How to set up a planted aquarium

Things you will need

  1. A light – any light will do, as long as the spectrum is in the overall white spectrum. Don’t go for yellow in other words. Say for example you had a mixture of LED chips. You can have reds, yellows, blues, purples etc etc, but the over all colour it omits needs to be white. So if you had too many red and yellow chips then your overall spectrum would be too warm. Don’t get too technical. If it looks white it is white, if it looks like a merky yellow colour then it’s too warm. If you’re a DIY’er and on a budget, then philips cool daylight LED bulbs for ceilings are great (don’t use ANY other brand for house bulbs if you’re going to go down this route). You could mount a lamp directly above the tank using a lamp holder, eye ball the height so you get the correct brightness. Experiment!¬†
  2. A light timer – run it for about 10 hours a day, when you are home is probably best so you can at least view the tank. I use the HPM brand from Bunnings in both digital and the manual dial. Some people find the digital one a bit confusing as you have to read the instructions for about 5-10 minutes on how to use it for the first time as it isn’t very intuitive. The analogue ones take about 20 seconds to set but then if you have a power cut they won’t keep on ticking so you need to reset it after where as the digital ones do since they have a secret battery in them that keeps them ticking along. Not really a deal breaker though for the analogue ones.¬†
  3. A fish tank or glass box – Just make sure it’s not one of those tall skinny ones that are shaped like a hexagon. Reason being as you want the light to be able to penetrate to the substrate and those mega tall tanks cost a bomb to light up as not many lights will omit enough light to those depths. Well, not enough for the plants to grow happily.¬†
  4. Substrate – This is the stuff your plants grow in. You have a few options here: Normal old fruit salad (or any colour) aquarium pebbles like we had when we were kids is good.¬† Daltons aquatic mix is often used and is capped with pebbles or washed daltons propagation sand so that it doesn’t make a mess since it is actually a mixture of clay and sand. Some people use actual dirt from the garden and sterilise it by either the microwave or oven (i’ve not tried this so you’ll need to do some googling on that one). Seachem flourite is good,¬† aquasolum is excellent but costs a fortune. Just don’t use fine silica sand because it does not allow for oxygen and water to flow between the grains since they are too fine. This causes a roll on effect of other issues like ammonia spikes, toxic gas escaping the substrate when unsettled, anaerobic bacteria thriving in the substrate, a bad smell since anaerobic bacteria produce bad smelling gases like methane, Co2, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, fish illness due to ammonia spikes, unwanted algae, compromised plant growth, and you feeling depressed because you eventually get tired of it and realise you need to replace your substrate as you’re tired of settling for a substandard substrate. Changing your substrate is a pretty big job once you have fish and plants already set up and requires a bit of motivation to commence.¬† Also, you will end up accidentally syphoning it out the window when doing light gravel vacs across the top of the substrate. It’s basically the most nasty substrate you could ever use in a planted tank so don’t let anyone talk you into it as I see it constantly being recommended for reasons I cannot for the life of me comprehend. Coarse silica however is good since it allows for water to flow freely between the grains. Also, do not use coral sand designed for marine aquarium as it will push the PH up so high that your plants will not grow. As for depth of substrate, you need your substrate to be at least 6cm deep so that the plants can grow roots easily if they are cuttings and not keep floating away. I personally like to have my substrate between 7 and 10cm.¬† The roots also need sufficient room to grow and explore. Choose a darkish colour substrate so that residual algae or fish poo doesn’t show up easily.¬† Moving on…¬†
  5. Root tabs –¬†Whilst they are not 100% essential, it will definitely help with plant growth. Swords need one each about once every 6 months to a year (most packet instructions say every 3 months but that is excessive) or they simply won’t grow. Stem plants like them but it is not essential. You can always dot them around the substrate and you will reap the benefits if you do. Be sure to bury them deep as you don’t want them escaping the substrate and messing up your water’s TDS; another reason why you need your substrate at least 6cm deep. API and Seachem are the best brands. JBL I have found doesn’t give as good results.¬†
