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Safe Plants and Decorations for Your Aquarium and Aquatic Friends. Researched and Formatted by: Juanita Hoffman. Introduction.

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safe plants and decorations for your aquarium and aquatic friends

Safe Plants and Decorations for Your Aquarium and Aquatic Friends

Researched and Formatted by: Juanita Hoffman


Before adding any decoration to your aquarium you must take several things into consideration. First and foremost is the question, “Is the plant or item that I want to add to this tank safe for my fish?” Next thing to consider is how adding the decorations will affect your aquatic friends.

live plants vs artificial
Live Plants ~vs.~ Artificial
  • Making the decision to use live plants has benefits as well as some negative things to take into consideration.
  • In the next section you will find pros and cons for both live and artificial plants.
  • As you will see there are plenty pros and cons for each option. A well planned and maintained aquarium can be beautiful with either real or artificial plants.
deciding live
Deciding: Live
  • Pros:
    • Absorbs CO2 (in daylight)
    • Gives off O2 (in daylight)
    • Absorbs toxins
    • Harbors beneficial bacteria
    • Serves as food source
    • Inhibits algae growth
  • Cons:
    • Can cause O2 deficiency at night
    • Creates waste when decayed
    • Can cause parasites
    • Not easy to clean
    • Requires good lighting
deciding artificial
Deciding: Artificial
  • Pros:
    • Does not affect O2 levels
    • Does not create waste
    • Does not carry parasites
    • Easily removed and cleaned
    • Does not need special lighting
  • Cons:
    • Does not absorb CO2
    • Does not give off O2
    • Does not absorb toxins
    • Does not carry bacteria
    • Cannot be used as food source
    • Does not inhibit algae growth
  • After deciding if you want to have live or artificial plants you will need to decide on the type of substrate that you want to use.
  • There are many forms of substrate available, including gravel, sand and more.
  • While the choice is almost entirely up to the consumer; fish safety and plant needs (if live plants will be used) must be taken into consideration.
choosing your substrate
Choosing your substrate

Aquarium substrates or gravel fulfills a few functions for us as aquarists. Gravel/sand provides living space for beneficial microbes, perhaps alkaline reserve and other chemicals for a system. There may be behavioral benefits for your livestock, anchoring for plants... and, it looks good too. The majority of aquarists use some form of substrate in their tanks, though strictly speaking they could leave the bottom bare in most cases. Here is our discussion of the Uses, Properties, Varieties, and Application/Maintenance of substrates for freshwater aquariums.

choosing your substrate uses biological buffering biomineral psychological looks
Choosing your substrateUses: Biological, Buffering, Biomineral, Psychological, Looks

Bacteria Homes: 

First and foremost, gravels, sands and other solid décor in aquariums function to support populations of beneficial bacteria. There is a definitive relationship between the microbes and macrobes (livestock) in your aquarium. The most celebrated of these 'bio-geo-chemical cycles' is the element Nitrogen. <refer folks to that chapter on cycling>

Well, where do all these bacteria 'live'? Mainly in and around the substrate, though they are found on the tank walls, decor, even on the inhabitants... You do need them… to provide means to limit or remove the poisoning waste products and by-products of your livestock.

Many/most aquarists opt for the 'gravel route' in their tanks or filters as the least expensive, most secure method of getting rid of metabolites and providing a safety-margin for the eventuality of over-feeding, unnoticed death, or rapid increase in stocking load of their system. By having lots of space for beneficial microbe growth/metabolism bottlenecking of vital chemical and physical reactions is eliminated; balance (in your favor) is preserved.

buffers ph and alkalinity of water
Buffers: pH and Alkalinity of Water

Metabolism and purposeful feeding results in a decrease in the system's capacity to resist a drop in pH, the water "becoming acid". The fancy description for this property is alkaline reserve; it is the system's sum-total ability to keep its pH at a certain point. All sources of freshwater have a varying alkalinity/alkaline reserve. That is, there are chemical species dissolved, and precipitated (like sand, gravel, rock) that make up the buffering capacity (alkaline and acidic) of your water. What you want is to keep the pH stable and somewhere within the tolerance of your particular livestock. Some animals and plants do best in more acidic water (below 7.0 in pH) like Discus and South American Tetras, other types of livestock appreciate harder, more alkaline water (with a pH higher than 7.0) like the life from the Great Lakes of East Africa. The particular range of these values by species can be found in books like this one and online sources like

