The Benefits and Basics of Setting Up a Naturally Planted Tank for Betta Fish

The lush alluring appearance of a naturally planted tank is as aesthetically stunning as it is beneficial for fish. Perhaps it is the charm of an aquascaped environment, the numerous benefits fish receive from a natural setting, or the love for nurturing a complete living miniature ecosystem that initially draws fish keepers into the world of naturally planted aquariums. Whatever the cause for the interest in keeping live aquatic plants, one thing is certain: starting a naturally planted aquarium is often viewed as an overwhelming, tedious, process that turns beginners away. It is true that there is much to learn about keeping live plants but the benefits of doing so are not only long-lasting for the owner but also for their fish. In fact, Betta fish benefit significantly from such an environment.

A Batta splendens is acclimating into its new naturally planted tank. Photo by asu1776 via bettafish.com

A Betta splendens is acclimating into its new naturally planted tank. Photo by asu1776 via bettafish.com

Naturally planted tanks have strong benefits for long-finned Betta fish in particular. The crude, sharp, plastic faux-plants sold by pet and fish stores damage their delicate fins. Torn, shredded, fins open Betta fish up to all sorts of bacterial infections and there is never a guarantee that fins will heal back exactly the same upon recovery. While fabric plants are more suitable and popular for Betta fish tanks they are also less in variety and number, often harder to find than their plastic counterparts. And while fake fabric plants may be easier to manage and cheaper in the short-term, living plants add so many more benefits to an aquarium that not seriously considering them neglects significant potential for a higher-quality home for your fish.

Live plants may come with their own set of rules for care but they give back immensely. The most important reason why a Betta keeper may consider establishing a naturally planted tank is what one contributes to establishing and maintaining a healthy nitrogen cycle. In the case of naturally planted tanks, the plants become the main filtration system for the tank and the more plants you have the better off your water quality.  As has been deeply discussed on this blog, the nitrogen cycle effects every aspect of aquarium keeping and the chemicals present in it are unavoidable, and potentially deadly, to Betta fish regardless of whether or not a fish keeper chooses to complete the cycle. Live plants help remove the harmful invisible chemicals that are always present in an aquatic environment, feeding off them and converting them into less harmful byproducts. High water quality results in a high quality life for Betta fish.

Anubias heterophylla, a popular plant for tall freshwater aquariums. Photo by Wikipedia

Anubias heterophylla, a popular plant for tall freshwater aquariums. Photo by Wikipedia

Not only do a live plants help stabilize and maintain a healthy nitrogen cycle, they also provide a feeling of safety and protection for fish. Betta fish particularly heavy amounts of coverage to feel secure, especially if living with companions. It is often thought that self-harm expressed through tail-biting  is a result of stress stemming from too many open spaces. Adding hiding spots and foliage is a common remedy suggested for tail-biters that wields positive results for Betta fish that self-harm due to this particular kind of stress, though it should be noted that the behavior may continue if instigated from other factors. Live plants offer thick, smooth, coverage that Betta fish like to swim through. Additionally, having a variety of live plants will give fish opportunities to explore. Bored bettas may also tail bite but they may also become lethargic due to a lack of stimulation, so the addition of live plants immediately helps improve their lives from three significant standpoints.

Starting a naturally planted tank is not something to be done without research, as it is not as simply as picking out substrate, plants, and lighting. Depending on local water, the type of aquarium desired, shape of the aquarium, and budget, the options for naturally planted fish tanks vary greatly. It is important to know what is desired and how to best achieve that desired tank to figure out if it is manageable based on individual circumstances. To do so, consider the following factors.

Water

Water may look the same coming from the tap but without a test kit it is impossible to know what species would do best in an aquarium. Liquid test kits, such as this master kit from API on Amazon are far more reliable and accurate than paper based testing strips. A complete test kit should contain a test for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, and water hardness. Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate are the significant players in the water cycle and can be learned about in detail in this previous BettaSmart article. The quick run through is ammonia is present and produced naturally in water through waste, uneaten food, and fish exhale.

