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3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
This thread outlines much of my general philosophy concerning planted tanks, as well as the progress and goals for this specific aquascape. Hopefully beginners and advanced plant keepers alike can get something out of it.

OP updated 6/26/2016.

Plant list:
Bacopa colorata
Bolbitis heudelotii
Cabomba caroliniana
Cabomba furcata
Cryptocoryne affinis
'metallic red'
Cryptocoryne bullosa 'Sarawak'
Cryptocoryne nurii 'Pahang'
Cryptocoryne nurii 'Pahang mutated'
Eleocharis sp. 'Belem'
Fissidens fontanus
Limnophila aquatica
Microsorium pteropus
'ribbon leaf'
Myriophyllum sp. 'Guyana mini'
Plagiochila sp. 'Cameroon'
Rotala sp. 'Nanjenshan'
Rotala sp. 'Yao Yai'

Lighting: 2x Micmol Aqua Air 48", 10 hours a day. Ramp up and down for 3 hours, for 4 hour period of full light intensity. 60-80 PAR at substrate for the entire tanks.
Filtration: 2x Eheim 2217
Temperature: 74 Fahrenheit (23.3 Celsius)
CO2: 5 bps (ADA beetle counter), mazzei injector inline with one of the canisters (driven by Mag 7 pump), working pressure 20 PSI
Substrate: ADA Aquasoil Amazonia, Power sand, crushed lava rock, ADA Bacter Balls

A brief history:
Hard to believe that this tank’s previous incarnation was an algae-laden disaster, huh? The past few years of my hobby, I’d gotten caught up with growing the rarest stems, without much regard to the tank’s overall aesthetic or stability.

Of course, a tank full of delicate plants that melt if you look at them funny, being grown in a relatively nutrient poor substrate and relying on water column dosing and astronomically high levels of CO2 (so that almost no fish could survive), doesn’t bode well when you’re away for weeks at a time, as I was during my first year of college.

The tank was already high maintenance before I left, and after a series of severe algae outbreaks it was too much to handle - I had to drastically turn things around. Thus I tore it down for a completely fresh start, for a more stable tank not one maintenance day away from disaster.

My guiding philosophy:

This tank is very much a return to my roots. Was it the prospect of growing little bunches of dozens of touchy stems and constantly pulling out algae that got me into planted tanks? Not at all.

I was inspired by the many Takashi Amano scapes in his monthly nature aquarium article in TFH, which I read religiously as a kid starting from eight-years-old. I was captivated by the basic but beautiful plants and fish, like Cabomba and neon tetras I saw in the fish markets of China as a wee child. Browsing through the Nature Aquarium World books for inspiration further drove this point home. They contained so many beautiful scapes created from a limited plant species roster, often comprised of ‘basic’ or common plant species.

Thus I came into this tank’s creation with the end goal of simplicity. A few types of undemanding plants, grown healthily and arranged well, can create stunning results.

Keeping in touch with my roots has guided the tank’s plant selection. Bolbitis, java fern, and hairgrass featured time and time again in the Amano scapes I was so inspired by as a kid. Cabomba was the first aquatic plant I fell in love with, yet could never keep as a beginner. Cryptocoryne spp. were the first plants that actually survived in my first planted tank attempts.

At the end of the day, I hope to have something that eight-year-old me would be inspired by.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 · (Edited)

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 and nurii. 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

Substrate choice:
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!

Creating slopes:

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.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Week 1: May 18 - May 24 2016

The first month makes or breaks a planted tank, and the first week is especially important. There are some important considerations for this period. The plants are newly added and transitioning, so will not be photosynthesizing very vigorously. Therefore it is important to be more stringent with photoperiod, CO2 rate, and dosing. Aquasoil contains both macro and micro nutrients so I did not dose at all for the first week. As the plants acclimate and resume vigorous growth, these are ramped up, but this must be done slowly.

