Success on Planted Tank: Starting Point

All planted tank fans want to be successful on his/her Tank. But in some cases it may not be easy to reach success. The main reason as per my experiences is impatience of human. Most of us are doing too many immediate interventions in our tanks to see some results immediately. But the truth is, it is not really necessary in most cases, especially in the beginning stage of a new setup.
Then what should we do? We need to think simple and start from the basis.


Like all of us do, fishes and aquatic plants are also living in an ecosystem where they are sharing this with many bacteria and other small organisms which are completing one part of each other by feeding on each other, providing different nutrients, de-composting wastes and etc. All these little pieces of activities then build a large ecosystem working in a harmony. But how this system was built and how can we create a small scale copy of nature? For me the hint is time.

All this large systems not set in one day also. In time, organisms affected their environment and they are also being affected by the environment simultaneously then they got adapted. For our small scale eco system the logic is almost same. Of course we have to do something additional to make system become activated and almost self-sustaining with minimum and regular actions. (Diseases excluded) In the nature the water source is being fed by rain which is solving the soil and rock around then carry to the system to feed the micro-organisms, supply nutrients for fishes and plants and renew water chemistry and etc. To simulate that we are making water changes, fertilizations and filtering and trying to keep everything almost constant (water current, water changing period, chemistry and etc.).

The main and also the most important one that we can count at the top of the basic rules is filtering for me. Because the basis of the ecosystem is the smallest micro-organisms which are doing de-nitrification and de-composting of the wastes produced by larger organisms. Simply they are recycling the wastes and re-introduce for the consumption of other organisms and plants at the same time also eliminating the toxicity. Thus, starting point of a successful planted/fish tank should be exactly building a good (if possible best) filtering system.

Building a good filtering doesn’t mean that the most expensive for all cases. But the truth, mostly the expensive filtering medias are the best solution mostly in case you have a limited filter media capacity. My choice in most cases is having a cheap canister filter with large media capacity (except in the beginning of my last setup. It was failure.) that I can fill in with the materials whatever I want.

As filter media I prefer, Lava Rock – both tuff or scoria could be –  as biological substrate and I prefer to use low PPI filter sponge (coarse filtering), grain (mid/fine filtering) and rarely high PPI thin layer of filter sponge for very fine mechanical filtration. It is better to use a sump filter, if you have enough space to locate for reaching a better filtration system. Because you will have huge capacity for both mechanical and biological filtration, which you can fill up with filter materials as per your choice, cheaper or expensive ones. (Sponge, grain, lava rock, other porous biological media, moving bed filter media, branded filter media and etc.)


After filtration, the second important thing is a nutrients rich substrate for supporting the plants especially in the beginning stage. Considering the plant requirements in the beginning stage of a new setup I strongly recommend you not to use any additional fertilizers at least during the first 2 or 3 months. But, sure you have to observe the plant development at the same time to prevent deficiency effects on plants. At this point, the importance of using a nutrient rich soil/substrate comes up. This is basically required for preventing nutrient deficiencies on plants and also in the same time preventing algae bloom or development.

The advantage of providing nutrients from the plant roots will simply support plants while also preventing algae development by minimizing water solved nutrients in the water column. Fertilization in the beginning stage will not help plants develop better but the algae will do well with fertilization. Due that algae are using dissolved nutrients more efficiently comparing with the plants. Therefore, dissolved nutrients in the tank at the beginning stage will definitely cause algae development.

So why we are dosing dissolved nutrients after two/three months? After plants developed roots they will start to use the nutrients in the substrate but this source is limited and also at a certain point getting nutrients only from the roots will not be sufficient for the plant development especially in the high-tech tanks (CO2 injection and High Light). In a well cycled and settled high-tech tank, water changes can’t provide the required amount of nutrients to support plant development and the deficiency symptoms will appear on the plants if fertilization not done.

Setting up a nutrient rich and effective bottom could be done in many different ways for the planted tanks. I mostly prefer the cheapest way which I believe it works well enough. I use mostly any commercial coco-peat without any fertilizer added. Some slow releasing pellet fertilizers one mesh to separate top soil from the bottom layer of coco-peat and the top soil where the plants will be planted. You can also add some lava stones (max 1-2 cm dia) and also add the powder additives that will help to shorten the cycling period and improve cycle (nitrifying bacteria, pre biotics and etc.) as per your choice. But it is not mandatory. As I already mentioned in the beginning of this article the only things mandatory are time and patience.

