From the moment I knew I would be starting this tank, I was determined to get as much as I could right. The first month makes or breaks an aquascape - the many practices and products Amano devised exist for this reason. In the past I had shied away from these, feeling them to be unnecessary or difficult, but with this tank I made a point to execute the proper husbandry and have been thankful for it. I would like to credit Frank Wazeter
for explaining much of this methodology in his past threads - I spent days reading through them, but every bit was worth it.
Preparation step 1: Plants
Plants are integral to the aquascape, yet sourcing them is often not given due effort. The standard approach to planting a new tank is to get a bit of everything, because plants are too expensive and too hard to find, and plant the tank sparsely, dreaming of some far-off day when everything ‘fills in’. Almost invariably this leads to an unstable tank laden with algae - it may stabilize over time with diligence and luck, but it also may crash and burn. Yes, it may take a bit of effort and cost to plant heavily from the start, but I'd rather spend this to have an enjoyable aquascape I spend hours gazing at rather than a dreadful box of algae I spend hours getting my sleeves wet dealing with.
Planted tanks are very Malthusian. All the resources for photosynthesis (light, nutrients, CO2), are present in your tank - if there aren’t enough plants to utilize them, then what will? I would rather spend more effort and money to plant the tank well from the start and have a pleasurable experience rather than spending endless time combating countless sorts of algae. When I say plant heavily from the start, I do mean heavily. There should be little bare substrate visible (unless your scape calls for such areas), and the plants should be planted densely.
There are strategies around these perceived cost and effort issues. Plants at local retailers are often overpriced and of limited variety. However, for basic/common plants, like Cabomba spp
., such stores can be a viable source - they get these from nurseries in Florida. Good stores will let you special order plants which lets you get larger amounts for a lower cost. For rarer plants, online forums like this one and Facebook groups are great resources. Look for people offering packages or doing rescapes to get sufficiently large quantities for lower prices. When ordering from multiple sources, it can be difficult to arrange to have everything arrive simultaneously. Most plants can be held for several days in buckets or small tanks lit by a CFL lamp. More delicate plants will probably require some CO2 addition if being held for over a couple of days.
Once the plants are in hand some more steps must be taken before adding them to your tank.
Many people are of the school of thought that all algaes exist in all tanks but only arise when conditions are imbalanced. They claim that algal spores are everywhere in the air, so preventing their introduction is futile. I disagree. This is generally true for ‘flat’ algaes like green spot algae. But for the bane of many a planted tank keeper’s existence - filamentous algaes - I don’t think this is the case. I have had many tanks that were seemingly balanced and doing well until such algaes were introduced as hitchhikers, upon which they grew rampant and destroyed the setup. I have had others where such algaes were never introduced; these have remained free of them for years. My observations of non-planted tanks further support this. While these often have ‘flat’ algaes or green water, they rarely have filamentous algaes without plants to introduce them. In fact a common problem among African cichlid keepers is culturing and maintaining such algaes in their tank to serve as food!
Thus it is an essential practice to ‘quarantine’ new plants before use. Place them into water, and closely inspect them under a light for any signs of filamentous algae. If any is found then further action is required.
In my situation I had to execute several algae removal procedures. First was with the Cryptocoryne affinis
. These were from the tank’s previous BBA-laden incarnation. I’d trashed the rest of the plants but had an emotional attachment to these crypts - I’d had them for years and some were generously gifted to me. After removing them I clipped off old/decaying leaves and roots, manually removed as much algae as possible, and put them into cups of water matching the conditions they were grown in. They then went into a dark closet for three days (vascular plants are better at coping with periods of darkness than algae). Following this, any remaining visible algae was manually removed, and the plants were rinsed multiple times to shake off any algae pieces and spores, until no more algae was visible in the rinse water. They were then placed into a lit container until the tank was ready to set up - during this time I monitored them for further algal growth (of which there was none).
Second was the Bolbitis
. While it seemed clean under initial inspection, an additional check before planting found it to have small bits of filamentous algae tangled amongst the roots. I manually removed as much as possible. I then left them in an H2O2 dip composed of 8 mL peroxide in one gallon of water for 20 minutes, after which I rinsed them in water and further inspected for remaining algae.
