What is a planted aquarium? Separating the sheep from the goats.
By Eduardo Fonseca
After so many years teaching the planted aquarium in classes, articles, books and social media, I realized that I still run into a very recurrent difficulty in communicating with people who come to me to ask questions or “ask for tips”. In many cases, I happen to make a particular image of aquariums that people describe in a totally different way than they actually are. I’ve seen it all, even a horse coughing. So, it is difficult to start from a theoretical point in common from which practical behaviors should be prescribed, because, in fact, many of these people do not even have a planted aquarium. They have anything else but not a planted tank. I feel this is a terrible failure on my part. Maybe it lacked a proper introduction to the planted tank, but maybe it also lacked this notion that some people just don’t understand, due to lack of experience, the limits of what a planted tank is.
From the beginning I imagined my classes, my books and articles as a “herding” which I would lead to the source of water, and I would have to see that none of the sheep strayed in the study process due to lack of understanding of the fundamentals. But why some just can’t herd? Recently I’ve been realizing that it’s just because they’re not sheep, these people are getting into the wrong herd and that’s my fault for never having defined, in any part of my works, the limits of the planted aquarium definitions. This time I want to dedicate this article to separating the sheep from the goats.
Why is it important to be done? Because the theory and behaviors that I highlight in my works do not work in all systems because they simply have plants, and it is at this point that communication fails: when it comes time to give wool, the goats are already naked. It is evident that something is wrong. We need to define the planted aquarium to know to what extent we are dealing with a planted aquarium, an aquarium with plants, a low demand aquarium or an aquascaping. Just to cite an example, a person once came to me to complain about his KH that was always low. The conduct was simple, use the buffer. He couldn’t use the buffer because he had wild discus in an aquarium 2 meters long by 60 cm high and he had to keep the water acidic in low light. I asked for a photo of this aquarium and there were just a lot of water lilies and ferns. The answer was not what he expected: “you don’t have a planted tank, my friend, you have a discus tank with some plants. Forget everything I would have to tell you about planted aquariums, you are a goat.” A second example, another person came to me to say that their plants were not developing well despite good lighting, fertilization, CO2 and substrate. His parameters were really very reasonable, but he was complaining about a lot of filamentous algae. I asked for a photo of the aquarium and to my surprise it was a box measuring almost 1.8 m long and a small volume of plants that would allow me to plant at most a box measuring 60 cm long. “I’m sorry buddy, you don’t have a planted aquarium. Everything I have to say to you will not work in this configuration; you are in the position of a goat.”
Figure 1 – A typical community plant aquarium, but not a planted aquarium,
The problem really exists. It is not a question of creating a club, but of establishing the limits for people to be able to situate themselves if they are inside or outside the planted aquarium restrictions, if they are goats or sheep. If they should be concerned with the requirements of an entire planted aquarium as a complex ecosystem or if they should simply be concerned with meeting the specific requirements of any eventual plant present in their system.
So let’s get to the technical description. What is a planted aquarium?
A PLANTED AQUARIUM IS A SYSTEM THAT PRIORITIZES THE PERFORMANCE OF VEGETABLE PHYSIOLOGY.
I could sum it up like this, but there are implicit ramifications. When I say plant physiology performance, this means that the system is energy dependent and the intensity of this energy modulates its performance through a metabolic rate, which may present a slower or faster rate. If there is metabolism, if there is consumption at a rate beyond what the system can sustain on its own (ie it is dependent on a continuous external injection of resources), then it may be a planted aquarium. To be a planted tank, that yield still needs to be prioritized and that puts restrictions on everything else that isn’t plants. The minimum that is expected from a planted aquarium is a lot of plant mass with a lot of growth performance that can only be sustained, fundamentally, by a concentration of CO2 much higher than the natural one. CO2, as I have described many times, is the lifeblood of the planted aquarium.
Figure 2 – A biotope often does not fit the signature of a planted aquarium.
This is where a rift opens up between the goats and the sheep. A community aquarium with lots of fish and some plants as an ornament is not a planted aquarium because there is no priority to plant yield and almost no plant performance is required: it is an aquarium with plants. A diorama of branches and roots carefully glued together with moss-lined super-bonder is also not a planted aquarium, it’s just aquascaping with no plant yield. You can throw the knives on me now because I’m going to defend that fact. Aquascaping is not necessarily a planted aquarium. Nature aquarium is not necessarily a planted aquarium. A biotope is not necessarily a planted aquarium. Likewise, a planted aquarium is not necessarily an aquascaping (!!!).
I imagine many experienced aquarists would disagree with me and I don’t see a problem with that. I even think it’s good that this subject doesn’t end here, people need to think about it and I’m open to counter arguments. This needs to be explored even for the sake of the hobbyist market. Well, at least that’s my opinion. When a person enters a store looking for a planted aquarium, it would be very good to know what he knows about planted aquariums and if he knows the technical cost of it. The distance between what he wants and what he acquires is inversely proportional to the knowledge he has about what he wants to the point of not even knowing what he wants!