  6. An aquarium heater – Plants don’t grow well in cold water. Between 23-28 degrees. 24-26 being ideal.¬† Most tropical fish are all happy at 26 degrees so that is a happy medium for everyone and everything, except for discus that require a minimum of 28. Even if you have goldfish, you’ll need to take the chill off the water. Goldfish are completely fine up to 23 degrees celsius. 18 degrees celsius is “okay” for plant growth but not ideal. Anything below 18 and the growth will be so painfully slow. In summer you may be okay without a heater in a non-tropical aquarium since the ambient room temperature will keep the water from feeling super chilly. Get one of those little glass thermometers so you can monitor the temp and set your heater’s thermostat correctly. The thermostats are good and do hold a temp, but they are not 100% accurate when setting the temp so you still need the little glass thermometer to ensure your heater is set to the correct temperature and are not just relying on the thermostat to set it initially. The thermometers are very cheap (3.50 to 6 dollars)¬†
  7. A filter or water pump –¬†if you have fish you’ll need the filter and it will need to be running 24/7. This ensures the naturally occurring aerobic bacteria thrive and keep the aquarium water safe for the fish. Nitrite and ammonia are invisible killers so you need your filter bacteria to be doing their house keeping duties non-stop as they will keep ammonia and nitrite from occurring in the water. When you turn your filter off, your beneficial bacteria start to die. Therefore, don’t do what I caught my Mother in law doing by turning her pond filter off at night to save on power as that is the epitome of counterproductively. If you are running a plant only tank, then just a water pump is fine as all you need is water movement to prevent it going stagnant. The good bacteria will still grow and “house keep” but they won’t need a “house” like a filter to grow in as the substrate and other surfaces will suffice since the bio-load won’t be as severe. If you ever clean your filter, just squeeze the sludge off the sponges in a bucket of aquarium water as chlorine from your tap will kill them all and you’ll be starting the cycling process from scratch. You don’t need an airstone if you have enough movement from your filter. Surface agitation provides enough oxygen in the water. If you do have an airstone, just make sure the bubbles are not touching plant leaves as they don’t like it and will cause the leaves to get holes in them. An airstone does not replace a filter however.¬†
  8. Fertiliser –¬†You can use an “in-water fertiliser” like the¬† low-Tech one on this website alongside some flourish excel. Some tanks can get by on the organic fertiliser produced by the nitrogen cycle however you plants will do better if you add some fertiliser into the water column. If you decide not to put fertiliser in the water then you need to make sure you have root tabs in the substrate to compensate.¬†
  9. Dechlorinator –¬†The council put chlorine in your water supply to kill bad bacteria. This will kill the good bacteria in your filter. So to counteract this you should use dechlorinator every time you do a water change. “If¬†you add¬†new¬†water¬†to your¬†tank¬†via bucket,¬†add enough dechlorinator¬†to the bucket to treat the amount of¬†water¬†in the bucket. If¬†you add¬†the new¬†water¬†directly from tap to¬†tank,¬†add enough¬†to treat the¬†whole tank.¬†Dechlorinator isn’t harmful to the bacteria”¬† google 2021. Before I moved to a house with water tanks I used to use API tap water conditioner because I didn’t need to dose much per litre therefore it was economical compared to some brands where I needed far more to treat the same quantity of water. Lots of people use Seachem prime. While this is a fantastic and trusted product, there are claims/rumours that it binds ammonia therefore keeping your fish safe in an un-cycled tank when ammonia is present. No doubt it does bind ammonia for a limited time, but you most definitely cannot rely on it to keep your fish safe when ammonia or nitrite are present. It may alleviate the toxicity of ammonia/nitrite to a certain point but this is not really helpful in an uncycled tank anyway since the binding is only temporary so you’d need to keep on dosing prime every 48 hours. And to what level is it bound, i.e. Is it all bound? or is only some of it bound? Is it dependant on the amount of ammonia present as to how much it binds? And for how long? (I did read up to 48 hours on their helpdesk platform) “up to” is not reassuring, but it is a clue.¬† These questions are obviously rhetorical and cannot fully be answered without an an in-depth study or a conversation with a Seachem chemist.¬† Nonetheless, it is a great product and used by many. It is also very economical.¬†
  10. Aquarium Tweezers – not essential but they are very handy, and once you have some you’ll never want to use your hands to plant plants ever again.¬†

