The sunset form is pinkish with pretty veins. As I clip off cuttings, the mother plant grows two new offshoots and rapidly becomes very ``bushy''.

Alternanthera reineckii

Scarlet Hygro (Alternanthera reineckii) is, as you will note, not even a real ``Hygro''. It's in the same family as many non-aquatics, some of which are sold in the fish stores, also (unfortunately) under the name Scarlet Hygro. The way you tell the difference is that the ``good'' plant has a more delicate light-colored stem, while the bog plant has a more ``woody'' stem that's also darker. At any rate, this plant is a striking pink/magenta, and grows amazingly fast when the nutrients are balanced and the light is high. With lower light, the color becomes more olive. I reproduce them by uprooting and cutting the stems in half, and replanting. This is another background plant.

Lobelia cardinalis

I picked up some really good Lobelia cardinalis from Steve Pushak in Vancouver. I'd tried the plant before with some cruddy fish store cuttings, but it never worked well. This was one plant that reinforced the theory that if you start from good cuttings, you end up with good plants. I eventually used the Lobelia as a sort of jagged ``hedge'' line separating the foreground plants from the rest of the tank. By the way, Lobelia looks kinda like a rosette plant, but it's really a stem plant, and can be reproduced by cutting the stem, same as other stem plants.

Pygmy chain swords (Echinodorus tenellus) are a popular choice for foreground ``lawns'' because they don't grow as tall as other plants (2-4 inches typical). The good thing about chain swords is that they reproduce rapidly via runners. The bad thing is that they reproduce rapidly via runners. The tank can quickly get overrun with them, and they don't stay in one place. When this tank started, I used a carpet of chain swords, but as time has passed I have gradually replaced them...

On the other side of the Echinodorus coin, I've tried a few other ``big'' swords. The most impressive was an Echinodorus osiris, sold here under the name ``Red Melon Sword''. When I bought it, it had emersed leaves that were green, about 1.5'' in diameter and almost circular. After a few weeks underwater, it lost all the original leaves and began to get dark maroon/brown oval leaves. Eventually the plant became huge and the centerpiece of the tank.

Echinodorus sp. "Marble Queen" plantlet.

Another sword, which I picked up almost accidentally (local Tom Price traded me a plantlet), was the ``Marble Queen''. This plant looks very similar to the radican sword (E. cordifolius), except that it has a mottled white pattern on the leaves. For some reason, they charge an outrageous sum of money at the stores for this plant, but it's not hard to reproduce. In fact, it's the first plant I've reproduced by flower! All I did was to increase the light schedule from 11 hours to 14 hours a day, and the sucker sent up a stem with four nodes, each of which eventually sprouted. I think that the mottled pattern may be fading with each generation, since it is not as prominent in the plantlets.

I also have some little ``Tropica swords'' (E. parviflorus ``tropica'') which just don't do anything. They grow new leaves and old leaves die. I think I've had these plants for five years and nothing has happened with them. Oh well.

One of the most variable plants I kept in the tank was Heteranthera zosterifolia, which can be bought here as ``Star Grass''. It has grown excellently at times, and extremely badly other times. It's one of those plants that, when doing well, becomes a giant mass and can be trimmed to taper down from back to front. When not doing well, it is a bunch of ugly black stems! Unfortunately, in the new tank, it didn't do well, and was replaced quickly.

Another quirky group of stem plants are the Rotala and Ammania species. Sometimes easy, sometimes impossible, they are a pink to deep red, and very delicate-leaved. I used them as a mid to background plant. The stems have a tendency to rot away at random, and the lower leaves can easily die off.

At one point, I tried Valisneria (probably V. spiralis) as a background plant. It grew well, too well in fact. It sent out runners that quickly spread throughout the entire tank. The grass itself can get one meter or more in length, and has a tendency to get sucked into the prefilter. I moved them to a lower-light tank where they are doing quite well.

In the old tank, I had a great patch of Cryptocoryne wendtii which I had hoped to use as foreground plants. It didn't work. They grew so well in that tank, that they sometimes reached up to 10 inches tall, obscuring my view of the other plants! Needless to say, when the new tank was set up, the Crypts all found a new home... in other peoples' tanks. I am trying some new Crypts now, but in a different tank with lower light and no CO2.

Glossostigma sp. under "protective cage". It didn't work.

In the meantime, I've tried a few different foreground plants. As mentioned above, pygmy chain swords are easy but choke out the rest of the tank. I tried Lilaeopsis brasiliensis (also, and probably incorrectly, called L. novae-zelandae, or ``Micro Swords''), Glossostigma elantoides, and Micranthemum micranthemoides, all of which were harassed and dug up by the fish. They were eventually moved to a side tank, which actually merits its own story, which I'll get into in the last installment of the series.

I had a beautiful Tiger Lotus (Nymphaea sp.) which did its seasonal thing of growing many leaves for several months and then dying back. It never recovered, though its side-bulbs did begin sprouting right before we tore down the tank for our move.

One other foreground plant I'd love to have grow voraciously is Samolus parviflorus, Water Cabbage. It's a cute little rosette plant that sends up stalks with new rosettes at the nodes. They are surviving, but nothing more.

An early incarnation of the tank.
Note the Valisneria and sunset Hygro (left and center), which grew too fast and had to be removed. Also, H. zosterifolia (right), which died.

Finally, there are some other goodies I didn't specifically put in the tank: a little Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana) rode in on the bogwood and has grown to cover much of the area that is not planted. In addition, with the high level of lighting, I've seen maybe a dozen species of algae come and go as the tank settled, moved, became unbalanced, settled again...


...and thus the requirement for fish. Algae eating fish, to be precise. I think there's maybe a dozen Otocinclus in there, quietly munching on soft algae. I never see many of them, but when we moved the tank we definitely caught a bunch. We also have a big fat Siamese Algae Eater (Crossocheilus siamensis), the last survivor of a batch I bough three years ago. Since there has never been any red brush algae in the tank, I attribute it entirely to the SAE. For a while we also kept an Ancistrus sp., mainly because we got him for cheap. Unfortunately, he kept swimming into the overflow skimmer, so he was moved to the labor camp of an algae-infested Lake Tanganyika tank.

If you look back over last month's installment of this article, you might notice something missing in the plumbing section. No filter! That's right, I've tried to let the plants handle all the filtration they possibly can. There's a little mechanical and biological filtration because of the prefilter sponge in the overflow, but that's all. I don't keep a lot of fish in the tank. In addition to the aforementioned algae eaters, it's just been a small school of rummy nosed tetras, and a handful of dwarf cichlids. I kept a pair of spawning Kribs in there for the longest time, mostly for sentimental reasons. They were later replaced by a pair of non-spawning Pelvicachromis taeniatus ``Kienke''. There is also a retired Apistogramma cacatuoides, and some Dicrossus filamentosus (who actually did lay eggs in the tank a few times). The choice of fish in this tank is definitely its most neglected feature.

Next: A short word about fertilizer, which was completely left out in the original form of this article series!
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