Water plants – setting up a natural aquarium

New Mary in the aquarium

Luna, Blake and I began an aquarium project about two years ago now, the seasons have come around again, and we have enjoyed looking back on how the activities around this have created a very interesting family project. Initially, I thought the post about setting up an indoor, naturally planted aquarium would be a kind of ’round up’ of what we did, how it went, for those curious about doing the same. But it has been an on going project, and I see it will continue to change, and we’ll have new experiences with the aquarium and its’ in habitants.

Austin next to the aquarium

That would be life with other living creatures though, wouldn’t it?!

water weed

Above: Water plants in a tank at the Auckland Museum.

Establishing a planted aquarium was a natural progression from making Terrariums, and this has become one of our most long running projects, and all the more satisfying as we learned a lot along the way.

Initially, we collected and placed in a bucket, some water plants, rocks and soil or sediment from a waterway we visited and played in out west. This was spontaneous, but not unrelated to a strong interest in animals and life cycles at play all around us. We found a small tank with rocks at an op shop, so set up a shallow water tank on the back step. It looked a bit like this, kind of murky and muddy, not that exciting, or so we thought, just a few plants and rocks in a tank….

Water weed

Until we observed that there appeared to be trails in the sediment on the surface of the larger rocks. Something or someone had come home with us! What what or who was making those tracks? We surmised that it must be a water snail as we had seen similar trails in sand at the beach. Of course, we had to see the creature to be sure though, regular checks and investigations were underway. I was curious to see how standing water and plants may fair, my grandparents had (and still have fish) first a big  glass bowl and then an outside concrete pond, the fish seemed happy without filters or mechanical means of moving water. We talked about this as we were figuring out what would be the best habit for water animals and plants, and we paid more attention to the water ways and wet environments we came across on our outdoor excursions. At first, the back step seemed like a good place, as we were just starting out, had no pump and nowhere suitable inside to set it up…..but it’s also a thoroughfare, and as it turned out, not the best place, the tank was bumped and cracked in a week… back to square one. We needed a new tank, and though we salvaged as much as we could, we also needed new plants and new mud. Luna decided to save her pocket money to buy a new tank, we scoured op shops, our budget was under $20, we managed to find a good deal on trademe, and after an exchange of $16, Luna had a nice new tank, with clean stones which had been home to an axolotl,  hey wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those….? No no! Back to the original plan!

Mary in the tank

Eventually when we had our new tank installed indoors and we had sourced some new wild water plants we enjoyed once again looking for life. We realised that there must have been water snails or eggs on the plants or in the mud, we discovered these little babies, tiny water snails, only a couple of millimetres in size. We surmized that these little fellas might have been responsible for the tarcks in the mud in our original tank set up.

close up water snail

By now we had a clearer idea of what we needed to do, and after more research, we knew what we wanted, and how to care for our tank inhabitants. We had also looked at as many books on freshwater fish, aquariums and how to set up a planted or natural aquarium, we found some youtube clips as well as books on the ‘how to’s’. We were well along the way, and getting close to adding fish to the family. We learnt that a naturally planted aquarium may not have that crystal clear look – the perfect looking tank – that we were more familiar with. A naturally planted tank has sediment, gravel, some soil for the plants to establish themselves (this varies according to the method you go for, the plants and other inhabitants of the tank). We also learnt about the balance necessary for the fish to be healthy, which means ensuring the right amount of plants to animals – including water snails, who also may feast on the plants! We welcomed Mary a comet, and Devon a bronze shubunkin, here’s Luna’s drawing of Mary.

Mary by Luna

Sadly, Devon, below, who was of a somewhat nervous disposition, did not survive long with us, and we found her floating on the surface, mouth open, after a tank clean (she had also been removed by little hands and placed in a shell during the process…oh dear!) Here is a drawing of her, and a water critter, Elsbrogdoofrug, so named by Blake. Elsbrogdoofrug vanished not long after Mary and Devon arrived, and we suspect he was a tasty snack for one of the fish….