Earlier I mentioned special ordering plants through a local store. An additional advantage to this is lack of contamination. Let’s face it - most stores are not good at keeping plants. In my case the store’s plant tanks were laden with various types of algae. Ask the store to hold the plants in their shipping bags/box for you to pick up directly. Generally plants direct from the nursery are algae-free. I picked up the Cabomba
I ordered almost fresh from the truck. For fine-leaved stem plants and mosses the risk of algal contamination is especially high. I made sure to get my willow moss as a tissue culture, to eliminate contamination risk.
Preparation step 2: Constructing the substrate
From the moment I decided to redo this tank I knew I would use ADA Aquasoil. My experiences have been contrary to those who advocate for the adequacy of inert substrates supplemented by root tabs and water column fertilization. This tank’s previous incarnation had a primarily sand-based substrate (with mineralized soil below) with ample water column dosing; this fostered algae rather than plant growth, and picking out algae was a constant battle especially when plants weren’t doing well. Meanwhile, next to this tank was a 10 gallon shrimp tank with some old Aquasoil. Even with the Aquasoil being three years old, it still grew plants well, with the only nutrient source being cherry shrimp being fed every other day. Even with almost no water changes this tank had almost no algae.
My experience has been that nutritive substrates lead to more stable tanks less prone to devolve into a mess of algae should something malfunction. The primary reason is that nothing beats a nutrient substrate for supporting plant health. When working with an inert substrate, you’re basically playing a guessing game (dose-ee-dose I like to call it). The plants are entirely dependent on your dosing regime for nutrients, so if this is subpar in some manner (which may vary for different species) they’re out of luck. This certainly puts a lot of pressure on the keeper to have spot-on dosing, and if anything goes wrong with this (the tank doesn’t get dosed for a few days for some reason or another) plant health quickly suffers and instability occurs. As someone not home everyday, this method certainly isn’t feasible.
Nutritive substrates provide both macro and micro nutrients from the get-go. Even when they have been depleted of their original nutrients with age, their CEC still allows them to bind and store nutrients from the water, making consistently perfect liquid dosing less essential. Furthermore, this nutrient binding takes nutrients out of the water column, making them available to only plants rather than algae. Though Aquasoil is somewhat pricey initially, the results in plant growth and greater ease of care are more than worth it.
Another important component of the nature aquarium substrate system is power sand. Originally I was reluctant to use this - in my 10 gallon it quickly mixed in with the Aquasoil, leading to white specks in the substrate. I changed my mind for two reasons:
1. On a larger tank with a deep substrate, this wouldn’t occur as easily
2. I gained insight as to the true purpose of power sand in a substrate system.
While power sand does provide some nutrients (primarily nitrogen) and peat to help buffer the water, the primary purpose is to house beneficial bacteria. Such bacteria facilitate various essential processes in planted aquariums (such as nutrient cycling), and help prevent anaerobic zones from developing - all functions essential to tank health.
Unfortunately, the local ADA retailer did not have enough power sand to fully supply such a large tank. But with its primary purpose in mind, I was able to come up with a substitute. Power sand itself is crushed pumice, but being on the east coast I was unable to find any. Thus I decided to go with lava rock, which while less porous still contains plenty of surface area and is a popular DIY bio-media. I was initially concerned about impacts on water chemistry, but some tests (over several days) showed that it was more or less inert. In fact, some pieces actually led to lower TDS in the water, presumably due to some sort of ion binding capacity.
Initially I went with Home Depot lava rock (sold for use in grills) because I had read about it being inert. This it was, but crushing it to substrate size was awfully labor intensive. I found a brand named Hoffman that sold lava rock already crushed to pebble size (for use as potting media), which was perfect for my application. Both types were inert, and both types are quite dusty - rinse well and multiple times before using!
Of course, any great nature aquarium must have a substrate slope to create a sense of depth. I didn’t realize the extent of this until I visited my first ADA dealer several years ago - even on small tanks the substrate was up to half a foot deep in the back! Though Aquasoil is somewhat better at maintaining slope than other substrates, the slope in my 10 gallon had evened out over the years. Therefore I knew I needed some sort of support system.
Flow cells, used for collecting rain water, provided both vertical and horizontal support - the perfect solution. These have some ridges/recesses on the sides that allow pieces to fit together. I kept this in mind when cutting the pieces (using an electric saw) in the shape of the slope I wanted so that each layer would fit as one piece and be less prone to shifting with the addition of substrate. I cut the pieces smaller and shorter than the desired slope, accounting for substrate volume (you can see in my photos I adjusted the top right piece’s size for this reason). Before this I envisioned the scape I wanted, with some rough sketches on paper to get an idea of approximate dimensions for the slope.