As per Frank Wazeter’s methodology, the tank receives ~50% daily water changes for the first week. This helps prevent ammonia leached by Aquasoil from building up to excessive levels, algal accumulation (even if you can’t see any some is there), and removes other substances like tannins from fresh driftwood. For the first month the filter is ~20% mechanical media and ~80% carbon to further help remove these.

Day 1:

I start off with CO2 at 3 bps and a photoperiod of 6 hours. Amano actually used 3 bps for some 4’ tanks (albeit planted primarily with epiphytes and crypts), so this isn't too low of a rate. Some plants are floating following initial planting, but I will get to these at tomorrow’s water change. For now only one filter is running to let the plants adjust and root. Two pieces of driftwood are floating, which is quite odd - I’ve never had malaysian driftwood float before.

Day 2:

I didn’t get around to taking a picture this day. I replanted any loose stems and added the second canister filter. One canister has a spray bar for surface agitation, while the other just uses the pipe outlet for laminar flow. I run the CO2 inline with the latter so it’s better distributed throughout the tank.

Day 3:

I increase the photoperiod to 6.5 hours and CO2 to 4 bps. One driftwood piece has sunk while the other still stubbornly floats.

Day 4:

I notice some diatoms growth on the glass, so begin incorporating glass scraping before each water change.

Day 5:

A near disaster occurred the night prior. A family member turned on the light after the photoperiod had concluded to show the tank to some visiting guests. This would’ve been fine had they remembered to turn the light back off. By the time I found it the next morning it had been on for over 8 hours. I did a larger than usual water change, being especially conscientious to remove any detritus and dead leaves to minimize the chances of algal growth. However nothing looks worse for wear. Had the tank not been as heavily planted or stable prior, it may have been a very different situation.

I had originally planned on increasing the photoperiod today but hold off because of the whole light fiasco.

Now that the plants have had a few days to adjust, I add a 1600 gph powerhead for increased flow. This will also help prevent algal issues caused by dead spots and poor resource distribution.

The last driftwood piece has begun to waterlog but hasn’t completely sunken. I stash it in a corner without many plants.

Day 6:

I notice some brown filamentous algae growing on a few older Cryptocoryne leaves. It’s too early to tell if it’s BBA or filamentous diatoms, but I immediately clip the affected leaves. Manual removal of algae and infested leaves is key to control. Slow-growing plants like Cryptocoryne are prone to algae on older leaves, but there is no need to fear removing these - even without leaves, Cryptocoryne can survive if its roots are healthy and it receives enough light.

I decide I like the look of the Rotala macrandra 'green' in front of the Cabomba on the left, so add a sprig of emersed Bacopa colorata I had on hand to grow out and eventually plant in front of the right Cabomba bunch for a similar effect.

Day 7:

The plants are growing well but the water has a slight green tint when the lights are off. Hopefully this will settle itself as ammonia levels lower (though green water is a relatively benign algae).

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #7 · (Edited)
Week 2: May 25 - May 31 2016

After the first week, I’m a believer in Frank’s methodology. The tank is almost spotless! Past CO2-supplemented tanks I’ve done were a mess of algae by this point.

The second week, barring special circumstances, has water changes done every other day. Lights and CO2 continue to be increased and dosing begins. Due diligence in spotting and removing algae is required with such adjustments, and care must be taken to avoid overly sudden changes.

Day 8:

I increase the photoperiod to 7 hours and CO2 to 5 bps. The last piece of driftwood is finally waterlogged enough to add to its proper location.

Day 9:

The Cabomba caroliniana is starting to look a bit yellow in new growth and the Rotala macrandra ‘green’ is showing pinholes in older leaves, both classic signs of potassium deficiency. Aquasoil is low in Potassium so this is expected. Thus I start dosing 5 mL of Flourish Potassium.

Day 11:

Photoperiod is increased to 7 hours and 15 minutes, and CO2 is increased to 6 bps. I plan on leaving it at this level. One of the defining aspects of nature aquariums is that CO2 supplementation is enough to support the plants while being at a moderate level for the sake of bacteria and livestock, unlike many ‘typical’ high tech tanks pumping so much gas that the fish are listless whenever the CO2 is on.

