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A Beginner’s Guide to Planted Tanks

In recent years we have seen many advances in aquarium technology and many new approaches to aquariums in general. One of the most interesting and artistic advances has been the planted aquarium. Well-thought out aquascapes, plant selection/availability and technological developments have definitely raised the bar for what is the ultimate planted aquarium today. Much of this has been made possible by the work of one of my favorite aquarists and photographers, Takashi Amano, and his efforts with the “Nature Aquarium” concept of aquarium husbandry.

I have found that many of the same challenges and rewards experienced in reefkeeping can be found when creating a planted aquarium of this stature. This article will offer some insight on the necessary equipment and techniques to set up an amazing planted freshwater aquascape.

Setting up your aquarium

Sufficient lighting, proper substrate, fertilizers/nutrients and CO2 are the key elements to keeping a successful planted aquarium. These key factors cover the basic needs for photosynthesis in your aquarium and are what set planted tanks apart from other freshwater aquaria. Standard equipment, like a reliable heater and adequate filtration, are still required. This article isn’t going to focus on equipment you’re probably already familiar with. Instead, we’ll focus on the supplies needed to successfully grow and care for freshwater aquarium plants.

First we’ll cover lighting, as this will be the most important factor in promoting photosynthesis in your tank. The same types of lighting found in the reefkeeping side of the hobby are also available for planted tanks. High output T5 fluorescentmetal halide, and LED technologies are the most popular options currently available, so that’s what we’ll cover in this article. You’ll also come across HPS, T8/T12 fluorescent and compact fluorescent (CFL) lights in your search for a planted aquarium light, but we believe the options mentioned earlier make more sense economically.

Keep in mind not all aquatic plants share the same lighting requirements. We’ll go with a high output lighting approach in this article. That way your system will support most common aquatic plants. Run your lights 6 to 8 hours per day. Advanced users may go longer, up to 10 hours, but we don’t recommend that as a starting point since you’re likely to produce algae. If the lights you use have a timer, great! If not, you can always add one. Using a timer ensures you’re running your lights the proper amount of time and will allow you to add or subtract time, often in 15 minute intervals.

High Output T5 Fluorescent

Choose a fixture where the bulbs are long enough to cover the entire length of your aquarium. This ensures complete coverage over your tank and reduces the likelihood of dark areas and/or shadows. Use one bulb for every 3″ to 6″ of tank width. For example, a 55 gallon aquarium will be about 48″ long and 13″ wide. With a tank this size, you’ll want to run a fixture with 4 x 54 watt high output T5 bulbs to achieve the best results. This sort of lighting setup is ideal for standard rectangular-shaped aquariums.

Lower Kelvin-rated bulbs are the best color options for mimicking natural sunlight. In freshwater aquariums, light is absorbed much differently than in saltwater aquariums—freshwater plants are typically exposed to full-color spectrum lighting with peaks in most every color. I have found that anything below 10,000K will be sufficient with the best results around 6,000K (D-D Giesemann Powerchrome 24 Inch 24W Midday T5HO Fluorescent Bulb). This will be a yellow daylight color, much like natural sunlight. There are also some freshwater light fixtures that now include “pink” colored bulbs that are designed to bring out the natural colors of plants and promote growth. I recommend one pink bulb for every two yellow daylight bulbs (6,000K).

 LED (Light Emitting Diode)

LED technology is relatively new to the aquarium hobby, but has already proven successful in promoting photosynthesis in plants. If you’re shopping for an LED fixture for a planted tank, be sure the models you are considering feature high output lighting designed for plant growth (if you aren’t sure, just ask!). Research shows plants photosynthesize best under full-spectrum light with peaks in red and blue, so look for full-spectrum white with red and blue supplementation to achieve the best plant growth. This color ratio is also important because it will help prevent nuisance algae from forming, which will compete with your plants when the color spectrum is off.

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Since quality LED light fixtures are fairly new to the hobby, they are typically more expensive. But don’t let the upfront costs sway you from choosing an LED light because you’ll save money in the long run. LED lights consume very little electricity compared to other types of light fixtures, and you won’t have to replace your bulbs every 6-18 months which will save you even more. LEDs also don’t give off a lot of heat, so they’re really an ideal choice if electrical consumption and heat transfer are among your concerns when shopping for the right light.

