Thursday, 12 April 2012 18:35

Starting a Planted Aquarium Tank and Garden

planted aquarium tankKeeping a planted aquarium tank or aquatic garden, compared an empty or artifical one, provides a healthier and more stable environment. Starting one is easy, and you'll be drawn back to it daily to document the rapid growth of your plants and watch the playful antics of your fish and invertebrates. To get started, all you need is a tank, dirt & sand, some plants, and a light source. This comprehensive guide outlines everything you need to know to start and maintain a healthy tank!

With any planted space or aquarium, we have always emphasized low maintenance. The spaces are meant to be enjoyed, not to cause your hair to fall out when you forget to water, feed, or dose artifical chemicals and have everything die on you. For a fish tank, this means creating a stable ecosystem between flora and fauna. You may remember our article on how to start a low maintenance aquatic vase or bowl. Starting a planted aquarium tank is just as easy. 


1. Choosing the Tank

Before we begin, you should select your tank.  Will it be custom made for a space, or will you shop a pet store for a standard size?  We have a table of common aquarium tank sizes for you to consult. A larger tank means greater stability. For newbies we recommend at least a 10g, but be mindful of your space and weight capacity. Glass tanks are generally cheaper and more scratch resistant; while acrylic tanks are more expensive and less scratch resistant, but it's less likely to break or shatter.  

Standard Tanks vs. Designer Tanks

Standard tanks are rectangular or hexagonal, with black borders on the top and bottom to hold the glass together.  Some common brands include Aqueon, Marineland, and Aquaculture, sold in retail chains.  These are mass produced and usually lower quality, but mainly they're not as aesthetically pleasing as their rimless counter parts.  Designer tanks are mostly rimless, sleak and clear from top to bottom, with ADA being top of the line, and Mr. Aqua the most economical.  

Aquarium Kits

An aquarium kit is a tank + light + filter.  Each of the large tank manufactures, Aqueon, Marineland, and Aquaculture, etc. all sell kits, these are rectangular with the black bezel, covered by a black hood light, and includes a standard hang-on-back (HOB) filter.  There are also a number of designer kits, with Fluval and EHEIM being the two most popular.  If you're just starting out, a kit may be the way to go since you won't have to worry about fitting in a light and purchasing a separate filter.


2. Selecting the Substrate

There are a large number of substrates to select from.  For a planted space, CarribSea Eco-Complete is most popular in the planted community.  For dwarf shrimp raising, a lot prefer Fluval Shrimp Stratum.  These specialty substrates are expensive, specially formulated, and heavily tested.  

My personal favorite?  Dirt and sand.  1-2" of Miracle Grow Organic Potting Soil, capped with 1" layer of sand.  The dirt is $10 for an enormous bag, and for the sand, you can find a 50lb bag of play sand at Home Depot for $5.  Enough substrate for about 10 tanks, for the cost of 1 20lb bag of specialty substrate.  The soil will have enough nutrients to give your plants a kick start for the first 6 months, that's the good news.  The bad news?  Dirt is dirty, and muddies up your water easily when moving things around.  You will also need to wait about a month before introducing any fish, since ammonia and decaying matter tends to leak up from the soil.  


3. Finding a Light Source

Lighting requirements will be based on what plant species you wish to grow.  Traditionally a 2 watts/gallon setup will allow most plants to thrive.  More light is better than less light, since you can always cover the aquarium surface with a layer of floating plants.  If you purchased a decent kit, chances are the light will be sufficient -- for the hoods you can change out the standard bulb for a compact fluorescent that's brighter at the same wattage, for nano kits replacements consult our following list.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of some light recommendations I've personally used:

Light Type Ideal For
Fluval 13W CFL Clip on Rimless 2-5g, i.e. Fluval Spec, Fluval Chi
Finnex 26W CFL Clip on Rimless 5-10g, i.e. Fluval Chi (tall), EHEIM Aquastyles
Hydrofarm T5HO 54W
2', 4' 
Stand / Hanging Rimmed 5-30g, i.e. Aqueon, Marineland, Aquastyle; check length
Marineland Doublebright LED
18-24", 24-36", 36-48"
Extendable Rack All, select appropriate range based on tank


4. Filtration

If you wish to pursue a natural Walstad setup, then filtration is not required.  Instead, a simple powerhead or air pump will be enough to create some water movement and flow -- this prevents the buildup of surface scum, and distributes the ammonia and nutrients to the plants and surface bacteria to break it down.  For a sustainable Walstad / natural setup, you must understock, this means only a few fish in a large tank, and only invertebrates in a smaller one.

We recommend you to filter, and to over-filter.  Good water flow keeps the tank healthy, increases plants growth because nutrients are distributed more evenly and quickly, and waste materials and converted and broken down more rapidly.

