When you think about a tropical aquarium, after you have chosen the fish you want to inhabit your new environment, your mind has to immediately go to the decorations, right?

Certainly, decorations are a key requirement, but they add to the aesthetic appeal of your tank and at the same time, they add a sense of security by providing a safe place for your fish to hide out from time to time.

Here’s where it gets fun … and frustrating! The selection of decoration is seemingly endless: live or fake plants? Real or fake rocks? And which ornaments should you choose? Do I need a castle? Or maybe a treasure chest?

Choices, choices, choices for the tropical aquarium

Whatever your decisions, make sure you check with your tropical aquarium professional to make sure your choices are safe for your particular type or tank. Here is some basic information about some of the key ingredients you will be considering as you decorate your tank:

Substrate: While a substrate is not required for most fish, it really adds to the aesthetics and most hobbyists choose to include substrate in their tanks to provide that “ocean floor” look. Gravel tops the list here as it comes in a variety of shapes sizes and colors. Most hobbyists find the medium-sized gravel to be the best choice, but some gravitate toward the smaller gravel in planted tanks. Stay away from the large gravel as it can trap food, waste and even small fish.

Decorative Aquarium Stones: You can collect stone for your tank yourself if you like, though there are plenty of stones collected commercially to provide a wide array of choices. As long as the stones you use are natural (as in found in nature and not man-made) you can use lava rock, slate, river rock, quartz and petrified wood. Other rocks you may find attractive are glass and ice rock, river pebbles, pagoda rock, zebra rock, honey onyx, rainbow rock and red desert rock.

Your stones will need to be sterilized before you put them into the tank, but a good bath in boiling water will take care of that.

Lace rock is also a popular choice, though it does come with some disadvantages. It’s plethora of crevasses and craters give lace rock a three-dimensional appearance, but it is sharp to the touch, and it is a challenge to removed algae accumulations from it.

Ceramics: Ok, let the debate begin! Opinions vary among hobbyists about the appropriateness and suitability of ceramic objects as aquarium ornaments, from a safety standpoint. But the bottom line is, some objects are perfectly fine while others are not as they leech metals toxic to the fish as their finish deteriorates. The key is finding ceramics that are labeled “dinnerware safe.” Such objects are glazed and fired using techniques and solvents that will not dissolve in acidic conditions. These meet strict standards designed to protect us from accidental poisoning, and the same will keep your fish safe too.

A simple test will confirm is your piece is safe. Simply take some vinegar and dilute it to a pH of 5, which is what one can reasonably expect their tank’s environment to be under the most extreme aquarium situation. Submerge part of the ornament in question and wait. After a month examine the glaze on the object and compare the acid treated portion to the part unexposed to the vinegar. If it still shines, it’s ok for your tank.

Un-glazed pieces are also suitable, such as terracotta pots. Just make very sure they are not glazed or painted. Broken pieces of pots are suitable too, but be very careful about using pieces with extremely sharp edges as they can injure both you and your fish.

Driftwood: You can find natural driftwood, another decoration that can add character to an tropical aquarium, in a variety of locations, such as alongside rivers and streams. Check with your local aquarium shop as well, as they certainly will have several types of exotic imported and artificial driftwood available.

Artificial Plants: Advances in technology have brought the art of artificial plant making to a whole new level. And the advantage here is artificial plants are so much easier to keep alive! As you pick out your artificial plants, choose plants of varying heights, leaf shapes, and colors, and use tall plants to hide lift tubes and heaters. You can put a couple of medium-height plants in the center of your tank, and use the short ones for accenting rocks and driftwood.

As with all things, just use your common sense in deciding how much and what kinds of decorations you want to use in your new tank. And have fun making your tank a unique environment fitting your own décor and taste.