Metal Halide

Metal halide lights are typically the most intense aquarium lighting you’ll come across. These high-intensity lights can sometimes result in high electricity bills, so be cautious before you buy (get an estimate of your electric bill using this handy calculator). Metal halide bulbs should be replaced every 9-12 months and replacements (at the time of writing) run ~$50 and up. You won’t need as much wattage compared to a reef tank, although you still want to ensure full tank coverage. One metal halide bulb for every 2 square feet of tank is a good rule of thumb. Simply raise the fixture and/or utilize reflectors to achieve a wider spread to offset these “point source” style lights. Metal halide lights are great for large or oddly-shaped aquariums, like corner or custom tanks. Use 150-200 watt bulbs for aquariums up to 30″ deep; 400 watt bulbs should be used for anything deeper (to achieve the best results). You’ll still want to stay in the same color spectrum mentioned earlier, with bulbs around 6,000K being your best option.

Substrate

Appropriate substrate is important to achieve a healthy root system for your plants. A number of pre-mixed, planted tank-specific substrates are available, like CaribSea’s Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate or Azoo’s Plant Grower Bed. Both are excellent choices and make shopping for planted tank substrate easy. Pre-mixed substrates supplement your tank with minerals and/or micro-nutrients in the appropriate ratio. They also contain a variety of particle sizes and textures to mimic a natural environment.

Fluorite substrates are also common and can be used singularly or in combination with gravel and/or inert sand. The latter is a popular aquascaping technique because it creates different dimensions in the aquarium by combining different colors and textures in the substrate.

Fertilizers/Nutrients

Similar to growing plants in your yard or vegetables in a garden, aquarium plants benefit from a little love and attention. Providing your aquatic plants with the right mix of nutrients is important to their health, especially in a closed, controlled environment like an aquarium where nutrient availability is limited to what you provide.

Similar to the reefing side of the aquarium hobby, the freshwater planted niche offers a complete line of additives designed to supplement specific nutrients. When I first got into planted tanks, I found it was easiest to rely on one comprehensive system, like Seachem Flourish. By regularly testing your water and administering the manufacturer’s recommended dosage(s), it’s fairly easy to maintain the proper nutrient ratios in your tank. As time passes, you’re likely to learn more about the individual needs of your plants. Then you can target Iron, Potassium, Phosphate and/or Nitrogen to achieve maximum results. Heed the manufacturer’s recommendations when dosing to avoid throwing off these elements since doing so can easily kick start an outbreak of algae.

Most of the formulas described above are available in liquid form so you can directly dose your tank water. Root tabs and fertilizer sticks are another popular option to consider. Just place them beneath your substrate to develop healthy roots and give plants easy access to long-lasting nutrients (around one month). These are a nice alternative to daily dosing, but be careful not to overdose. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and you’ll soon be on your way to greener pastures.

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CO2 Supplementation

Plants consume CO2 through the process of photosynthesis. Therefore the addition of Carbon Dioxide is very beneficial in a planted aquarium. It is not an absolute necessity for beginning hobbyists to supplement CO2. Many plants will do fine without it. But for lush, vigorous growth, CO2 is the way to go in my opinion.

There are two commonly used methods to supplement CO2 in freshwater planted tanks. The activated yeast method is popular because it is inexpensive and easy to setup. This method uses every day baking yeast inside a closed container. Once activated with sugar and water, the yeast will begin to produce CO2. You can then utilize the CO2 in your aquarium water by using a CO2 Reactor. The Red Sea CO2 Bio System includes all the equipment necessary for this type of installation and there is ample information online for DIY yeast-based CO2 systems. The downside to this method is that it can be difficult to control the production rate of CO2. It can also be messy and is really only efficient for smaller aquariums.

The most effective method of CO2 supplementation is by using a pressurized CO2 tank. You can consistently control the output of CO2 into your aquarium by using a pressure-reducing regulator. Furthermore, electronic solenoids and pH controllers can be added to automatically maintain the proper CO2 ratios at all times. The CO2 reactors mentioned earlier will dissolve the CO2 into your water. Pressurized gas can be dangerous if not set up properly, so be sure to read up on how to use a pressurized CO2 tank and regulator before installation.

After deciding which method is right for you, the next logical question is “How much CO2 do I need?” Well, it depends on your particular CO2 tank and the rate of CO2 consumption by your plants.

Thanks to the relationship between pH and the amount of dissolved CO2 in your water, we can easily adjust CO2 to be at optimal levels at all times by monitoring pH. Electronic pH controllers/monitors, like the American Marine Pinpoint pH Controller, can automate this for you. Inexpensive liquid pH indicators, like Red Sea’s CO2 Indicator, offer a visual way to check pH levels so you can manually adjust your CO2 settings.