And finally some tips and myth busters

Some people will tell you to use water from an established fish tank in your new tank. Instead of using dirty old water, use some fresh water and grab a piece of the established fish tank’s cycled filter media.¬† It could be those ceramic rings/noodles or a torn off piece of filter wool. The good bacteria are not free floating so they aren’t swimming around in the water, they reside on surfaces like filter media and inside the substrate, so adding some old water is a waste of time. Put that piece of cycled filter media inside your new filter to “seed” it and the introduced bacteria will start to multiply and perform their magic. Make sure when cycling a fish tank that you turn your heater on as the good bacteria grow more rapidly in tropical temps. An airstone can also help good bacteria establish quicker as they are oxygen loving bacteria so you are aiming to create an environment where they will thrive in order to nitrification along. If you get stuck on the ammonia phase for longer than 3-4 weeks, raise the PH to around 7 to 7.5 with a bit of baking soda to get the nitrite phase to kick in. Once nitrite has kicked in and spiked for a week or so, do a massively large water change (50% or more) and eventually it will decrease to 0 and will not return. Then, leave the PH alone as ideally you want it at 7 or below for good plant growth. If you have no idea what I am talking about, check out this link on the nitrogen cycle.¬†Also, if you are really wanting to monitor your water quality, invest in some test kits. For cycling a tank, the most important kits are Ammonia and¬† Nitrite. PH is also important, but only used a few times, particularly if your cycle gets stuck on the ammonia phase. Ph, Nitrate and Phosphate test kits are commonly used if you are learning to run Co2 and are wanting to monitor your fertiliser levels for the sake of interest and learning. Generally we always dose in excess to prevent potential deficiencies. If you know you have an excess of every single nutrient within the recommended ratios then you can at least rule those out as possible culprits when troubleshooting. Series of elimination in other words.¬†

You don’t need to use bacteria every water change. Once your tank is cycled you will never have to dose good bacteria ever again unless you have a massively long power cut and your filter is off for at least 10 hours. It is beneficial to dose it in the beginning phases of setting up a new aquarium and it does actually work contrary to some people’s beliefs. I have noticed though that if you want to see any significant results from bacteria in a bottle, you do need to dose far more than the bottle suggests to see changes in ammonia and nitrite levels on your typical home user test kit.¬†

Do not let your aquarium near sunlight. If it is near a window that gets direct rays from the sun then shut the curtains or move the tank otherwise It will induce algae very quickly. If you have a fish pond and are struggling with algae then get some floating plants to block the light as sunlight is far brighter than artificial light. 

Expect your tank to take about 6 weeks to cycle, 3 months to settle down and behave and about 6 months to really thrive. Typically in the beginning you will see new tanks start off with a white slime, followed by brown slime and diatoms, followed by green dust algae on the glass and plant leaves. White cloud bacterial blooms¬† are extremely common if not inevitable in new tanks where a species of free floating bacteria explode in populations before their numbers get under control. Green water will almost always afflict a newly set up aquarium at some point. I’m not telling you all this to discourage you, i’m telling you so you do not feel like a failure when it all happens as it is completely normal. Check out this link on algae.¬†

You can add plants straight away, they will definitely grow providing you care for them with light, a heater and some root tabs or in-water ferts (or both). I tend to add lots of floating plants in the beginning to help diffuse the light load while the slower more difficult to grow plants establish themselves underneath like needle java fern for example which is a slow growing low light plant. Swords are really easy to grow providing they have a root tab all to themselves. My list of super SUPER easy plants are as follows: Hygrophila Polysperma and its sunset variant (gap filler or mid to back), Star Grass (foreground and trim often), Ludwigia Repens (midground and floating), Ludwigia Arcuata (midgroud), Rotala Rotundifolia (back ground or sides), Ludwigia Palustris (front and kept short), lysimachia Nummularia ‘green’ (front and kept short) and swords (centrepiece). Green swords like¬†Osiris require less light than your red swords like barthii, rose and horemanii. Uruguayensis however is a green sword that requires as much light as a red sword. Osiris is the easiest sword to grow out of all of the sword choices. Red swords and Uruguayensis are easy swords to grow providing they have their root tab each, just make sure that there is nothing shading them like floating plants or a huge piece of driftwood! Medium light is normally enough, but they do not tolerate shade very well. There are plenty of other easy to grow plants in this link here. I have only mentioned the easiest of the easy plants above if you are a beginner and are bamboozled for choices.¬†

DO NOT PLANT THE LEAD that the plants come with. I do believe that the lead leaches very very slowly over time. I have seen moss suffer when it has been in close proximity of the lead therefore it can’t be good long term and it is leaching small amount of impurities that certain plants will be sensitive to whether we notice it or not. If you want to keep the plants buried while their roots establishing, just make sure your substrate is deep enough to bury the in and they will stay put. Don’t rely on the lead to keep them down. It also irritates the roots of sword plants while they grow to grow around the lead. They do grow better without it as I have seen. It doesn’t poison your fish that we know of, but since we wall want the best for our aquariums, it is best practice to not let it sit on top of get into your substrate to be long term. It is fine for temporary holding of your plants until you get around to planting them.¬†

I will update this with more info as I think of it. Check out the FAQ and scroll down to plant care for other tips, also check out the algae problem solver link