Growing stem plants without substrate . . .

Wookii

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So I am going through various planning aspects of my future 1500mm tank, and have been heavily inspired by @Ady34 's beautiful tank (see here: Re-Education . . .) where he has achieved a beautiful planted tank without a single grain of aquatic soil. All stems are planted loosely within the hardscape.

This was a bit of a revelation to me. Whilst I was obviously familiar with epiphyte species like Buce, Anubias, Bolbitis and various fern varieties, along with of course mosses etc - which all happily grow directly onto hardscape - I had never actually considered the possibility of growing stem plants without an active substrate.

From a long term maintenance perspective this appears a really attractive option; being able to just pull up bunches of, or individual, stems, trim 6 inches from the bottom, and stick them back into the hardscape - plus being able to more easily baster-blow and hoover the hardscape to remove detritus without stirring up soil. From an aquascaping perspective it also seems to offer much more flexibility in plant positioning, if they don't have to be uprooted and replanted from/into soil.

So I thought I would start a thread to discuss the possibilities. For example it may even be possible to grow carpeting plants without a substrate - I have seen stainless steel mesh pads of Eleocharis mini for example?

I'd be interested to know peoples thoughts and experiences . . .
 

LondonDragon

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tiger15

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I keep planted tanks with large cichlid that dig, so I designed my setups without substrate rooted plants. Majority of my plants are epiphytes attached to rock, but I have a few rosette and stem plants rooted in hydroponic pots with inert gravel. Rosette plants developed strong roots, and once established they won’t come off and never need to be replanted. Stem plants grow tall with no limit, so they need to be pruned and replanted periodically to constraint height. Stems also have weaker roots and more brittle stems, so they break off easily and always need more replanting work. But having them in pots makes replanting easier by taking them outside to do repotting. The pots are eye sore so I tried to hide them with rock and epiphytes in front.

While I cannot grow true carpet plants like Monte Carlo or hair grass without substrate, I managed to have tall carpet like plants by attaching Trident Java fern and Anubias nano petite to small larva rock as shown in my 75 and 125 gal. There are stems in the Hydrocotyle family that will vine up drift wood without substrate, and one stem, Hydropholla pinnatifid, that is a true epiphyte, but choices are limited. Stems do not need substrate to thrive as they can uptake nutrients entirely from the water column. I have tried bunching stems in suction cup rings but they don’t hold tight enough to last long, but you can experiment other ways to make it work for you.
 

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tiger15

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I grew plants out of a log once, link in my signature
Using hollow log as a planting base is an innovative idea, and can reach high for more light and better circulation. Amano’s forest style often insert stems into crevices of drift wood filled with growing media to look natural. There is a similar idea to tie ludwigia palustris to drift wood to make a red bonsai tree, impressive but not easy to upkeep.


None of these ideas satisfy the OP objective to simplify maintenance work though as replanting requires tedious maneuvering underwater. Stems are not evolved to attach to objects so artificially change their habit won’t stick. Potting stems is probably the best option for easy maintenance except that hiding the pots out of sight is a challenge.
 

Wookii

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Thanks for the responses guys, some interesting reading and some lovely looking tanks, but all the examples mentioned so far still use a substrate - all be it gravel rather than active soil - placed on the tank floor, in hardscape, or in pots, so all same the same maintenance and planting processes remain, though agreed in an easier way than in soil.

I’m thinking no substrate at all here. Ady places the stems in gaps in existing plants such as Anubias and Buce, and gaps in the hardscape with the stems held in place by virtue of their own leaves.

Where that isn’t possible, in more open areas, the stems could simply be weighted down I suppose, through a ceramic ring perhaps, or a clip, or maybe even the sponge covered lead weights that bunched pond plants come in (though I’m not sure of long term issues with having permanently lead in a tank).
 