I test the ammonia for the first time; it’s still 5 ppm. Despite this I notice pond snails starting to populate the tank. Unlike many, I don’t mind snails - they’re good detritivores and are only in excess if the tank is out of balance. I also notice the hairgrass has started shooting out runners. The Cabomba is still looking a bit yellow so I increase the potassium dosage by 0.5 mL.

Day 12:

Forgot to take a picture today.

I increase the photoperiod to 7 hours and 30 minutes. However at the end of the day I notice the first signs of Spirogyra, primarily near the Cryptocoryne affinis. After a minor panic attack, I immediately trim the affected leaves, and decide to back off from lengthening the photoperiod. I’m dismayed that it made it into the tank despite my previously described preparation - presumably dormant spores were introduced along with some plant or another.

This was also the first day there were no stems uprooted overnight.

Day 13:

Ammonia is 1 ppm - I’ve often noted Spirogyra and high ammonia to be correlated. I do a large (>50%) water change. No Spirogyra is visible on the Cryptocoryne but a couple strands are on the driftwood near the willow moss. After I siphon out the water and the level is low and stagnant, I add a half dose of AlgaeFix near the visible strands and let it sit for several minutes. By the late evening the strands look white, a good sign. I add the rest of the full dose at night after lights off.

Today also marks the first day of visible plant pearling (on the Cabomba).

I’d like to take a moment to discuss my seemingly drastic reaction to the presence of Spirogyra. Some may be confused as to my strong reaction to its presence - algae’s normal in new tanks, so why get so worked up? Why be so extreme with chemical fixes instead of just removing it and balancing out the tank?

Algae and planted tanks go hand in hand. However most types aren’t too difficult to deal with. Diatoms almost never occur in established tanks and make good Otocinclus food. Flat green algaes like GSA are easily scraped off and devoured by nerite snails. Cyanobacteria, though virulent once established, will fall victim to antibiotics like Erythromycin. Even the dreaded BBA does not spread quickly and is easily controlled in proper conditions with good plant growth.

Yet Spirogyra, the spaghetti-shaped beast, is easily the most vile of them all. Though outbreaks are sometimes spurred by a temporary imbalance (such as the aforementioned ammonia), once the algae is present and established it’s perfectly content to grow in the same conditions that plants thrive in. Only your plants won’t be thriving anymore, because Spirogyra will choke them out. It gives a hearty chuckle towards attempts at manual removal, retaining fragments on surfaces in the tank that regrow overnight, ever sprawling onward to every nook and cranny of the tank, not satisfied until your precious plants have had the life squeezed out of them.

I have lost countless tanks to this vicious foe, and won’t lose another. Sure, I could just manually remove it, keep ammonia down, and hope for the best. But little fragments or spores would be lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment - a dead fish gone unnoticed in a stand of plants, a bit too much substrate disturbed during planting - to unleash their horrid selves. At night, they would haunt my dreams, with visions of a peaceful aquatic world turned to chaos.

No more, I say. This algae deserves nothing less than vanquishment, extermination, extinction like the dodo - only then shall I be content.

Day 14:

Now that the Spirogyra has been killed, I conduct an additional 50% water change to get out AlgaeFix and to prevent ammonia from any small organisms that may have been killed. All the pond snails are still alive, despite a few anecdotes that AlgaeFix affects them.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Week 3: June 1 - June 7 2016

The third week receives three water changes as levels of ammonia, tannins, and similar substances are now lower. Lighting and dosing continue to be adjusted.

The tank is almost ready for fauna. It’s important to add algae-eaters towards the beginning to prevent normal small amounts of algae from spiraling into full-blown infestations. Algae eaters are effective at prevention, but won’t do much for an established outbreak unless added in extreme amounts.

Day 15:

Ammonia is slightly greater than 0.25 ppm, but it’s hard to know for sure with the liquid test kits. Photoperiod is increased to seven hours forty-five minutes.

