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Some Planted Tanks, Tips for Success

by Jim Hurley, originally posted July 21, 1993

{This file is a slightly modified version of a couple of postings I've made on plants and CO2 systems. - Jim Hurley}

I set up my CO2 controller in the 100g tank in February of 1992. The tank went through several fairly well defined stages that I have noticed in my other tanks, so I'll briefly bring this up.

When tanks are started, we all know about the cycling process. But there is more to it than just getting the nitrogen cycle started. A whole slew of microbes and protozoa come and go for a while. One population finds lots of stuff to eat and then thrives, but soon the food supply is exhausted and the population growth falls off, only to be replaced by the next species that thrives on what was the last species in the population growth.

In a plant tank, there is such a large surface area provided by all the leaves that this process is accelerated. One look through a microscope of any random piece of plant will show that, and often you will see fish pecking at plants for the micro-food on those surfaces, especially fry.

Since plant tanks usually have lots of light, more variety of microfauna can flourish, especially the microalgae.

After my first planting, I first saw blue-green algae flourish, which is usually a bad sign. Next I had a bad encounter with hair algae from hell. A few weeks later it was thread algae.

Finally, though, after about 4 or 5 months, it seemed that the 100g had reached a steady state of dynamic equilibrium. There was plenty of plants, and lots of fish, and I fed heavily, yet the nitrates were always very low - under 5ppm (LaMotte test kit).

*Here is a picture of the 100g in 1992. This photo was taken in early 1992 after the tank was about 1 year old. The community fish visible include: one angelfish, 2 gold and 1 pearl gouramis, a few common rainbowfish and a few boesmani rainbowfish, and a clown loach. Not visible are two more clown loaches, a few torquoise rainbowfish, and about a dozen corydoras.

In July of 1992, I got very ambitious and had a contractor build a fish rack on our family room wall. It was designed to withstand earthquakes, and would hold 4 15g tanks, 3 20g tanks, and 2 35g tanks.

I covered all the tanks with shoplights. I had a mixture of 4 40W fixtures, 4 20W fixtures, and 4 30W fixtures that completely covered all the tanks. I put in a mixture of Tritons, Vitalights, Daylights, and Gro-and-Sho lights.

I made a rich substrate for these tanks - I bought 4 or 5 bags of Dupla Laterite and 4 or 5 boxes of Tetra Hilena D and mixed them with sand into the bottom 2 or 3 inches of each tank. Then I covered that with an inch of coarse gravel and the top was about 1/2 inch of fine sand.

I let these tanks just sit there with water for a while and after a few days started adding plant cuttings from the 100g tank.

These tanks used Tetra Brilliant sponge filters driven by two Supra 4 air pumps. I wanted a very low turbulence environment to maximize the CO2 levels - no powerheads. I don't believe in undergravel filters.

To my dismay, I saw tons of snails in a few tanks, apparently arriving with the gravel or one of the additives. For a while I smashed them, but later I saw that they were very effective in keeping the algae under control, so now I just tolerate them.

After a week, I added some fish, mostly these were fish from the 100g. I had two or three fish in each tank.

The first few weeks, I had the usual blue-green algae outbreaks - these seemed especially prominent in the tanks that had lots of Tritons over them, and less prominent on the tanks with mostly Vitalights.

There were several stages of algae outbreaks that I went through as I described earlier, but after about 4-6 months, the tanks again reached a point of dynamic equilibrium.

After a while I removed plants from the 4 15g tanks, because I wanted to get African rift cichlids and didn't think the plants would do very well. It was also a hassle to clean these tanks every week. They were acrylic, and lots of these green spots of algae would grow on the sides. It was rather difficult to remove this algae, but it seemed that the tanks that had more ramshorn snails were easier to keep clean, so I decided to populate all the tanks with ramshorns including those that were snail-free. I still think it was a good idea and it has saved me a lot of cleaning work, and I'm less concerned about overfeeding.

At this time, I have three remaining plant tanks, all 20g in size besides the 100g. Two have mostly Vitalights over them and look the best, the third has mostly Tritons and has more algae problems. I think I will dismantle it soon.

The two good-looking tanks were the ones that I ignored the most. One started with 5 black mollies that became 100 over the course of the year, and the other housed about 200 pearl gourami fry for most of that time. As the gouramis grew I sold them, but still it was wall-to-wall fish in those 20g tanks. I think this really encouraged good plant growth and the plants in turn helped keep the fish pollution down.

At the moment these two tanks are empty of fish as I am selling the black mollies and gouramis. It is almost impossible to catch fish in a densely planted tank, so I spent a few days catching them and moved them to the 15g tanks. After I sell these this week or next, I'll start re-populating the tanks.

I'm not sure what I'll be getting, but mostly they will be small fish that are not likely to breed, or won't have many fry. I'm sure I'll get some tetras and S. Am. cichlids.