There are several ways to provide for sufficient alkaline reserve. Good particulate filtration, chemical filtrants that remove organics, frequent partial water changes which add more reserve and reduce metabolites, adding alkaline solids/solutions,... all can and do their part in stabilizing, optimizing water quality, including preserving alkaline (and other) reserves.

By utilizing an appropriate substrate you vastly add to the homeostasis and steady-state capacity of your system. This happens substantially on two fronts: Biologically, you have so much 'life' in the system that other outside force-effects are ameliorated; and chemically, the gravel/sand/rock substrate dissolves, releasing chemical species that counter-act falling pH et alia res.. Is this a good deal? Yes.

psychological benefits
Psychological Benefits:

Remember the joke, "Do fish feel"? The answer, "Sure, they feel slimy". How much stock do you place in the emotional awareness of 'simple creatures'? There is plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence that aquatic organisms (including invertebrates) are sentient of physical elements of their captive worlds. For my Senior Report in Ecology at San Diego State U., RMF did a series of experiments on "Substrate Size Preference" by the crayfish Procambarus clarkii, the incredible/edible crawdad from Louisiana. Basically, I set up three ten-gallon tanks, each with three sizes of gravel, alternating first, second, or third in placement. I placed a Procambarus, allowed it to adjust for a while and periodically looked in, recording what grade it seemed to stay over. Varying light, water depth, the size and sex of the individuals tested showed the same result. This species of crayfish displayed a statistical preference for finer gravel.

The point is hopefully made; your livestock can tell if there is gravel in their tanks or not. Many of the species of catfishes, spiny eels, cichlids and more that live "in" or above the bottom in the wild fare poorly without substrate in aquaria. Would you like to continually live over a shiny, reflective "floor"?

looks the aesthetics of substrates
Looks: The Aesthetics of Substrates

Several types of freshwater substrates are great appearing. There is a wide range of size, shininess, and color to choose from. Basic choices are natural or not, the latter often being artificially colored then epoxy coated, and therefore chemically inert. Natural gravels encompass flints, silicates, dolomites/coral sand/shell materials, and carbonaceous rock of various types, even crushed (and hopefully tumbled) glass. Other than consideration as to appearances, natural gravels can be useful adjuncts to maintaining good water quality, slowly dissolving over time.

properties cost size shape grading surface area quantity flow rate composition cost of acquisition
Properties: Cost, Size, Shape, Grading, Surface Area, Quantity, Flow Rate, & CompositionCost of Acquisition:

"What, another expense?" "Okay, how much?" "Are you joking, for rocks/gravel/sand?" You've come a long way from the sand-box, distance, time and money-wise. Substrates can cost a pretty penny. Be a conscientious consumer here and check around. There is a wide array of what's available at different price points. Often, large quantities (even hundred pound bags) will be your best buy… and there are other than fish store sources for gravels… Often "sand and concrete" supply sources carry substrates of use for aquariums.

Buy the best of what you want in the function and looks departments, and be satisfied. This is a one-time purchase (for a couple of years) and can be used beyond its aquarium life for other interesting projects. Read through this section thoroughly re issues as to color, size, shape, and composition of the material you’ll be using… for the types of livestock you intend. One size/type does not "fit all".

size of substrate
Size of Substrate:

Size of the individual particles is important for two main reasons; maximizing filter bed action and for natural gravels, solubility sites. You don't want something too large or small; if too little there will be compaction and too little circulation between the pieces, way big and all the stuff you want to trap just goes through.

For the function of solubility's sake, the smaller the size, the better. Imagine dissolving an Alka-Seltzer (tm) in one piece ("Plop") or crushing it up first; which one would fizz faster? More surface area allows faster dissolution.