Ammonia is poisonous to Betta fish at any level and the higher the parts per million (ppm) the more likely burns, poisoning, and death are for fish. Ammonia is eventually eaten by nitrifying bacteria and is converted to the still-poisonous but slightly less dangerous chemical called nitrite. The same process is done to nitrite over a long period of time and the bacteria turn it into the still-poisonous but least harmful chemical called nitrate. Nitrate is okay to have in aquarium waters but only at the ideal level of 20ppm and can only be removed through water changes. Testing for chemicals is crucial for adding live plants because a fully cycled tank must be established before adding live plants and—for the best health benefit—before live fish, though an in-fish cycle is possible.

A liquid based water test from using API Freshwater Master Test Kit, showing ammonia and nitrite at 0ppm, an ideal reading for a cycled tank. Photo by fishlvr.com

A liquid based water test from using API Freshwater Master Test Kit, showing ammonia and nitrite at 0ppm, an ideal reading for a cycled tank. Photo by fishlvr.com

Next is pH. Betta fish prefer a neutral pH but if local water that they are acclimated to contains slightly more acidic or slightly more basic pH it is best not to try and change it chemically as fish and plants may be harmed as a consequence. Finding live plants that best match the pH of local source water is the best route to go. Learn about what best suits your local water and select from those plants.

Finally, you have water hardness. There are two types of hardness, general hardness (GH) and carbonate hardness (KH). Simply put, GH is amount of dissolved salts in water. Even fresh water contains low amounts of salt and they are necessary for maintaining a healthy environment for fish. These salts provide a healthy amount of potassium, magnesium, and calcium for fish and plants, as well as other significant trace elements. Water that contains low amounts of these salts is referred to as soft water whereas high amounts of these salts is referred to as hard water. Soft water can be treated by adding appropriate aquarium salts (never table salt or anything iodized) that can be monitored through your water test kit. Hard water can be treated by diluting it with soft water through reverse osmosis.

KH is the measure of dissolved carbonate and bicarbonate salts only. These are specific kinds of salts present in fresh water as well. KH is arguably more important to monitor than GH when it comes to live plants. The carbonate salts that can be tested for in KH can help an aquarium avoid pH swings, which can be deadly to fish and plants. Both GH and KH need to be monitored and should measure at above 50ppm but are ideally at a 70ppm to 100ppm level for tropical fish tanks. Ultimately, like with pH, it is ideal to choose plants that are suited to your water hardness needs.

Substrate

Substrate is the stuff that people place at the bottom of a fish tank. In non-live tanks it is often gravel or sand. A substrate that provides support for plants’ roots, growth, and nutritional needs is one of the most important parts of a naturally planted tank. Think of the substrate as the foundation. If it is low in nutrients or too loose for plants to properly root themselves, anything built on top of it will churn out disappointing results. The best substrate for a naturally planted tank does depend on the type of tank you want but top-soil, organic type potting soil, or even unfertilized or chemically altered dirt from the garden are all good options. Mineral-rich soil is an absolute necessity. Soil takes about three months to establish itself and come alive in an aquarium. By then it will be full of microorganisms and ready for planting. The amount you need depends on the size and shape of your aquarium, as well as what plants will be added.

soil substrate

Soil is added to a tank to support live plants. Photo by Practical Fish Keeping Magazine

Other options for substrate are available, such as certain aquarium sands and gravel mixtures. It is important to know what the roots of your live plants need before deciding on a substrate, however. Choosing the wrong substrate can have disastrous consequences as it is the foundation in a successful naturally planted tank.