Canister Filter vs. Hang-On-Back (HOB) Filter

For a canister filter, we recommend a turnover of 7x per over; for a hang-on-back (HOB) filter, we recommend a turnover of 10x+ per over for a fully stocked tank.  A 10x turnover means that the entire volume of the water passes through the filter 10 times in one hour, i.e. if you have a 10 gallon aquarium, and your filter is rated 100gph, you are have a turnover of 100 gph / 10 g = 10x.  Pay attention to the GPH rating!

Why the difference between canisters and HOBs?  Canister filters hold more biomedia and have greater surface area for the bacteria, therefore more of your water is purified in one run; whereas HOBs hold less media, and requires a higher turnover to achieve the same purification.  Canisters are generally more expensive, and you need to find a space below your tank to house them.  HOBs just hang off the side of your tank, and you can afford buy multiples and put them on two sides of a longer tank.  Another pro of HOBs is that you can grow plants on top of them!

For canisters, we recommend EHEIM and Fluval, these will get you the most bang for your buck and are known for their quality, warranty, and customer support.  But if you're aiming for something cheaper Sun Sun is the most economical  For HOBs, we only AquaClear, they're long lasting, easy to use and maintain, and the media replacements are the cheapest compared to other brands.

It is very important that you use a pre-filter sponge, so small fish, invertebrates, and snails do not get sucked up into your filter, which may jam or damage the turbine and motor.  


5. Heating 

Living in South Florida it's easy to forget the need for a tank heater.  Most common fish and plants are kept in a temperature range between 70-80F, most hobbyists keep their heaters turned to approximately 78F.  You need 4W of heating per gallon of tank water, it's best to place the heater near the water output of your filter or pump so warmer water circulates evenly into the aquarium.  If you have a large tank or are using multiple heaters, it's best to spread them out on different sides.


6. Planting and Aquascaping

Generally we recommend you to create a hardscape first (rocks, wood, slopes, etc.) before inserting plants.  What do you have in mind?  A moss tree, a rock scape, a driftwood river biotope?  Scaping and planting is an art and science in itself, and we will explore more of the topic further in the future.  But in the mean time, we will provide a few general rules of thumb and simple recommendations.

Begin with easier to grow plants, generally the cheaper, the easier, i.e. most crypts are hardy and low light.  Plant a large variety of species, and organize your plants from the front to back (shortest to tallest growth potential).  A few recommendations:

Foreground - dwarf baby tears (med-high light), marsilea minuta (all light), blyxa japonica, amazon microsword
Midground - limnophila mini, green camboba, various crypts, lindernia parviflora
Background - ludwigia arcuata (easy red plant), star repens, limnophila aromatica, rotala macranda
Floaters - red root floaters, dwarf water lettuce, salvinia minima, frogbits

If you're not sure where to start, be sure to check out our members' aquatic photojournals for some ideas and inspiration!


7. Cycling the Tank (The Nitrogen Cycle)

Why is this section in red?  Because it's the most important and probably least understood by the newbie aquarist.

Cycling a tank is crucial before introducing fauna.  You feed fish, and fish poo, all that waste decomposes in the tank and (1) turn into ammonia, which is toxic to fauna.   "Good" bacteria breaks down the ammonia further.  Nitrosonomas (2) converts ammonia to nitrites, still toxic to fauna.  Nitrobacter then (3) converts nitrites to nitrates, tolerable to fauna in low amounts (< 10ppm).  Plants then turn nitrates into growth.  Frequent partial water changes will reduce the amount of nitrates in the water, but a heavily planted tank will take care of itself.  

Source image by Christina Manriquez

Cycling a tank can take up to a month or more. To jumpstart on cycling, we recommend a bacteria culture from a friend's established tank, or to use bacteria starters such as Nutrafin Cycle.  You will need a couple things to monitor, cycle, and maintain your tank:

(1) Water Conditioner - cholorine and chloramines found in tap water will kill off your good bacteria, and even some of your fish, chlorine may evaporate over time, but chloramine will not.  You absolutely need to condition your water unless you have an expensive RO/DI system.  We recommend Seachem Prime, a popular conditioner many aquarists swear by, a few drops can go a long way.

(2) Water Test Kit - get the API Test Kits, they carry both a freshwater, and a saltwater kits.  We recommend starting with a freshwater tank though.

(3) Jumpstart Bacteria - not required but recommended, this will bring the cycling time down to about week.  We've had good experiences with Nutrafin Cycle, but just remember to follow the instructions and vigorously shake the bottle for a good few minutes before dosing it.

Keep a log of your ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels every few days.  To cycle your tank, you need a source of ammonia in the tank.  Many recommend using a dead frozen shrimp, others have had more success stocking hardy fish such as tiger barbs or platyfish.  I myself used Nutrafin Cycle for most of my tanks before stocking, and use garden soil which has ammonia inside, most tanks finish cycling in a week.  