For these practical reasons a grade of @ 1.5mm (approximately 1/16") on the smallest size, to @ 5mm (3/16") diameter for the largest is what you want. For most systems, practical uses substrates of about 1/8 " diameter are "just right"… ones that are larger call for more volume to produce the same effects, smaller diameters, less volume.


The more broadly spherical the pieces of the substrate, the more consistent the flow, and therefore less channeling and packing-down. The complete reverse is found in more flat offerings (like silica sand) that lay-down amongst each other, effectively clogging-off water circulation. Our favorite mental demonstration of this principle is the comparison of a bed of poker chips versus one of marbles. Get it? Go with the marble-shapes. Sharp edged substrates can cause other troubles with freshwater livestock, cutting into the skin of burrowing fishes, even snipping off the barbels of scavenging catfishes.

consistent grade
Consistent Grade:

The mesh or 'number' of the granules is an average number of pieces to make up a linear inch; so the larger the number/mesh the greater the size. As per the comments in size above you want a particular size in the tank/filter, and for the size to be uniform. Either buy the product pre-screened or make and screen it yourself. At most, the pieces should be no more than twice/half the sizes of the largest/smallest in the part of the system; for the channeling/packing reasons.

surface area
Surface Area

Within realistic limits ought to be maximized to increase solubility and space for bacteria culture. What you want to remember is that you want something that's more porous than smooth. One indication of a trade-off of solubility and surface area is that the material is duller vs. shinier; choose the less reflective.


How much is enough? Is there such a thing as too much? Depending on the size, shape of the substrate, consideration of the volume of circulation, bio-load of the system, esthetics... some writers suggest from a pittance to a few inches. Most folks go with somewhere between one and two inches above whatever filter plate or a bare bottom. This works out to something like ten pounds of substrate per square foot of bottom. Some writers encourage sloping the gravel bed from front to back/ lower to higher… without employing submerged wood, rocks, other décor for this terracing, you’ll find "it all comes out level" in a while.

If you’re using undergravel filtration it is imminently important to cover all the surface of the plates about equally to ensure some circulation through all the filter bed. Periodic moving of decor, stirring or vacuuming through all areas cuts down on the mal-effects of anaerobiosis. We’ll mention much more about this under maintenance.

flow rate if using sub gravel filtration
Flow-Rate if Using Sub-Gravel Filtration: 

As a rule of thumb about two gallons a minute per square foot of filter/tank surface area (2 gsfm) is about right in terms of flow through the filter bed. There is no practical upside limit, i.e. three gallons per square foot per minute would be even better. For smaller systems you can get this flow rate with large airlifts outfitted with (1 mm bubble) uniform (air)stones, or powerheads. For big to humongous tanks you'll want to employ a fluid-moving pump system, possibly in conjunction with an outside power filter rig. The preference here is to run the circulation "reverse-flow", up through the filter plates after the water has passed through the particulate and chemical filtrants of the outside filter. Reverse flow set-ups provide much better for removal of sediment that otherwise collects under filter plates.

buffering for those who need want it
Buffering:  For Those Who Need/Want It:

Your source water may be slightly to greatly alkaline to acidic. The substrate could provide a needed or excess of carbonate ions to neutralize the organic acids of the livestock. You will want to test your water and perhaps pre-prepare it outside of the system in some cases… storing it for future use in a convenient container. If you’re fortunate to have tapwater that is "just about right" straight out, it might be reasonable to use a substrate that will aid your efforts in sustaining pH… one that is suitably alkaline and soluble.

Of the most likely substrates/gravels you're likely to find, there is a direct and positive correlation with suitability, cost and carbonate solubility. Once again, you need to investigate 1) Your water source pH and alkalinity, 2) The needs, desired range of these qualities for your intended livestock, and 3) Formulate a plan for providing a stable means of supplying water quality within these values. For people with either overly soft/acidic water or ones who need more alkalinity and higher pH there are gravels that can help elevate both of these.


As you can see there are many things to take into consideration when deciding on decorating your tank and this presentation has only touched the very basics of it. There is so much more that could and should be said, but I hope to be able to provide more information at a later date.