I am a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad person! I promised this post over two weeks ago, and am just now getting around to it. In my defense, I’ve been working hard on a lot of different projects, working hard at my present job and working to get a new job, which I will be starting next Monday! In this post, I confess my bad habit of neglecting animals and plants, and now you all know how deep the problem really runs – I can be sadly neglectful of a lot of things, including this blog. What I lack in quantity, though, I hope I make up for in quality! So read on for the much-awaited tutorial on building a beautiful planted aquarium.
In addition to being a plant fanatic, I am an unabashed animal lover. Some of you might remember that I have a bengal, Stash, who is like a (semi-neglected) child to me. We also have a female mantis named Mandi, and a betta named Finch because, hey, why shouldn’t we welcome members of all phyla into our home?
Finch was handed to me almost a year ago now, at a farmer’s market in San Diego. She was a female and, being less showy than her male counterparts, hadn’t been selected at a booth where bettas – instead of the more common goldfish – were being offered as prizes. I took her home and put her in a vase up out of reach of the cat. And then, being the somewhat forgetful parent that I am, she endured sporadic water changes, infrequent feeding and much too long stewing in her own poo.
Still, she hung in there and never asked too much of us. When we made the drive up to Oregon this past January, she was stowed in a water bottle, rode between our seats and came in out of the cold each time we stopped for the night. After all that, I finally decided she deserved a home she could be content in. As I started researching basic aquarium setups, I realized that one needs to choose between using real and fake plants. It never even occurred to me that most aquariums are not planted with real plants! Of course, I knew from the outset that I wanted to use live plants. Today, I’m going to share with you the process of setting up a planted tank and what I learned along the way!
Finch’s previous home. Attractive, but not too stimulating.
As with all things, there are pros and cons to a planted tank. Depending on how involved you want to get, a planted tank can be more expensive and require more maintenance than a non-planted tank. However, I’m going to show you how to put together an affordable, low-maintenance planted tank: no additional lighting or CO2 required. When managed right, a planted tank should create a generally stable ecosystem: fish waste, uneaten food and decomposed plant material fertilize the plants, which remove harmful nitrates from the water and suppress algae growth. All that is required from you is monitoring the health of your tank and periodic water changes.
This project took me the better part of an afternoon, but I also had to stop after each step to try and snap semi-decent photos while holding the camera in one hand and [insert tool here] in the other. Just the same, make sure you set aside at least a couple hours for this project, and work in an area that you don’t mind getting messy. I also suggest placing the tank as close as possible to it’s final resting place before hand – I planted my 2 gallon tank on the floor, and after it was full of water and rocks, it took the both of us to lift it. In retrospect, I should have moved it before I filled it entirely with water, but I wanted to snap some photos of it before it was set on our hideous blue kitchen counter. Luckily, you can learn from my mistakes! Read on for the supplies and how-to.
• Aquatic plants. Most of the plants you’ll find at chain pet stores will be appropriate for use in your freshwater tank, and may be marked with the difficulty required to care for them. I used a Cryptocoryne sp., Anubias sp., Echinodorus bleheri and Alternanthera reineckii. With the exception of the Alternanthera, which is a red-colored plant, these are all excellent beginner plants. Others include Microsorum pteropus and Hygrophila difformis. Keep in mind that you’ll want a mix of taller and shorter plants, for foreground and background planting.
For the best start to your tank, you will want to plant densely right from the beginning to ensure the plants are able to process the nitrate load in your tank and to out-compete algae. I purchased five plants for my 2.6 gallon tank, which was just the right amount. Aim to purchase the majority of your plants individually packaged, as these plants are guaranteed to be free of pathogens. If you purchase plants out of a tank in the store (I did both), be sure to rinse them and give them a rub with your fingers before using, as they can transmit disease or harbor snail eggs.
• Decor. This can be whatever you like! Decorative rocks, driftwood, statues. I had a hard time between going all-natural and choosing one of the cool Buddha heads, Hindu deities or temples available. In the end, I went with a piece of mopani wood. Don’t be afraid to scout the reptile section, too: sometimes there are cooler pieces of wood and rocks over there!
• Plant substrate. You wouldn’t plant your outdoor plants into pure gravel, and it is not advisable to put aquatic plants directly into traditional aquarium gravel, either. Instead you will need the aquatic equivalent of “potting soil”: a substrate that has been impregnated with the necessary nutrients and good bacteria to support plant growth. There are a number of products suited to this purpose – some can be on the expensive side, but it may be hard to find a large selection at your local pet store. Mine had just one bag of CaribSea Eco-Complete, which comes in a 20 lb bag for $24. Much more than what I needed, but I didn’t have a lot of options. If you’re planning ahead, consider comparing the main alternative, Seachem Fluorite, which tends to be a bit cheaper.