Figure 3 – Does every form of aquascaping fit the signature of a planted aquarium? Sometimes not.
Maybe this article raises a lot of questions or starts a little controversy, but this delimitation can finally put people on what they want from their aquarium and if the planted aquarium path is the path they want to take. In the planted aquarium we stretch the dystropia spring in proportion to the rhythm and this continuous injection of energy is what all the difficulty of achieving a healthy and productive system consists of. A planted aquarist ends up becoming an expert at manipulating ecosystems, he doesn’t even care much about fish. When he matures even more, he doesn’t even care about his plant preferences anymore. He stops collecting plants and develops a look at the whole, at the integral performance of his system. When your artistic side evolves, you can stack your planted tank skills with art and create aquascaping with planted aquarium. These works pass in front of dioramas without metabolism in the eyes of the judges, at least that’s to be expected. That’s why I think, without “silk tearing”, that Sensei Luca Galarraga is the best planted aquarist in the world. He’s not among the best, he’s the best. He manages to gather all his artistic skill into a highly demanding system and keeps it balanced throughout the aquarium’s life with mastery. He may not be the best aquascaper in the world, but I’ve never seen an aquascaper of his caliber be such a good planted aquarist and it’s because of this consistency of two great rulers that he has one of the biggest prize collections in the world.
But this brings a problem to the market: people end up being inspired by aquascaping, but are not interested in planted aquarism to the same extent. In fact, most people think it’s the same thing. This mistake is a tragedy. It’s like stepping into a boxing ring willing to exchange punches and dodges, disregarding the legwork: you’ll be crushed for ten rounds. And what we see out there are aquarists throwing the towel or betting on technology as some kind of “secret weapon”, the “decisive hook of Rocky Balboa”, the “the heron strike” of Master Miyagi that saves all that was lost: the ozone, the UV light, the anti-algae, the perfect configuration of the white LED with red, the resin remover, the salt behind the door. Forget it, you’ll be crushed if you don’t prioritize being a good aquarist over being a good aquascaper. Before learning to punch, you need to learn to work your legs. To survive in the ring, you might want to buy a jump rope before gloves to punch the bag, you bet.
Figure 4 – Perhaps the Dutch Aquarium is the purest form of the planted aquarium.
Another big mistake is the “low techs”. I have nothing against low techs, as long as they don’t call them planted tanks. You can cram as many ferns as you like and tie as many mosses as you like in a 20 liter CO2 free aquarium with USB LED desk lamp, it will never be a planted aquarium. Just an aquarium with plants. Why? Again, because there is no metabolism, because consumption does not exceed own resources, because there is no plant performance. I’m not saying it’s an inferior system to a planted aquarium. I’ve seen wonderful low tech systems that I would have in my house and sometimes I even prefer such a system to a demanding planted aquarium depending on my personal moment, but it’s a different system with a different signature of conduct. There is nothing wrong with those who like low tech and know they have a low tech system, but those who have a low tech and demand the performance of a planted aquarium thinking that there is some secret formula for this, yes, it is very wrong, and needs some botany classes to realize the terrible inconsistency of this thought.
Between the low-tech aquarist who demands too much from his system and the aquascaper who fails because he can’t control the momentum of his aquarium is the planted tank: not necessarily artistic nor necessarily too demanding. The scientific fundation of the planted aquarium extends to both low tech and aquascaping but doesn’t necessarily apply to them. I hope, from this article, that people who follow my work will be able to distinguish their positions in this context and be able to perceive the distance between where they are and where they would like to go. Not that point A is better or worse than point B, but it is essential to realize that they are different and often incompatible points.
I understand that many aquariums cannot be fully fitted into a planted system. I believe that there may be cases where it is not possible to draw a sharp line that separates one thing from another, like a chessboard. I understand that some things would be in the gray zone. It doesn’t matter, the aquarist needs to develop the sensitivity and intelligence to separate what is relevant to him and what is not in his technical conduct and guide his system in the best possible way. Is an iwagumi a planted aquarium? In some cases maybe not. What about a densely planted biotope with high plant yield, albeit with some restrictions? I believe that many would fit in a planted aquarium, but not purely one. I do not want to open a rigid “class” of premises that superbly dictates what is a planted aquarium or not, but only to delimit, in a practical way, the systems that fit into a certain nature of metabolism that demands more specific behaviors.
If you’re confused about what is and isn’t a planted tank, start by looking at what it isn’t and understand why it isn’t. The negative way of building knowledge also works. Note if such a system depends on lighting providing photosynthesis, if it depends on CO2, fertile substrate, fertilization, biological filtration and if the typical parameters compete with the ideal ones. The more they compete, the further from being a planted aquarium. I emphasize once again that it is not an intention to elitize the planted aquarium. Have you tried raising the KH to 8 to improve biological filtration by keeping the pH lower than 7? Guess what, it’s impossible without CO2 and there’s no point in spending all your salary on acidifiers or putting tree fern in your filter. This is a prospect of the doubts that come to me. I’m happy to help everyone I know how to help, but first it’s good that people know where they want to go before asking