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  1. Plant tanks (made inexpensive) [F].
    by (Nageshwara Rao Vempaty) (Wed, 27 May 1992)

Plant tanks (made inexpensive) [F].

by (Nageshwara Rao Vempaty)
Date: Wed, 27 May 1992

I set up my first plant tank in November last year. My primary objective was to
set up a balanced and clean show tank with abundant plants and filtration, at 
low price.  (Hidden second objective : low maintenance.) With a couple of 
ideas from the *.aquaria, a couple of DIYs and luck, I was able to 
set it up for relatively low cost and have been successfully keeping 
plants for the past six months.  Since I see many articles and queries 
on plant tanks, I am posting this article to share my experiences.  It  
describes real inexpensive and excellent sources of lighting, fertilizers, 
planting material, plants, etc.. Happy planting.


The total cost of the whole set up is about $400 including fish. The important 
reasons for this low price tag (besides residing in Florida on a lake front, 
which supplies many things free of cost;-))  are using potting soil and 
fertilizers from nurseries, buying plants in bulk at Slocum water gardens,
and using commercial 300W quartz halogen from home depot as lighting.  I think 
that the project has been going great so far. I have good plant growth, 
I have more than 90% of the plants I bought in good shape (only two really 
died, the rest were eaten when I was away) and had only 
5 fish deaths (2 neons due to an ammonia spike from commercial ammonia 
fertilizers, 1 gouramy egg bound/old and 2 mysterious angel deaths).  Some of 
the fish I have are voracious plant eaters and there is a surprise benefit; I 
dont have debris/mulch from old dying leaves. Here is a break up of expenses and
more details on my setup and DIYs.

Item                         Cost     Source    

75 G.Tank,Strip light       109.00    Sale at a local petstore. 
Iron Stand                   69.00          
300W MetalHalide, Holder     12.00    Home depot
Timer for lights             07.00    K-mart
Air pump Elite 802           05.00    local petstore
Eheim 203 Canister           69.00    Sale at petstore. ($50 mail order).
UGF 10x20                    09.00    local petstore
Background paper             08.00    local petstore. 
Sponges                      04.00    Home depot
Fertilizers                  10.00    Local nursery (enough for a few years).
Potting soil and pots        06.00    Local nursery  (enough for a few years).
Fine sand, Sandstone          0.00    Lake in front of our home
Large Driftwood               0.00    Lake in front of our home
Color gravel on UGF           8.00    local petstore
Plants                       40.00    Mostly from Slocum water gardens.
Fish                       cant disclose for personal reasons:-)) local petstore
Total                       356.00   
Add $44 for fish, sweat and gas 
and round up to             400.00

(a) Plant Sources :- I bought most of them on a trip to Slocum water gardens at 
Winter Haven. That happens to be only 50 miles from my home (but you can 
mail order them if you know what you want). I got loads of plants for $25
and bought another $15 worth from pet shops. The plants I got from Slocums 
were real healthy. (Thanks to Vinny Kutty and Tony Travaglini for suggesting 
Slocums). People at Slocums are nice and they have a huge aquatic plant nursery.
More details on exact species etc. is at the end. 

(b) Potting :- I used the clear plastic/PVC pots/trays sold in nurseries as 
containers.  Drilled a few holes at the bottom to allow exchange of water. These
come in many shapes and sizes. I used the 2in dia. pots and 2x4 rectangular
trays  which are 2in deep for large plants  and 8 in dia. x .75in deep circular
trays  for small plants.  The pots were filled with commercial potting soil and
topped off with a 0.5in layer of fine sand from lake bed.  Potting soil 
is naturally high in laterites, iron, etc.. It is soft for the plant roots to 
penetrate and grip.  I observed that it beads into small soft lumps over time
and does not harden.  The surface sand is for decoration and to prevent fishes
from mucking up the black potting soil. To set up the tank fast, one needs to 
wetten potting soil and clean sand thoroughly before filling in the pots. 
If you have time and if you want to fill the whole aquarium bottom with 
potting soil, you can probably spread it on the bottom and let it settle
in water. After a few water changes and a couple of weeks, it will settle down
and stop coloring the water.