Fertilizer

Fertilization is a key component to maintaining the health and aesthetics for your plants. Wastes from fish and other tank mates contribute to the fertilization of plants, as well as any uneaten food that decomposes at the bottom of the tank. Depending on what is grown, how much is grown, and the rate of growth, the level of fertilization differs. Lightly planted tanks with good lighting and regular feedings with slow-growing plants, for example, may not need much fertilization if any at all. A heavily planted tank with fast growing plants may need significant fertilization additions, depending on the species of plant. Because aquariums are so customizable and unique, a naturally planted tank keeper will want to research the basics and monitor his or her own tank to find what sort of fertilization is best. After about a month look for signs of yellowing in plants or deficiencies. Any obvious signs of health decay suggest a lack of nutrition and supplements may be needed. If fertilization is needed there are many options on the market for liquid fertilizers such as these. They are high in magnesium, boron, zinc, and other good elements that help with plant growth. A dosage of fertilizer according to your individual tank needs can always help maintain the integrity of health in your naturally planted aquarium.

Seachem Flourish

Seachem Flourish, a popular aquarium fertilizer. Photo by Amazon.com

Liquid fertilizer is not the only fertilizer option either. Dry fertilizer and fertilizer tablets are also options, sometimes preferred by aquascapers over liquid options. Seachem Flourish is a favored aquarium fertilizer and is available in both liquid and tablet form, for example. Depending on how large of a naturally planted Betta fish tank is in question, different types of fertilizers may be more beneficial than others.

Lighting

Lighting can be tricky for plants, especially when Betta fish are involved. Too much lighting may result in unwanted algae or stress the betta involved. Too dull lighting can induce a different kind of algae or not supply enough energy plants need for photosynthesis. Learn what kind of lighting your plants need and try to keep plants that need similar amounts of light together. Without getting into too much detail, because lighting can be its own article in its own right, intensity and output are two critical factors to consider, light output and color spectrum. Light output is measured in a unit called lumens. Lumens are often not mentioned on light bulb packages but usually higher wattage equals higher lumens, though the type of bulb may vary its output. Color spectrum is emitted by all lights and the spectrum controls the intensity of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), which is the energy plants can use. Most of the time, these details are not too significant in keeping a naturally planted tank healthy and alive. Simple understanding on whether your tank need low, medium, or high lighting is usually good enough. Further research into the effects of each of these components can be useful but not necessary.

A well-lit aquarium will wield beautiful results with healthy live plants. Photo by James Starr-Marshall, shown in Practical Fish Keeping Magazine

A well-lit aquarium will wield beautiful results with healthy live plants. Photo by James Starr-Marshall, shown in Practical Fish Keeping Magazine

Getting Started

These are just the basics and benefits of naturally planted tanks for Betta fish. Like with all living creatures, a well maintained living environment is key for providing a high quality life. Filtration through live plants is often the preferred method by experienced Betta fish keepers and aquarists in general. Not only do these tanks look stunning and can become a centerpiece in any room, the health benefits they offer are unbeatable. Research, time, and money need to be put into one in order for it to be successful so make sure to know what you want and how you wanted it according what you can manage before going there and starting a naturally planted tank of your own.

References

Foster, Race, Dr., and Marty Smith, Dr. “Step-by-step Guide to Setting Up a Planted Aquarium.” Live Aquaria. Liveaquaria.com, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.liveaquaria.com%2FPIC%2Farticle.cfm%3Faid%3D101>.

Maddocks, Lea. “Setting Up a Successful Low-Tech Planted Tank like a Pro, Part 1: The Basics (Full Article).” Tropical Fish Hobbyist Nov. 2012: n. pag. Setting Up a Successful Low-Tech Planted Tank like a Pro, Part 1: The Basics (Full Article). Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.tfhmagazine.com/details/articles/setting-up-a-successful-lowtech-planted-tank-like-a-pro-part-1-the-basics-full-article.htm&gt;.

Walstad, Diana. “Setting up a Natural Planted Tank.” Setting up a Natural Planted Tank. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, Nov. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://www.tfhmagazine.com/details/articles/setting-up-a-natural-planted-tank.htm&gt;.

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