There are three stages to cycling: (1) you introduce the ammonia; (2) the ammonia disappears (due to increased Nitrosonomas) and nitrites spike; (3) the nitrites disappear (growth of Nitrobachter) and you're left with nitrates.  After you tank reads 0 ammonia and 0 nitrites, your tank is cycled!  Now do a 50% water change to reduce the nitrates, or throw in some floating plants to eat it up.  We usually do both.


8. Stocking the Tank

Do not add shrimp or fish until the plants are well established.  I would recommend waiting 1-2 months (or 1-2 weeks with Nutrafin).  Snails on the other hand can go in on day 1, I recommend getting a few malaysian trumpet snails, these move through the substrate, aerate them, and distributes waste materials to the plant roots.

Create a Healthy Trickle-Down "Ecosystem"

Unlike trickle-down-economics, this has been proven to work.  We know it's not a real ecosystem because you are the food source (not you, but your fish pellets).  However, we've found that it helps immensely to stock a variety of fauna so all food/waste can be decomposed down very rapidly.  This is what we mean, in a typical tank, we usually have at least the following:

(1) Fish - if you're like most aquarists, fish are your main attraction.  They're the largest species in the tank, and you feed them, sometimes a lot.  Fish poo, and extra fish food fall to the floor and very slowly rot away.

(2) Shrimp - this might be your main attraction in a smaller tank (<5g).  Most dwarf shrimp (neocaridinas, caridinas) are omnivorous scavengers, they will ingest particles that's not broken down in the fish poo, as well as all the extra fish food tucked in corners not accessible to the fish.  When keeping with fish, you should provide plenty of plant cover and moss to sustain a healthy population. Amphipods such as scuds (gammarus sp.) fall in this category, they're not harmful, but in large quantities they may outcompete your shrimp for food.

(3) Snails - snails, like shrimp, are omnivorous scavengers, many eat what the shrimp do not eat, especially decaying plant matter.  Two of my favorites are Malaysian Trumpet Snails (MTS) and Nerites.  MTS dig through the substrate, moving waste downward and aerating it to prevent dangerous gas buildups.  Nerites eat most kinds of algae, they keep your aquarium glass clean without any help from you. We also have a healthy stock of Pond (bladderwort) and Ramshorn, as well as hybrids in the tanks.

(4) Nematodes - these little worms account for 80% of animal life on earth, and many think of them as a pest. Nematodes provide a crucial function in a planted aquarium (especially one with soil). They liquefy the waste not consumed by the shrimps and snails, and breaks them down further in the substrate to be readily used by plants. Think earthworm composting in your garden.

(5) Daphnia - daphnia are filter feeders, they eat algae to prevent green water breakouts, bacteria, fungus, and other free floating particles in the water column.  Daphnia are also a tasty live snack and many keep daphnia in separate containers as a live food source. Again provide cover to sustain a stable colony .

Stock Slowly, Maintain a Balance

When stocking you want to fight the urge of throwing 20 fish into the tank at once.  If you want to keep a low-maintenance tank, introduce a few at a time.  Start with the shrimp and get a healthy colony going.  Don't worry about snails and worms, they usually hitchhike in with other plants, but do buy a few nerites to help clean the tank.  After the tank is stable, introduce fish, a couple at a time.  As you introduce fauna, you may notice your tank going through another mini-cycle, to produce extra bacteria to handle the increased bioload.  Ideally, you want to reach a point where the fauna and plants are in balance, a rule of thumb is 1-2" of fish per gallon of tank, but if you're filtering or overfiltering, you can certainly add more.


9. Maintenance

If you heavily planted your tank, stocked slowly, there should be minimal maintenance required other than feeding and water top-offs from evaporation.  Fertilizing won't be required until about 6 months in with the soil as a kick start.  After, insert oscomote tablets into the substrate and dose micronutrients every 2 weeks, we recommend Seachem Flourish.  Partial (10-20%) water changes are also recommended every month to replenish trace elements in the water.  

You will never eradicate algae, and a little algae is a sign of a healthy tank.  But if you have excess algae, consider introducing algae eating fauna such as otocinclus catfish, amano shrimp, or nerite snails.  If a balance can not be achieved, or if you get a sudden algae bloom, a few days of dosing Seachem Flourish Excel will normally cure it.  Lastly, keep an eye on your water parameters, testing normally is not required, but if you suspect something is wrong (smell, odd behaving fish), test the water.


We understand that starting and maintaining an aquarium tank and aquatic garden can be difficult, and although this article is rather long, it's only brushed the surface.  If you have any questions or concerns, ask here and we'll get back to you!

Read 16485 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 15:52
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