 Potting in plastic pots has many advantages (i) you can move plants freely and 
even to other tanks, with out uprooting them (ii) you can individually cater 
to each specimen, avoiding the quickies from annihilating the slow ones (iii)
the clear plastic is almost invisible and blends with its contents. (iv) 
there is space in between pots for fish to swim and clean.  (v) you can use a 
UGF; I have 1/4 of the bottom as plant free swimming zone with  a UGF.  
One can try potting soil/sand mix for the whole bottom for breeding some 
demanding species.

(c) Fertilization :- I use commercial trace element solution (made by Home and
Garden). It has Iron, Copper, Zinc, Molybdenum, ..., sulphates and lignin 
sulphate as cheleating agent.   I have been using this for three months now
and so far, my fish are fine and plants love this stuff. They develop real 
green leaves and grow well. The stuff is cheap; you can buy a 1 liter bottle 
for $4 and that should last for a couple of years.

I used dupla plant tabs and tetra plant soln. as a source of potash(K2O) so far.
Last week I almost finished my supplies. So I am starting  an experiment to 
using potassium sulphate instead.  We have a flower and veggie garden too. 
Hence the motivation to try out stuff from the nurseries.  So far the harmony 
is great; our out door garden enjoys the water dumped from fish tanks and 
I get to use stuff bought in bulk for outdoors for my aquatic plants.

I got a bag of commercial sulphate of potash for $4. Should be enough for a 
life time.  This stuff dissolves well in  water and does not seem to harm fish. 
I just introduced it this week in my big tank and will post on its effects 

One big caution about fertilizers: Do not use nitrates, phosphates, urea, 
other fertilizers for land plants. You will end up with algae blooms and 
ammonia/nitrate spikes.  I did this once and ended up in an ammonia-algae pit
with a couple of dead neons.  Always fertilize in tiny amounts, spread out 
over days, particularly with commercial trace elements and potassium sulphate. 

(d) Tank :- I got a 75 gallon (48x12x18) with a strip light and stand on sale
for $180 from a local pet store (Jacks aquarium and pets).  Jacks has a 
swell sale every quarter. I heard that you can get good deals from Tampa 
suppliers, if you buy a couple of tanks.

(e) Lighting :- This was the best part of all. I use a 300W (yes I mean three 
hundred) quartz halogen lamp bought from home depot. These are the commercial 
versions of metal halides and are real cheap. I got the bulb, the enclosure, 
and connecting wire for under $12!.  I fixed it to the wall about 16in. above 
water surface. It gives intense light with a yellowish tinge (may have a 
peak in 5000-6000 K) and throws long shadows of plant leaves and fish. It is 
enough to light up our living room.   The tank is open top and I retained 
the strip light (placed on the top in front) to provide some color mix. The
lights are operated by a timer for 11 hrs a day.

 A future improvement would be to replace the tube in the strip light with a 
triton or actinic.  Better yet, add a mercury vapor lamp to balance the color 
spectrum. Barry James suggests that this is the best combination for plant tanks
 in his book.  But so far light does not seem to be a deficiency at all. 

(f) Aeration :- A small Elite 802 drives a long  bubble wall.

(g) Filtration :- One of my objectives was to have a clean tank. So  I 
employ three different filters. The water stays reasonably clean and free 
of grit. I replace  about 30%  with tap water every 2-4 weeks (when I find 
time and moods).  There is little muck, debris, etc..  

1. Eheim 203 canister. I fill middle layer with zeolite and bottom with
boiled peat + macaroni tubes. ( I use Lambert brand canadian peat from 
nurseries. Can be obtained for $4 for a huge 1cubicft. bag.) The peat seems 
to work great because my dwarf cichlids spawn each time I change it. 
I clean the canister once a month. Peat is boiled couple of times; zeolites
are recharged in brine.