The cycling will complete within 2-3 months of time. In this time frame I suggest you not to add any fish to the tank. Most cases it will not be a problem for the fish but some cases the opposite. Best way is to wait until you are being sure about that the cycling successfully completed. Especially in the first month, released materials may be deadly for the fish, snail and etc. To remove the excessive nutrients released, water changes should be carried on more often than regular tanks. This could be three times a week with %50 percent of water change. After first month this can be reduced to twice a week and in the third month once a week. You will clearly observe that your plants will get good after the first month and better in the following months. This is the adaptation period for plants and the cycling period of tank ecosystem.

The important point during this period is using some temporary easy level plants (fast growing) together with the permanent plants that you are planning to keep after the tank cycling completed. These plants will help consumption of the excessive nutrients in the water column and prevent algae development. In the beginning stage it not always possible to completely prevent algae but believe this will help much. Also, during and after the cycling phase you should avoid removing too much plant from the system. In case you remove huge amount of plants, this will have a big impact on the system stability. Always try to keep all your actions in low levels and small amounts.

After setting up the bottom you will observe some bubbles raising from the bottom, this shows that the organic materials under soil is still cycling (Anaerobic Cycle / CH4 – methane). This is one of the main indicators that you can follow the cycling. Other indicators are good plant development, low or no algae development, well smelling water and clean water surface (without biofilm). By following those indicators, you can evaluate your tank cycling status.

Before you are really sure about these two first steps of the tank setup (filtering and bottom setup with cycling) I strongly suggest to keep lighting and fertilizing at low levels. But, CO2 fertilization is an exception and should start at the first day of new setup especially in case the system is going to be a high tech tank with carpet plants for keeping system stabilized from the beginning till the end. Stability is the key for planted tanks. You can start CO2 injection with one bubble per second and then increase until reaching the proper level. You can easily track CO2 level by using long lasting CO2 level monitoring kits. (Color indicators)

Before adding livestock, increasing lighting and fertilization we need to be sure about the system quality. An easy ways of testing this without using any test kits is a kind of experimental one. Adding some snails. The snails are quite sensitive about water quality. By adding some snails and observing their status is an easy way to test water quality when all other indicators are also OK. By completing these basic steps, you can proceed with the last steps which are the easiest ones. Please note that this method may cause animal deaths.

The last steps of planted tank setup as per my understanding are mineral fertilization and increasing the lighting density. These are really easy steps while considering the time period and the ease of implementation. You can just add a few lighting tubes/LEDs or inject some liquid fertilizers. It is that simple and easy. But the important part to be always kept in mind about fertilization is not to dose directly the recommended dose to your newly planted tank. In my last setup I also did the mistake by dosing as per the label. The proper method you should follow is to dose fertilizers in small amounts at the beginning stage then increasing in time by following the symptoms observed in the tank to find out the best amount as per your tank’s requirements. And also, dosing is best to be done at the predetermined days of the week instead of dosing high volumes at once.

Lighting is mostly dependent to the depth of your tank and bottom area. T5 flourescent tubes and Power LED chips will provide the best penetration depth. In a high power lighted tank the average lighting can be around 1,0-1,5W / liter for lighting tubes and 0,3-0,35W / liter for the Power LED chips at up to a depth of 45 cm. More in depth requires more in wattage basically (lumens/watt is also effective on selecting the required wattage). After increasing lighting and fertilization, in parallel water changes and fertilization periods should be also regular and constant. The more stable conditions will also bring more effective growth and healthy planted tank.

If we need to summarize all by remembering our main rule “patience and small interventions”;

  • Build an effective filtering system
  • Build a nutrient rich tank bottom and cycle tank properly
  • Do regular water changes
  • Use low light in the beginning
  • Keep some fast growing plants in the beginning
  • Do not fertilize during the first 2-3 months
  • Increase lighting after tank cycling
  • Start fertilization with small amounts
  • Increase fertilization by small amounts
  • Try to keep everything stable including lighting periods, CO2, Fertilization, Heat, Water changes and etc.
  • The most important is “BE PATIENT” and let nature work.

Note: This article is a summary of experiences which will open a window of view to the planted tanks where you can start from. You will need to develop your experience by making searches, trials and observations to reach success on you target.

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