Day 17:

Ammonia is slightly less than 0.25 ppm. Hairgrass runners are noticeable from the front of the tank. Note that this area is by far the dimmest, with PAR in the 20s or 30s at most, yet hairgrass is doing well. Carpet plants require sufficient CO2 and good substrate, not blazing lights.

I note a small amount of green filamentous algae near the Cryptocoryne affinis and manually remove it. I didn’t use Algaefix this time around for several reasons:
  • It’s not Spirogyra. Other green filamentous algaes, while unsightly and potentially virulent, are easier to deal with and respond to proper parameters, algae eaters, and manual removal
  • It’s not near the moss. Moss with filamentous algae is good as dead - once the two are entangled only chemical treatments will be sufficient.
  • I want to support the population of microscopic invertebrates so that they can contribute to breakdown of detritus and eventually serve as a source of fish food.
  • I’m ready to add amano shrimp soon, and don’t want any remnants of AlgaeFix (toxic to crustacean invertebrates) in the tank upon their introduction.

Day 18:

After much research, I’ve ordered and started dosing potassium bicarbonate (KHPO3) in place of Flourish Potassium (potassium sulfate, K2SO4), starting off with ~1.3 ppm. I’m concerned about the accumulation of sulfates from long-term potassium sulfate dosing.

Potassium bicarbonate is likely what ADA Brighty K is made of - the actual Brighty K is much too expensive for a tank my size. My water has almost 0 KH, so the small amounts of added carbonates are welcome. While some people assert Brighty K is instead potassium carbonate (K2CO3), there are many anecdotes of problems following dosing this compound. Carbonate is a much stronger base than bicarbonate, so will lead to stronger water parameter fluctuations.

I also begin dosing Fluorish Iron because the Cabomba furcata looks in need of it, starting with 0.01 ppm (the amount provided by the recommended dose of Green Brighty Step 1 according to the Rotala Butterfly calculator).

Following these changes the C. furcata is very happy and pearling intensely.

Day 19:

I increase the photoperiod to eight hours and potassium dose to 1.5 ppm. The Cabomba are getting very unruly and due for a trim. Ammonia is zero, but I will hold off on livestock introduction until after the plants have been trimmed and the tank re-equilibrates.

Day 20:

A trim is definitely needed - without the powerhead’s current the C. furcata reaches the surface!

However, I am a bit nervous going into this trim, as I have had some tanks do well until a major trim was performed, after which the plants start doing poorly or algae runs rampant. Since the tank is much more stable than my past ones, the water parameters are excellent, and the plants being trimmed are hardy, vigorous growers, I am not too concerned. However I do avoid trimming all the tank’s stems at once, leaving the Rotala macrandra varieties untouched (the regular type is still far off from needing a trim).

The first trim is the shortest, and subsequent ones are done at slightly higher spots - this helps promote the ‘bushy’ look. The shortest stems were trimmed to about 4” tall. The plants are trimmed at different heights in the shape of the desired bush.

A few of the trimmings were replanted in sparser areas for a denser bush, but the vast majority were repurposed to other tanks. Any stems of Ammania sp. 'bonsai' that had sprouted side shoots had the tops cut off and replanted to further the grouping’s size and density.

Now that I have more of an idea of what the plants look like when grown in, some minor rearrangements are made to the positions of Rotala macrandra and Rotala rotundifolia var. After all the trimming and replanting has been done, a ⅓ water change is done to help remove any loose dead leaves from plants and particles/ammonia from any disturbed substrate.