Devon and Elsbrog doof ryg

Luna and Blake could be found, seated in front of the tank, just observing, talking to their own fish…looking for other creatures.

new plants in the aquarium corner

We collected wild specimens of plants, to add to the tank, we would quarantine the plants in jars, with fresh water, letting them acclimatize to the new environment of our house. This provided more opportunities for talking about natural habitats, and how would the plants survive, adapt or change in our wee tank?

window on the windowsil

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of our approach was watching and discovering new creatures appearing, maybe transported to out tank as eggs on plants, or perhaps as tiny animals we didn’t see at first. planeria in the jar detail2

Like this blurry Planaria, or flat worm, it’s in the small jar of water plants we kept on the windowsill for a while, we could spot them in the big tank too, if we looked closely…

Hydra on the rocks detail

And how exciting it was to discover Hydra colonising the rock and shells in the tank! So many kinds of creatures, so much life, we just needed to look closely… Along with the new life, we also had some difficulties, keeping the tank clean, from little hands mostly. At one point two sweet little toddlers had set themselves up in chairs, with straws to drink from the tank ! But the fish seemed ok…We had to move the tank twice, as we shifted house, so not ideal, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.

new plants in the aquarium

We are onto Mary 2.0 and Devon 3.0, we have had a fish floating on the surface, dead, had a funeral service and burial (in the compost heap, with flowers) we have had a fish simply not-be-in-the-tank anymore. The main suspect was of course Austin the cat. Obviously, we want the animals and plants to thrive, and have a good life, and we think we have got the right set up now, I have a good contact for water plants, we change the filter regularly, I have re-planted and cleaned more times than I care to remember, but it seems like once the balance is established, it’s fairly low maintenance…

green prism

One key in setting up a naturally planted aquarium is that plants need sunshine. In the current location, we discovered early one morning, that for about 10 minutes a day, the sunshine coming in across the room in winter hit the tank at just the right angle to produce a stunning, stunning rainbow.

tank prism

Amazing colours!

red prism2


blue prism


very green prism

The sun has moved now, so we don’t see this, but we’ll be looking for it next winter…

Other exciting discoveries include, snails suddenly appearing in the tank, finding spawn, likely from water snails deposited on water plants, and often devoured by the fish. We also had a couple dragonflies emerge from the jars of wild water plants we had collected. Dragonflies! That was an exciting day.

new plants in the aquarium top

Technical and educational stuff about our tank and this project:

Filters; we tried an underwater filter, but it was too powerful and stirred up the soil and kept the small about of sediment swirling around the tank. So we went for a slim waterfall type filter, this gently draws in, filters and returns water to the tank in a trickle, which works well. I also purchase the filter cartridges online, cheaper than I could buy from the pet store, these I replace every two weeks, and give the tank walls and filter itself a minimal clean.

Fish food; one of the goals for our set up is to reduce the amount of feeding the fish required, we wanted to establish a healthy as possible self sustaining habitat. So, we rarely feed the fish commercial fish food, but aim to keep the plants growing healthy, as the Shubunkin and Comet will eat anything! We have introduced captured mosquito larvae (kids loved sifting them out of our grey water tank…)

Plants and keeping the water healthy; any new plants collected wild spent at least a few days in a big glass jar outside with fresh tap water from our home supply and were introduced gradually. I found plants purchased from the local pet store did not do well, unless I was prepared to invest in the more substantial potted plants, they just didn’t live long or settle in the tank. We experimented with cultivating small pieces of oxygen weed in jars on the windowsill – to increase that sunlight – this was mildly successful. But what made the difference was buying some water weed online from someone who grows good specimens in an outside pond. The plants are robust and strong, and they just seemed to keep on growing, we could seem them putting out new roots and growing towards the sun. I am yet to go in-depth into the chemistry of the healthy aquarium, so that will be a future exploration…

Books and research; we borrowed a whole heap of books from our library over several months, on all kinds of aquaria, we visit the local pet store and enjoy looking at the other animals often. We found some interesting wild, freshwater parks where we could observe the natural (as possible, being urban) environment, we also look at aquaria at the local museum too.

Community and relationships; we talked with the staff at pet shops about our plans, and our librarians, Luna and Blake have been friendly with some staff at a public garden we frequent and learnt about the fish they care for too.

Additional educational aspects of this project; we learned more about rainbows, and how prisms work, and have bigger dreams about out door water gardens (maybe one day…) The ‘successes’; such as plants growing well and other life appearing, as well as the ‘failures’, plants not establishing themselves and fishes dying/disappearing provided opportunities for analysing our set up, and empathy with the animals. Particularly in avoiding stress, while cleaning, and moving them, and our goal of respectfully caring for captive animals…yet another conversation! As I encouraged Luna in particular to save up for her fish and the new tank, budgeting and saving was also a consideration. Luna bought Blake’s fish for him with her pocket money savings, which was really heartening to see.

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