2. A 10x20 UGF covered with colored gravel in the middle front of the tank.
This is intentionally kept as a free swimming zone for the fish and 
usually battles for dominance between equally matched opponents are held 
here.  One of the lift tubes of the ugf is connected to the return tube 
of the canister and is used as an RUGF.  In my experience, RUGF reduces the 
muck in UGFs drastically.  I stopped vacumming the UGF after making the R.

3. Two large (8x3x3) sponges suspended on the midbeam at the surface of the 
water act as  wet/dry sponge filters. The spray bar of the canister filter 
sprays water on the sponges. 80% are above water and 20% below water surface.
I had thoughts of building a wet dry, but I was vary of overflows in the 
sump due to malfunctions.  The sponges are placed to throw shadows on the 
UGF, the plant free zone of the tank. They are almost invisible to 
observers as the strip light holder is in front.

(h) Fish :- Contrary to the idea of having  plant friendly fish, I have a 
rowdy gang. I have many barbs, gouramies and a plecostomos, which nip,
tear, devour any soft plant/leaf they can attack. The reason for this 
approach is to have a natural balance; tropical wet lands with abundant 
plants are also abundant in plant eating fish.

 My observation so far is that the fish mainly eat soft young shoots or 
dying old leaves.  They thus naturally weed out the weaklings and the ones 
left are healthy and beautiful.  I also do not have the usual pile up of debris 
from old and falling plant leaves; all weaklings are devoured as salad. I 
had  duckweed for a long time in this tank, but never had an explosion. The 
fish keep it in check. In fact for the last two months, I have not vacuumed 
the bottom.

Surface(+mid) feeders
     2 large pearl gouramies
     2 giant gouramies
     3 dwarf gouramies (1 sunset)
     4 medium Angels (2 marble veils and 2 zebra)
Midsection feeders
     4 long fin barbs (real fast swimmers. they kind of enliven the tank. 
          I have often seen them gouge long old leaves.  Fight and play  
          intensely among themselves.  Take the title of Kilroy.)
     4 bleeding heart tetras. 
     2 Apistogramma Commbrae. (These are my softness indicators. Spawn each 
                               time peat is replaced)
     1 stow away guppy.
Bottom feeders (Ze cleaning crew)
     2 green cory cats
     2 pink (albino) cories
     2 leopard cories
     2 small clown loaches 
     1 plecostomos ( the normal black one). 

Those who are faint hearted for plants may avoid the pleco, loaches and barbs.
But in my opinion, they keep the debris off and clean the healthy plants, 
saving me time. 

(i) Heating :-  There is no heating. The temperature in our home always 
stays between 70 and 90 F, thanks to Florida weather.

(j) CO2 :- there is no injection right now.  The reasonable fish load 
and aeration may produce some CO2.  There is no deficiency in plant growth, 
but I am tempted from the umpteen articles on CO2 injection. I plan to set up 
a DIY CO2 injection soon, after figuring out a reasonable ph control. I like 
the canister injection and inverted jar ideas posted on the net some time back.

(k) Fish feeding :- Wardleys/slocums generic flakes  twice a day. 
A treat of live brine shrimp every saturday. (available in plenty here, 
but the shop closest to my home (walking distance) gets fresh loads
every saturday).  Some times frozen brine/daphnia. 

(l) The plants (atlast!):-

25+  Salvinia auriculata (Butterfly fern) Floating. Eaten when I was away
on a vacation.

6 Ludwigia palustrus  CB RB . Rapidly growing plant. Spreading across 
surface and out of the water. 

6 Bacopa caroliniana LC, LB. Shows enormous growth. It has multiplied 
to about 12 plants and is continously trying to work its way to the 
metal halide.

1 Aponogeton Crispus  LC. Showed fast growth. It grew many 15-22 inch 
leaves and bloomed and wilted down.  There is a tiny plant hibernating

2 Aponogeton Undulatus LB RB. Slow grower. One faded away/eaten. 

2 Nymphaea Stellata (red/blue water lillies) took a couple of weeks to 
establish. One of them throws out one big leaf every two days. Fish often 
feast on old leaves. The other one is slow as it is under the shadow 
of big sword.