Day 21:

Algae hasn’t run rampant and no plants are dead so I’m happy. Some of the Rotala macrandra have stunted new growth - hopefully this is due to relocation (some stems may be in an area with less light). There is a tiny amount of green filamentous algae similar to Day 17, once again around old crypt leaves and exposed roots. It’s essential to trim away these - they merely lead the plant to waste energy keeping them and serve as sites for algal growth. I test pH for the first time - it’s 6.4 at the end of photoperiod.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #9 · (Edited)
By week 4, the tank should be pretty stable. Only two water changes will be performed this week. After the first month only one water change a week should be needed. This bodes well, as I have an upcoming internship that leaves me away from home for the weekdays (not to mention being away for weeks at a time at college later on). A weekly water change combined with regular observation and livestock feeding (when needed) is fairly simple maintenance even my fish-sitters are capable of.

Day 22 (June 8 2016):

Today is every fish keeper’s favorite day - the one to add livestock! I had 14 amano shrimp and 4 Otocinclus being held in the 10 gallon tank next to this tank. Over the past week or so, I have been doing frequent water changes on that tank with the same source water as this one so the parameters are more or less identical.

I add the shrimp and fish straight from the holding to the display tank early in the morning, about four hours before the CO2 comes on. This gives them a chance to get settled in their new tank before having to deal with the higher CO2 level. Right after this, I have 7 more Otocinclus, 30+ amano shrimp, and 14 Thai micro crabs come in from Msjinkzd. I plop and drop these into the newly vacated holding tank. I will let them adjust to the new parameters for a couple days before similarly transferring them to the display tank.

By the time the lights are on, the transferred shrimp are hyper, picking around the whole tank. The Otocinclus particularly enjoy the large wood piece. These four were actually from this tank’s previous incarnation, and seem to enjoy being back in larger accommodations. Otocinclus really do thrive with more swimming space, especially when kept in large groups. I'm sure they'll be even happier when they have seven more friends to join them later this week.

Late in the photoperiod things are still going well. The big driftwood piece is certainly much cleaner than it was at the start of the day - it now has a slight mahogany hue. None of the livestock show any signs of CO2 stress. The Otocinclus are sticking to the lower half of the tank instead of lethargically hanging out at the surface. The shrimp are actively picking at surfaces in the tank, instead of having little pincer movement or worse, ‘drunkenly’ swimming around (if your shrimp are doing this turn off the CO2 and start running an airstone immediately).

Could I run more CO2? Maybe - probably, even. Am I going to? No. The livestock are happy, and the plants are thriving. It’s commonly advised to run CO2 as high as the livestock will take it, only backing off when they start showing stress or gasping at the surface. But viewing lethargic (or worse, gasping) fish constantly on the brink of suffocation is no fun. This is the first time I’ve really enjoyed looking at one of my tanks in years. Thriving fish and shrimp roaming through a world of lush plants - this is what the hobby’s about.

Now’s the perfect time to begin adding the clean-up crew. The die-off of old hairgrass leaves is beginning to become noticeable, and there is a minor amount of film at the surface. Shrimp in particular help assimilate organic matter into forms more easily broken down and recycled into nutrients - hopefully they will help take care of any decaying old plant leaves and reduce the tank’s organics level, which is what contributes to surface film. One of my goals for this tank is to gain learning experience as to how to utilize a clean-up crew to minimize detritus accumulation. Hopefully this knowledge will help with ease of maintenance on future set-ups, which may incorporate automated water changing.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Here's the link. They're definitely very sturdy. I have no doubt they'd do a stellar job supporting rocks in a rock-focused scape. They will require a good electric saw to cut though.

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
Day 23:

Unfortunately one amano shrimp didn’t make it. However the others are all acting normally so I’m not too concerned. The Otocinclus are all alive and seem to have plumped up nicely. All the critters in the holding tank are doing well and ready for transfer tomorrow.

A 40% water change was performed. The hairgrass carpet had quite a bit of detritus and dead leaves sucked up from it - much more than in the first three weeks. Hopefully this won’t be present in as large amounts after the initial old leaf die-off has concluded. While the surface isn’t crystal clear, there’s no discernible film either. The addition of further clean-up crew tomorrow should help.