As you add CO2 to your aquarium, you will notice the pH level of your water drops. The idea is to find the correct rate of CO2 diffusion based on your tank’s needs without dramatically dropping or fluctuating pH. The desired pH level for planted tanks is 6.8-7.0. Since photosynthesis does not occur during nighttime, CO2 is typically not supplemented during “dark hours.” Doing so may lead to unsafe pH fluctuations plus waste your CO2 gas.

Choosing the right plants, décor and fish

The plants, fish species and aquascaping decorations you intend to place inside your aquarium should all be determined before your aquarium is set up. Having a plan in place before you begin will help you to take things slow and deliberate. Once the tank is set up and there are living plants and animals inside, it is more difficult to re-aquascape and relocate plants, especially once they’ve taken root. You may inadvertently affect the health of your plants and fish with an extreme makeover. Placing the wrong type of rock or décor into your tank may leach unwanted chemicals and/or stain your tank water fairly quickly. Inappropriate and/or incompatible fish can wreck havoc on your plants and other livestock. That’s why we highly recommend researching anything you plan to put into your aquarium.

Choosing Plants

Choosing the right plants and planting them in appropriate locations can easily be overlooked. One plant can affect the health of another plant, so planning and placement are crucial. Taller plants can shade smaller plants from getting enough light, so plant arrangement is important. Amazon Swords are a common aquarium plant that will grow quite tall. It’s best to place them in the background because they will quickly outgrow smaller, more delicate plants, like Hair Grass or Baby Tears. Place small plants (ground cover) in the foreground, medium-size plants in the center and taller plants in the background. This will create an illusion of depth that will not only make your tank look good, but will also help ensure the health and success of the various plant species you’ve carefully chosen. It’s also not a bad idea to isolate any quick-growing plants. Use aquarium scissors to trim and prune your plants, the same you would an outdoor garden. Use tweezers or a fish net to fetch out any wayward clippings floating about.

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Choosing Decorations

Another consideration for aquascaping is tank décor. Decorations, like driftwood, rocks and pebbles can be used to create a more realistic setting. Fabricated decorations abound and many of these fake rocks, pieces of wood and plants actually look quite real. There is nothing wrong with using simulated pieces for décor. Just be sure they are aquarium-safe and that you leave enough room for your plants to grow.

Natural driftwood needs to be soaked before use or it can leach tannins into your water, resulting in an ugly yellow hue. Look for pre-soaked or “used” driftwood to avoid soaking the driftwood yourself. Fellow hobbyists and local fish stores are the best resources for pre-soaked driftwood. If you can only find dry driftwood, you should soak it in a bucket of water for 4-8 weeks. Change out the water every week until the water is clear. The driftwood will then be suitable for your tank and should not leach tannins. For smaller pieces of wood, you can boil them in water to speed up the process. For larger pieces, this becomes more difficult.

Be careful when using natural rocks inside your aquarium. Look for phrases like “aquarium-safe” in the product description or on the label while shopping online or at your local fish store. Avoid carbonate-type rocks, like limestone, sandstone, coral skeletons and “holy” rock because they can affect the pH level inside your aquarium. You’ll also want to watch out for rocks that contain heavy metals and rust streaks, like mining ore, quartz, pyrite, shale and slate. I prefer to look for rocks in local river beds or washes because these rocks are usually well-soaked and will not leach out heavy metals or rust.

Choosing Fish

Stocking an aquarium with fish is my favorite part of aquarium keeping. With planted tanks you have to be careful because not all fish are suitable. Most planted tanks should be stocked with small, peaceful community fish, like Tetras, Rainbowfish and Cory Catfish. Most small live-bearing fish will be OK. Large aggressive fish can tear up plants and ruin your aquascape. Stay away from Cichlids, Large Gouramis, Oscars and Arrowanas. Some fish feed on plants, like Plecostomus and Siamese Algae Eaters, so be sure to research the natural diets of each fish you’re considering before you buy. If you’re looking for algae eaters for your planted tank, I recommend Otocinclus or Flying Fox Fish. They eat a wide variety of algae and will not harm your plants.

Now you have the right equipment and a good plan. All that is left is putting it all together. As with saltwater tanks, it is important to give your planted tank ample time to cycle. Plants start small but quickly grow to fill the aquascape. Don’t get overzealous—give your plants time to grow! Once the plants are established, it is common to prune and cut them on a weekly basis to avoid overgrowth and keep other plants healthy. Be prepared to perform weekly maintenance once the tank is established. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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