*Here are some pictures:

Here's some suggestions that I have for those who want nice plant tanks. It is based on my experience of just a few years, but I think it is good advice.
  1. Get the largest tanks you can afford and preferably use glass. Plastic tanks are much harder to clean with the soft pad scrubbers whereas glass can be cleaned with the harder pads. It takes longer to clean a small tank than a larger one because the space is so cramped and you can't get your arm in there so easily. A larger tank provides a more stable environment, chemically and thermally.
  2. Get as much light as possible over the plants. Even the best lights seem rather pale when compared to a noonday sun over a pond.
  3. As far as lights go, Vitalights seem very nice for tanks that don't have CO2. Tritons seem to be overkill, but do really well on tanks that use CO2. The standard 5000K Daylight lamps look to my eyes exactly like the Vitalights in color and output and cost less. The tanks that had 5000k lights did fairly well.
  4. I tend to favor snails as algae eaters, and haven't found any fish that did as good a good job. Dwarf peckoltia didn't do too well and sometimes scraped plant leaves down to the cellulose. Otocinclus don't eat that much and don't touch red algae or the green spotty algae. Plecostomus are too rough on plants. I've heard that Siamese (or Chinese) algae eaters were good when they were small, but they seem to get nasty as they get older and are almost identical to the flying foxes that don't eat algae. The best fish for algae that I've found were black mollies. The tanks they are in are always algae-free. But then they breed like rabbits, so that's a hassle. They are also hard to sell - no one seems to want them. And finally, very few of the offspring stay black - they tend to revert to their natural colors in each new generation.
  5. Use a very rich substrate with lots of laterite. In the 100g I didn't do this and I use Dupla additives for good color and growth, but the tanks with a rich substrate don't need any fertilizer at all. As far as fertilizers go - avoid anything with nitrates or phosphates as the fish will provide plently of that in the form of wastes. Go easy on iron additives - too much iron will cause red algae problems. I've tried the Wimex and the Dupla additives, and I find the Dupla to be better for me, although they are very expensive. Most fertilizers from Tetra seem to have nitrates in them.
  6. When you do your first planting, start with a lot of cheap fast growing plants and expect to toss them after 6 months. You will go through lots of algae stages at this time and the plants may look rather bad for a while. When things seem to be stabilized - around the 4 to 6 month mark, start removing the unattractive plants and add in the real stuff and slow-growers (like anubias and cardamine). Plants that grow fast that I've found are hygrophilia, rotala, anacharis, and ambulia. In general, reddish-colored plants are slow-growers and need *LOTS* of light. Definitely save these for last. (Nymphaea lotus is an exception - it is easy to grow if you keep snipping the lily pad shoots - then the leaves become spectacular).
  7. I've talked with several plant people, and everyone has different advice when it comes to lights, plant selections, etc. I've finally concluded that each tank is a unique environment with it's own characteristic water chemistry, temperature, and physical layout, etc., so there are no generalizations possible. (Except for that last one;-)
  8. When you buy plants, you should either quarantine them for a while like you would fish, or treat them with something that will kill snails and microbes. I've heard that an overnight soak in water with about a tablespoon of alum per gallon will work. I use a very weak solution of potassium permanganate, just a few crystals in 5 gallons - enough to make the water pinkish, and soak the plants for about 10 - 30 minutes. Use gloves, as it will stain your skin. Put any gravel and substrate additives in the oven for a while or nuke them to kill any snail eggs.
In summary, I'd say that planted tanks look better than unplanted tanks, and offer a richer, more complete and stable microcosm for our fish.

There may come a time when your tank looks really bad with algae. It happened to me in the 100g when I went for a few months without doing water changes and trimming. I had a bad time at work and was there most every day, so I had no time for maintenance. What I did was try some simazine. For the first few days, nothing happened so I tried a little more. Still nothing happened so I tried some more. The next week just about every plant died. I tore apart the tank and put in some cuttings from the other tanks. These plants died slowly. It seemed the simazine stayed in the gravel for a while. I thoroughly cleaned the gravel and did a lot of water changes, but it was about 5 months before I had the tank in good condition again. I've found that things seem to work best if I do weekly 20-30% water changes. That way I can skip a week or two every now and then and things won't get too bad. If I could I would install some sort of continuous water change system, but here in California we have to conserve water.

By all means save the water change in buckets and feed these to your house plants and lawn - they will really appreciate the fertilizer.

Finally, if I can do it so can you. I never took high school biology, and couldn't tell you the names of common plants until I fell in love with plant tanks. My 100g looks as good as any tank photo in any book, and there's lots of variety, and wall-to-wall plants. The smaller tanks are trouble free and look very similar, although the growth rate is several times slower. With CO2 and lots of light, you can't fail to grow plants, and they will grow faster than any fry and form a pleasing and constantly changing tank environment.

Good luck!

Jim Hurley

{Feel free to copy and distribute this file to other networks, fish clubs, periodicals, etc. I don't mind, as long as you keep the whole thing intact (making spelling and grammatic corrections if necessary) and show that it originated from me.}
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