I had to learn these tricks the hard way Ė by trial and error (mostly error). When I first began keeping cichlids, I tried my hand at aquatic horticulture (on a very small scale), but quickly gave up any hope of ever keeping plants with my cichlids. It would be another three years before I would try again. Photographs of Dutch-style aquariums rekindled my interest and now I was ready to give it a more devoted effort.
Itís important to appreciate that not all African cichlids are the same, and not all plants are the same either. Before attempting to plant your tank, you need to educate yourself with the possibilities. Most aquatic plants will not thrive in the alkaline water conditions required by African cichlids. This quickly reduces the selection of possible plants, but the good news is that there are still more than two dozen plant species to chose from. In my article Plants 102 I will discuss each of these plants and its specific care. What I want to discuss here is simply the idea that not just any plant will work and some that will work with one cichlid, will not work with another. Generally speaking, however, thick leafed Anubias species and Java Fern will work with practically any set up. But before you head off to your local fish shop, letís talk about a few planting tips.
The first tip is to consider lighting. While not all plants require a lot of light, the proper spectrum of light should be provided. Make sure your aquarium is outfitted with a fluorescent tube that emits light in the blue and red ends of the spectrum. Wavelengths of 450 and 680 nm are those that are utilized by plants; therefore, your lights must provide these wavelengths. You may be able to make due with a single light strip depending upon the light intensity requirements for your plants, but I recommend a dual light strip even for the low-light intensity plants to ensure the best growth, especially if your tank is over 18-inches tall.
Algae outbreaks are another discouraging problem often experienced in planted rift lake aquariums. This is due to the high level of phosphates in the hard water and intense lighting required by the plants. The regular use of chemicals like Algae Fix will greatly reduce the amount of pernicious algae growth. Regular water changes are also important in keeping your nitrates below 5 ppm and consequently the algae in check. Plecostomus usually get along well in african cichlid set ups. Iíve found bristlenose plecos to be far superior to the common pleco in clearing algae. Be aware, however, that plecos will munch on soft plants. This brings us to our third point of consideration.
Third, it is important to know what plants will thrive with your mix of cichlids. Vegetarian cichlids should not be kept with most of the soft plants because they will devour them. I learned this the hard way. I had just planted my 75 gallon aquarium with 25 18-inch spiral valls before moving three of my adult Pseudotropheus sp. ďAceiĒ to this tank. The Acei wasted no time in razing this small water garden; within two days it was gone. In fact, their feces were bright green for a couple days following this tragedy. Note, spiral valls work just fine with other non-herbivorous cichlids. The lesson is to know your fish and pick your plants accordingly. Vegetarians can be discouraged from nibbling on your plants by keeping them well fed. Providing vegetable matter in their diet on a daily basis is also helpful in keeping them distracted. Blanched vegetables like zucchini slices and spinach leaves are usually accepted with delight.
The fourth item in need of consideration is how to plant your plants. The answer varies from species to species as some do best if fastened to a rock or driftwood while others should be planted in gravel or sand. Again, specifics will be covered in greater detail in Plants 102. Perhaps the most daunting thing about keeping plants with cichlids is the latterís tendency to dig and uproot the plants. Any plants should be fastened to prevent the cichlids from uprooting them. Java Fern should be tied to drift wood or rocks with black string or fishing line. Other plants should be potted (when possible) and wedged-in with rocks (refer to photos).
Plants can be effectively potted by using small red clay pots. A pebble can be used to block the drainage hole to prevent everything from falling out the bottom. Next you can put in a couple of centimeters of peat moss mixed with a pinch of micronized iron. The pot is then filled with gravel. I like to pack the plants thickly in these pots because if any gravel is visible, some cichlids will pick at it until the plants are uprooted.
The last trick is the use of additives. I strongly recommend the use of sea salt, NOT plain Sodium Chloride. Sea salt contains not just Sodium but traces of other important elements as well. BUT use it sparingly. Add only 1 teaspoon of sea salt to every 8 gallons of aquarium water. Note this is quite different than the tablespoon per 5 gallons often recommended for medicinal treatments. The use of fertilizers is also strongly encouraged.
If you want to keep plants with African cichlids, it can be done, but itís important to provide proper and adequate lighting, to put your plants in pots, to perform frequent water changes, and to use phosphate-chelators, sea salt, and plant fertilizers. Most importantly, learn about the diets of your fish before purchasing any plant and then chose the toughest plants.