• Sand. This is optional, but I read a few articles that suggested mixing sand into the planting substrate to achieve a finer blend. Because the Eco-Complete is pretty chunky, this made sense to me. The sand helps provide more surface area for the plants’ roots to anchor themselves, and for good bacteria to flourish. Use whatever sort of sand you like – I used cheap black aquarium sand because it would blend in to the substrate.
• Chopsticks. A long instrument like chopsticks, bamboo skewers or extra long tweezers helped manipulate the gravel and plants when things started to get tight.
• Scissors. For trimming your plants.
• And, the most important part… an aquarium! This is clearly the main investment and most important choice. Many people keep planted tanks without any fish inside, just like little underwater gardens. How many and what sort of creatures you plan to house, as well as your own personal living situation and budget, will influence what size and sort of tank you choose. Being the super particular person that I am, I can’t stand the look of excess cables, filters or ugly traditional fishtanks in my living space, so I shopped for a more “designer” option that was on the smaller side. I knew I needed room for Finch (bettas should really be housed in 2 gallon and larger tanks) plus a few companions.
What I came up with was the Fluval Spec II, a 2.6 gallon tank available in white and black, with a built-in filter, pump and light. At almost $100 it isn’t cheap, so I waited until it was marked down 30% and then used an additional 20% off coupon. Score!Really, though, you can use whatever sort of aquarium you like, as long as it is the correct size for the number and species of fish you want to use, and you include an appropriate-sized pump and filter combination. Keep in mind, too, that some fish require their water temperature to be regulated. Finch doesn’t seem to mind, but because bettas are from tropical Thailand, at some point I will consider setting her up with a heater.
Step 1. First, you’ll want to rinse all parts of your aquarium in warm water. Then, set it up according to the included instructions. Make sure your filter, pump and light are working properly, as it will be more difficult to fix problems once the tank is planted out. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll also want to makes sure your tank is at least somewhat near it’s final resting point. It will be near impossible to move anything larger than a 2 gallon tank once it’s filled, and even that posed a huge challenge for me.
Step 2. If you’re using sand, mix your sand into whatever substrate you’ve chosen. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I mixed the sand into the substrate at a ratio of 1:3. Then, fill the aquarium with your mixed substrate to a depth of about 3″. You want to ensure that the substrate is at least deep enough to cover the roots of all your plants with room at the bottom for growth.
Step 3. Now, we’re going to fill the tank 1/3 with water. Planting while the tank is partly filled helps to keep the leaves of the plants up out of the way and ensures that the roots won’t be disturbed when you finish filling it later. You’ll want to use some method to keep the water from being poured directly onto the substrate, as this will stir up sand and debris, making it difficult to see what you’re doing moving forward. I chose to put a plate over the substrate and pour the water onto that – this also helps to keep particles of sand from floating all over the place. You could use an overturned bowl, mug or something similar. Be sure to pour slowly at first.
Step 4. Place your decor! This will help you decide where your plants will go in the next step. You might end up moving the decor a bit while you plant, but it’s a good idea to have final placement in mind. Remember to check out the aquarium from the top, too – water distorts the way items appear to to us spatially, and looking at the tank from all angles ensures you place your decor accurately.
Step 5. Before planting, remove any dead, yellowed or otherwise weak-looking leaves from your plants. This is for aesthetic reasons, sanitary reasons and to ensure the plant doesn’t waste time or energy on damaged leaves. In case you didn’t thoroughly read through the supplies list, now is the time to be sure you rinse any plants that were purchased from tanks in the pet store, to rid them of unwanted pathogens. You will also want to gently remove the substrate from your plants roots, or vice versa, by running them under the tap and using your fingers – this might be gravel, rockwool, soil or gel.
Step 6. Use a spoon, your fingers or both to create a hollow in the substrate where your plant will go. In the end, I found the easiest method was to cup my fingers around the roots of the plant and use the tips of my fingers like a spade to burrow them into the sand, then gently releasing the roots. You may have to shift your decor around a bit at this point.
Step 7. Use your chopstick, bamboo skewer or other long, slender utensil to help place your plants. Some, like this Anubias, have a large amount of roots and it can be frustrating trying to get them all to stay beneath the substrate, especially as you begin to place other plants nearby. I found the small, flat tip of the chopstick to be the perfect tool for many things during this project: pushing stray roots beneath the substrate, helping to recover the roots with substrate and loosening leaves that accidentally became buried. Repeat for each plant, keeping in mind the final height of each plant as you place them.
Step 8. Once you’ve got all of your plants in place, use your spoon or other tools to add substrate as needed to cover your plants’ roots and fill in holes or uneven spaces created while digging.
Step 9. Make sure your aquarium is in its final resting place, and then fill it the rest of the way with water. Plug in your filter, light and enjoy!
Should you choose to add creatures to your tank at this point, it’s a good idea to test the water, make sure it has been treated for contaminates and to monitor the tank as the nitrogen cycle begins. All that information I can address in a later post, but I know better now than to promise when that’ll be! I hope you’ve enjoyed, and please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.