Finally it came time to layer down the substrate. I layered Aquasoil along the sides of the tank so that the lava rock wouldn’t be visible. I first filled the flow cells with lava rock.
I then added power sand, choosing to add my limited amount to the more central areas where I would plant heavy root feeders like Cryptocoryne and hairgrass so they could utilize the extra nutrients. Before filling in the rest of the Aquasoil, I took three ADA Bacter Balls and crushed them up (using a nut cracker), sprinkling the powder and chunks evenly over the lava rocks and power sand. My local ADA retailer didn’t have Bacter 100. I would have used the other additives like Penac and Tourmaline but these were unavailable as well.
Preparation step 3: Designing the scape
The scape was inspired by my experiences in southern Texas, which contains many interesting environs where forest and prairies are juxtaposed. I envisioned driftwood combined with stem plant groupings representing stands of forest, with a gently swirling center path of hairgrass as the prairie that connects the two. The midground would represent the forest-prairie boundary, often a very biodiverse area.
With this in mind I laid down the pieces of driftwood. The large piece actually does not naturally rest in this position - it has a flat base that leads it to naturally sit like below:
However I partially embedded it in the substrate and used lava rocks to support this tilted position. The left ‘piece’ of driftwood is actually two pieces placed next to each other. When plants grow in this will be less apparent. It is indeed possible to create a nice scape with less than ‘show-quality’ wood pieces through such creative arrangement strategies.
The importance of flow:
Of course, functional considerations must be made in addition to aesthetic ones. I originally considered using more pieces of driftwood, but decided against this for a main practical issue.
How often have you heard all that’s required for a successful planted tank is light, CO2, and nutrients? While this is true at a basic level, it’s not a very helpful statement. There are plenty of tanks with sufficient lighting, high CO2 injection, and ample fertilization that don’t do well (as was the case with this tank’s previous incarnation).
Yes, you can be adding all these to your tank, but if there isn’t ample flow to distribute them then they won’t be available to nurture your plants, leading to poor growth and algae problems. For example, you can be pumping so much CO2 that no livestock can survive, but without proper flow certain areas will still have low CO2 levels.
Insufficient flow also leads to detritus and mulm accumulation, which increases the chemical oxygen demand and spawns algal proliferation. It is for these reasons I acquired a second canister filter, as my past experience with the tank showed that one 2217, despite being rated for a tank my size, didn’t provide ample flow and biofiltration capacity to reduce detrital buildup.
Thus maximizing laminar flow, in which all the water in the tank moves as one and sustains a momentum, reaching all areas of the tank, was of utmost priority to me. Turbulent flow is of less importance and is actually counterproductive in most planted tanks; there are many reefkeeping articles discussing the differences between types. Copious hardscape materials hinder laminar flow and increase the chances of ‘dead spots’ and areas of mulm accumulation forming, so I chose to limit them and construct the scape primarily from plant groupings.
The final stage: Planting
Before planting, I added enough water to go up to the substrate level at the front, and moistened the taller areas with a spray bottle. Prior to planting, I cut off any dead leaves and rinsed the plants well in water - this minimizes the organics load and resulting ammonia in the new tank. Spray regularly throughout the process so the plants don't dry out.
I decided to start with defining the hairgrass path, as this is the central area that ties the rest of the scape’s components together. I used bamboo skewers to help define the path I wanted and planted the hairgrass within this area, leaving a little empty space at the edges to account for growth.
A strong midground is essential to defining a scape, so I planted this next. I attached the Bolbitis
to the small Home Depot lava rocks and right two wood pieces using ADA wood tight (which is essentially vinyl-coated wire, but it has a good color). The java fern was acquired a week later and similarly attached to small lava rocks. This allows for easy rearrangement of epiphytic plants should it be necessary. Willow moss was wrapped around the upper branches of the large wood piece.
Then came time to plant the crypts and stems. The stems were planted densely, two at a time. Before planting I lined up the tops and cut off the bottoms so they were of an even height. For the larger groupings like the Cabomba
I used two set heights, with taller stems in the back.
Finally came time for water to be added! I use remineralized RO water mixed in Rubbermaid brute trashcans (a classic reefer trick), so pumped this using a MaxiJet 1200. I placed a dish under the water outlet so as to not disturb the scape.