Should you make your own aquarium decorations?

There’s certainly no shortage of decorations at the pet store to add to your freshwater aquarium. From whimsical to practical, there’s a figurine or hiding cave to suit every personality. Or is there? If you’d rather create a unique aquatic environment that is more personal than commercial, consider making your own aquarium decorations. There are some limitations, but using our guidelines and common sense, you can put together a safe and distinctive living environment for your fishy friends.

What are the dangers of making my own aquarium decorations?

Simply put, anything foreign you add to your aquarium can introduce dangerous toxins and hazards that put your fish at risk. The pH level in a freshwater aquarium is a delicate balance, and the chemicals most household items contain can be fatal to your fish. Your fish are also at risk from any naturally occurring item with common bacteria that hasn’t been properly cleaned. Additionally, anything with sharp or rough edges can fatally injure your fish.

What materials are safe to use in my aquarium?

Now that we have your attention, relax. There are still plenty of items you can use to personalize your fishes’ underwater home. The key is to be savvy about the implications and choose your elements wisely.

  • Ceramics. As a general rule, terra cotta clay pots and other dinnerware are safe in your aquarium; however, those with lead and copper glazing should be avoided. Decorative ceramic mugs and plates can provide fun hiding places for your most timid fish as long as they meet the safety requirements.
  • Plastic. Items that are marked food-safe generally make acceptable decorative items, but be careful. Don’t use one-use plastic items such as water bottles or unsealed, painted plastic toys, as they can contain toxic chemicals.
  • Glass. Grandma may have some beautiful glass goblets in her collection that will add color and nostalgia to your fishes’ home, but beware. Check carefully for any signs of cracks or sharp edges that might do more harm than good.

What materials should I avoid using in my decorations?

Naturally, there are just some things that don’t belong in your aquarium. Use your best judgment, and when in doubt, just say no. Here are a few good rules of thumb that will help you make educated decisions:

  • Metal. As you well know, water and metal just don’t mix. Over time, metal objects will corrode and release toxic oxides into the water, which will poison your fish.
  • Wood. Most of the treated wood decorations available in pet stores as well as driftwood are fine; however, all other wooden objects should be avoided. Untreated wood can alter the chemistry of the water in your tank. And, if you plan to use a piece of driftwood you found on the beach, make sure you boil it for one to two hours to remove any algae or spores it may contain.
  • Beach sand. If you want to add sand to your aquarium, it’s best to purchase it from the pet store where it has been specially designed for freshwater aquariums. Regular beach sand may have chemicals and other bacteria that can be toxic to your freshwater environment.
  • Shells, coral, and rocks. These items, while decorative and likely a fond reminder of a past vacation or great hike, contain calcium and other minerals that can alter the pH of the water in your freshwater tank.
  • Anything degradable or consumable. Many fish like to nibble at the objects in their environment or forage for food at the bottom of the tank. For this reason, it’s unhealthy to add anything they can ingest that isn’t part of their diet.

Can I add my own live plants?

The quick answer is no — and this is why: While having live plants in your aquarium can actually improve the water quality, not just any plant is suitable for underwater life. You’ll need to add aquatic plants that thrive being submerged in water.

In nature, aquatic plants provide food and shelter as well as building materials for fish, birds, and other animals. In your aquarium, these plants use nitrogen, a nutrient that’s found in abundance in fish waste, and CO2 (carbon dioxide). They also give off CO (oxygen), which can help your fish breathe.

There are a multitude of choices. Here is a short list of five aquatic plants you can find at your local pet store:

  • Java Moss thrives well in dimmed light and is a favorite of shrimp.
  • Amazon Sword is a good plant for beginners because of its hardiness and low cost.
  • Java fern is an inexpensive, slow-growing plant that likes to attach to wood or rocks.
  • Pygmy chain sword is a low-maintenance plant suited for both beginners and experts.
  • Water wisteria is an easy-growing plant with lace-like leaves that spread out like a carpet.

Fun ideas to try

Now that you know the basics, feel free to get creative:

  • Decorate for the holidays. Why should human homes have all the fun? Look for aquarium-friendly mini decorations in the holiday section of your favorite retail store.
  • Embellish with a background. Measure the dimensions of your tank and design a scene to print and laminate. Attach it to the back of your tank on the outside.
  • Recreate your favorite Hollywood movie scene. Everyone has a favorite movie. Why not cast your favorite fish in the title roles? While you can’t dress them up in costumes, you can create a miniature underwater movie set for them to explore. Who knows? Maybe their antics will inspire you to write a sequel!
  • Build an ancient underwater city. Use your imagination to recreate Pavlopetri, Atlantis, or Heracleion, the lost city of Cleopatra.

The sky’s the limit

In other words, have fun! And don’t worry. Moving the landscape (carefully) on occasion is a good way to keep your fish interested and entertained. As long as you use common sense and monitor your fish for any signs of distress when you introduce a new decoration, you can create (or recreate) an endless variety of underwater scenarios for your fish (and human) family to enjoy.

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