Wookii

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dw1305

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Hi all,
I’m thinking no substrate at all here.... I see quite a few carpet plants sold on so called ‘scapers pads’
I ended up with a stolon of Lilaeopsis brasiliensis a couple of years ago, and I didn't have anywhere to plant it (my tanks aren't carpet friendly) so I left I floating in the tank, in the upper layers of the moss, until I could find somewhere to put it.

Several years later it is still growing and still floating. It hasn't grown that much, but there is definitely more plant than there was.

cheers Darrel
 

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Witcher

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I have densely planted tank and quite often rooted actively growing plants can push the others next to them (replanted ones without roots etc) out of the substrate - sometimes it takes month or two before I notice that - and I can notice that only because I'm waving plants with my hands occasionally, nip them and other stuff, but there is no visible difference in the plant health. Plants which I'm 100% sure can grow without substrate (at least in my tank) - just floating vertically in the water column: myriophyllum mattogrosense, hottonia palustris, rotala macrandra, pogostemon stellatus, pogostemon erectus, limnophila aromatica, bacopa caroliniana, limnophila sessiflora, ludwigia inclinata, althernanthera reineckii, poloygonum sao paulo, cardamine lyrata, eleocharis vivipara, didiplis diandra, lobelia cardinalis, ranunculus papulentus.

Some of them will very likely develop aerial roots - but I think this is quite normal at these conditions.

There is important thing which needs to be added - when I was testing extremely low levels of nitrates (for coloration etc) - some of them were quickly melting (r. papulentus, c. lyrata) so I think it's crucial to have water column constantly fed, without any ferts going to 0ppm.
 
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jaypeecee

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Hi Folks,

Does everything that is being said above about stem plants equally apply to rosette plants such as Echinodorus?

JPC
 

tiger15

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Stem plants do not need substrate to uptake nutrients, but won’t develop anchoring roots without substrate, I have tied stems with fish line and cotton thread, superglued to rock, weighed down with metal tie into crevices, and inserted bunch stems through suction cup rings (one used to hold heater), but they all failed eventually. The stem would rot and break away above the constraints eventually.

Since I cannot have substrate rooted plants with digging cichlid, I love ideas that can grow stems successfully substrate free long term. Potted plants, inserting stems into crevices, floating Horwort, or vining stems don’t count.
 

Wookii

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Stem plants do not need substrate to uptake nutrients, but won’t develop anchoring roots without substrate, I have tied stems with fish line and cotton thread, superglued to rock, weighed down with metal tie into crevices, and inserted bunch stems through suction cup rings (one used to hold heater), but they all failed eventually. The stem would rot and break away above the constraints eventually.

Since I cannot have substrate rooted plants with digging cichlid, I love ideas that can grow stems successfully substrate free long term. Potted plants, inserting stems into crevices, floating Horwort, or vining stems don’t count.

I guess it depends how you are running the tank. In a high tech tank the stems should be growing quickly enough that you need to pull the bunches out, cut off a few inches and replace in the tank, every couple of weeks.
 

tiger15

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Hi Folks,

Does everything that is being said above about stem plants equally apply to rosette plants such as Echinodorus?

JPC
The difference between rosette and stem is that rosette grows much stronger root system. I have Echinodorus grown in hydroponic pot with inert gravel and the roots completely filled up the pots and beyond. The gravel acts more as weight than growth media as all aquatic plants can uptake nutrients entirely from the water column. So it is easier to grow rosette substrate free than stems.
 

Ady34

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Interesting topic. I know the stem plants I utilise are relitively easy. I think to create a stem tank based on this method would be tricky unless suitable plants were used. The ludwigia I have is a large stem really with big leaves which make anchoring simple and effective. Smaller more delicate stems are more difficult and floaters more likely. You need a good dense cluster of plants to ‘plant’ into also. Mature submerse specimens also would improve the chances of success as they would be easier to plant.
Some plants such as cryptocoryne that are believed to be heavy root feeders are now available as plants on lava rock which then feed primarily from the water column. Monte Carlo is often used on hardscape now and also does very well. I think plants adapt, so if you can find a way to position it in the scape you don’t need a substrate, just good water column fertilisation.
 
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