1 Nymphaea maculata (green tiger lotus) Fast grower. Throws out almost a 
leaf a day. I got a big tuber from Slocums and planted it in a seperate
pot. Seems to like dupla plant tabs. 

Two of the nymphea occupy a big share of the surface.

2 Cryptocoryne Ciliata L R Slow growing. Probably best kept in ponds.
Probably mine are shadowed by faster growing plants.

2 Cryptocoryne blassi (giant Crypt). Moody to water changes. Grows 
large leaves which become like madagascar lace after wilting.

6 Cryptocoryne Wendtii (Brown) LF RF Rapid growers, I may have 12+now.

                   SCHEMATIC TOP VIEW                         Key
---------------------------------------------------------   Ep Echin. panic.
|Ep  HpHp Au         EcAcLp                    BcAuLpCW |   Cw Crypt. Wen. Gr
|   Hp SsSs Cb   Ec         Cw Cb      EP         Bc  Lp|   CW Crypt. Wen. Br
|  NsSs            R CS    SS Ss   Cw      Sp       Bc  |   Bc Bacop. car.
|      Cc       Ns------------------Nm-          Bc  Cc |   Dw Drift Wood
|Ec   CW     R RDW                    DW        Bc  Bc  |   SS Sand Stone
| CwCW   Cw Cw  |                      |    CwCwCwCW  Bc|   CS Coconut Shell
| CWCwCW   Cw   |       UGF            |TC  SsSsCW  CW  |   R  Rock
| CwCwCw Cw     |                      |    SsSsCwCwCwSs|   TC Toy Castle

2 Echinodorus paniculatus RB LB. (Broad leaf sword). Fast growing. 
Has long and real green leaves. Looks like a tree in comparison to others.
The bigger one has 18in+ leaves.

3 Echinodorus cordifolius LC LB CB. Moderate growing plant. Last month 
they started to produce long leafs to compete for surface light and air
with the lotus plants.

12 Cabomba caroliniana  CB RB Rapid grower. Grew many long stems, but 
unfortunately the fish made salad out of it when I was away. None of 
them are left now.

6 Ceratopteris thalictroides (Indian fern) Floating. Another rapid 
grower. I stated with one large potted  plant. While the fish made good 
salad of the big one while I was on vacation, a couple of small ones survived
and now there are 6-8 moderate sized floating plants.

Many Eleocharis acicularis  (Dwarf hairgrass) RB The fish feasted on this
one even faster than cabomba. I have a thick bush in a smaller tank.

12 Cryptocoryne wendtii nana (Dark green) LF RF. Fast growers. 

Duck weed Many floating. Population varies; but so far kept in check 
by barbs and gouramies.

2 Sagittaria platyphyla (giant saggs) Had a tough time holding them down.
They are little moody to water changes and the large ones I got from Slocums
wilted and produced small babies. One is established now. The other one was 
uprooted and destroyed.

Many Saggittaria subulata (dwarf saggs) Slow growers.

Many Hygrophila polysperma.  Fast grower.  There are a couple of 3ft+ ones
going from one end to the other at the surface.   I got these from a spring 
near by.  Mine have thick leaf bushes like in the wild, probably due 
to strong lighting. Before the metal halide was added, the leaves were 

Other decorations.

2 large pieces of driftwood. with many catfish hangouts.
These are  17 inch high x 4inch diameter  vertical tree stumps in middle 
like two posts. Many visitors felt that they look like forest trees growing
out. I picked these from the lake in front of our home.

1 big sand/clay stone in center with many holes in the center. Cat fish and 
clown loaches have a great time poking in the holes. I picked this from the 
lake in front of our home.

1 toy castle

1 shipwreck on the top of drift wood.

1 igneous rock with iron deposits.

1 coconut shell

2 misc. rocks.

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