The plantless aquarium
How to approach plantless aquarium design successfully
Plantless aquarium design can be very enticing both for beginning aquarists and for more experienced ones, but making your plantless aquarium a success depends on a number of key factors that need to be kept in mind during your aquarium set up and thereafter as well. Plantless aquariums are often considered barren-looking by hobbyists in the aquarium trade, but with the right aquascaping approach they can offer their owners a uniquely serene, zen-like sense of beauty.
There are two essential prerequisites to successful plantless aquarium design: handling the technical aspects of healthy water conditions and filtration without the plants’ help, and designing your aquarium with an eye for sublime beauty in such a way that you do not feel the need to hide your aquascape behind plants.This requires maximising the artful use of other aquarium materials. The first order of business is making sure that your technical needs are taken care of.
Step one: compensating for a plantless tank with filters and algae control
The first two issues that you should consider with plantless aquarium design are the important role that plants play in the nitrogen cycle and in algae control. Fortunately, both of these issues can be resolved reasonably well through careful planning. Plants can make some aspects of your aquarium easier to take care of, but in the long run you can enjoy a successful tank without them as well.
When it comes to filtration, you want to maximize the ability for beneficial bacteria to grow in your tank since you will not have the benefit of ammonia-absorbing plants to rely on. This could mean increasing the size of your filter, using a rocky gravel substrate, or both. Gravel will provide additional surface area for the necessary bacteria to grow, which can help out immensely.
Gravel must be more carefully chosen to add visual interest. There are various grain sizes of gravel to consider and many colours to choose from. The texturing effect and colour of the gravel compared to the rocks and the fish should provide a stunning contrast.
Sand is also a worthwhile substrate to consider, although maintenance and cleaning is generally easier with gravel. Most fish tend to prefer sand as a more natural substrate and some require it in order to begin breeding and spawning. In either case, your substrate should be rather thin, since you do not have to worry about giving anchor to any plant roots.
Also, without the delicate needs of plants to worry about, you can set up your filter for more water flow. This can help ensure that the tank water does get thoroughly filtered without the need for plants, and will help with algae control as well.
Dealing with algae in a plantless tank
Despite all the time you spend on making your plantless aquarium design look great, if you leave your tank near a sunny window for a week you can expect a full-blown algae bloom to occur. In order to protect your tank from algae, you will need to maintain a consistent algae cleaning and light reduction program. Using a UV sterilizer may help here.
Even without a UV sterilizer, frequent water changes and careful monitoring of your water’s nutrient levels will be important to avoid encouraging algae growth. You can also invest in algae controlling chemicals, but these should be considered a last resort, as they may affect the fish and may not be necessary in the long term, unless your algae situation really gets out of hand.
Paying attention to your lighting when planning your plantless aquarium design is important for this reason. Without plants, you have no need for specialized halide lights and indeed this kind of lighting will encourage algae blooms to occur regularly, putting your fish in danger and turning your beautifully serene tank into an unsightly green cesspool. If you notice algae getting out of hand, you can always “black-out” the aquarium for a few days. Then resume lighting at reduced levels and duration.
Low maintenance floating plants
If you wish to forgo the purist approach then the use of floating plants may represent a great way to get the benefits of plants without actually planting anything. Some aquarists may consider this cheating, and no longer call the aquarium a strictly plantless one, but the decision is yours. Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, if you feel satisfied with using floating plants then it is an acceptable and low maintenance way to enjoy your tank.
Step two: making your plantless aquarium design look great
Once your aquarium is functioning smoothly without plants, it is time to consider how you can set up the tank to stop it looking so stark and barren.
The key to aquascaping successfully, is in paying more attention to your tank’s hardscape- the rocks, driftwood, sand or gravel and any ornaments that you use to give your tank its own unique identity. Providing a rocky background can be a great way to bring character to an aquarium. Many aquarists use plants to hide the unattractive equipment of their aquascaping job. In a plantless aquarium this is not an option.
Using rocks as decor
Rocks can make an excellent foundation for a plantless aquarium design, and owners of Malawi biotopes have been using them for years to great effect. Most Malawi biotopes are plantless by design because rocks are an integral part of the Malawi lake ecosystem. When setting up your tank using rocks, you will want to use many different shapes and sizes of rock, to mimic a natural looking environment.
Malawi aquarists emphasise height in their use of rocks. Not just selecting tall pieces of rock but actually stacking rocks on top of each other to achieve height. However, care must be taken that such structures are safe. Falling or toppling rocks can crack the glass and even land on fish.
Often, a rock-based plantless aquarium design will feature a very large centrepiece of some kind. A particularly ancient-looking stone of great size can lend an air of gravity to the entire tank and give you that zen-like sense of the sublime that makes plantless aquariums so special. Multiple rock formations can also be very interesting, especially in carefully laid scenic patterns.
Rocks, stones and pebbles can be constructed upon sand to make a desert like aquascape reminiscent of a real life desert. Stones and pebbles can also be used to form cave structures, valleys and hill formations. The possibilities are endless.
Making the most of driftwood
Driftwood is another incredibly popular element of plantless aquarium design. By layering choice branches of driftwood throughout your aquarium, you can achieve a natural beauty that reminds you of the jungle without needing any distracting greenery getting in the way. Amazon biotopes will frequently use driftwood and sometimes are plantless.
The key with layering your driftwood successfully is in finding suitably gnarled pieces of it. Straight driftwood can be used to great effect sometimes, but is better to used gnarled old branches that curve and twist. They can be used throughout the tank in an inspiring way. Rather than going for a centrepiece like you would with rocks, often the best approach for driftwood is to distribute your pieces naturally throughout the tank in order to mimic nature.
Other decorative items
Of course, there is no need to feel like you are limited to choosing between driftwood and rocks. These are just two of the most popular decorative items commonly used to great effect in world-class plantless aquariums. For your own plantless aquarium design, your imagination is the limit. Some aquarists enjoy putting model miniatures in their tanks, and others decorate theirs with hand-blown glass.
If you have an interesting, out-of-the-box idea for your plantless aquarium, you are encouraged to explore that idea. Many beautiful aquaria have been created around this concept: take that idea, put it in a box, fill the box with water and fish and enjoy your own unique plantless aquarium design. Examples being say stonehenge, the parthenon, the pyramids or Atlantis.