209 Posts
Wow man super detailed I love it definatly subscribed LOVE the tanks esthetics

58 Posts
Unfortunately one amano shrimp didn’t make it. However the others are all acting normally so I’m not too concerned.
I have found Amano and Neocaridina shrimp to be more sensitive to changes in water parameters than most of the other livestock I've handled in freshwater aquaria. Translation: I've killed a few. :(

The Otocinclus are all alive and seem to have plumped up nicely.
I do love Otos. Have a couple in my 10 gallon setup, along with a few Corydoras julii and one C. habrosus. Cheap, interesting, and useful little fish. Can't ask for much more!

P.S. I have been loving this thread. Clear thinking, well expressed, nicely documented with photos, and a fine looking tank. Many thanks!

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #15 ·
I have found Amano and Neocaridina shrimp to be more sensitive to changes in water parameters than most of the other livestock I've handled in freshwater aquaria. Translation: I've killed a few. :(
This is true, although think it was just stress associated with catching and transferring them that did it. The water in both tanks is from the same source and is very similar (within 10 TDS), with the display tank perhaps having a lower pH from tannins.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #16 · (Edited)
Day 24:

Transfer from the holding to display tank went a bit better this time after reducing the water level to 25% and removing any epiphytic plants. When transferring such a large number of fauna, it is helpful to keep a tally using pen and paper to track how many have been caught and how many remain. One of the Otocinclus and eight micro crabs evaded detection and will be transferred at a later date.

Unfortunately one amano shrimp was found dead later in the day. The Otocinclus are doing well, looking nice and plump. I’ve yet to see any cohesive schooling - at most groups of three or four will briefly swim together before dissociating. The newly introduced fish seem to segregate themselves from the four original ones (I can tell based on size differences) - hopefully their social group will integrate with time. I have observed similar behavior in the past with other social fish like tetras. The big driftwood piece remains very popular.

Plant leaves are looking very clean. They were pretty clean before, but had some faint brown specks of diatoms (normal in new tanks). Now they’re almost spotless. Hopefully this will help the plants photosynthesize more vigorously. The sprig of Bacopa colorata is beginning to show larger growth and red pigmentation. My emersed specimens have been doing well lately so I may transfer a few more sprigs. Hopefully as this plant finishes its acclimation it will take off as Bacopa are known to do - when I grew it submersed years ago it was a vigorous grower even without CO2.

Interestingly, the shrimp don’t seem to enter the dense groupings of stems, preferring to browse the driftwood and other more open areas. I have occasionally noted a few of the smaller (1 inch, 2.5 cm) shrimp in these plant bunches, but this seems to be for rest rather than foraging. I intend to add 50 crystal red shrimp in August - hopefully the dwarf shrimp will inhabit and forage areas where the amano shrimp don’t, providing a more comprehensive clean-up crew. There is a bit of surface film, but I will perform another water change tomorrow to remove the rest of the hairgrass old leaf die-off (I’d already drawn out enough water during the last one before getting to it all).

Though I couldn’t imagine it happening, I actually did manage to spot micro crabs out and about on a few occasions. Hopefully these will further flesh out the cleaning crew, as they enjoy exploring dark crevices where fish and shrimp generally don’t venture.

3,329 Posts
Discussion Starter · #17 · (Edited)
Day 25:

I perform a water change, trying to loosen up as much of the hairgrass old-leaf die off as I can. A large net, as big as will fit into the tank, is useful for cleaning up any loose leaves from the water surface afterwards. During the day, the surface is slightly cloudy but doesn’t have a discernible film.

I’m really enjoying the micro crabs. I was worried I’d never see them, but I often spot them crawling across the hairgrass. They seem very active in this tank, much more so than I’ve seen them behave in smaller tanks. With any luck they’ll breed - I’ll know if I’m still seeing some in a year or two!

Here's a rare sight - willow moss pearling!

Day 26:

I left today for an internship in another city (staying there during weekdays), but unfortunately my departure was marred by disaster. I spent the whole morning setting up my two autodosing pumps (for potassium and iron). I plugged these into the outlet to let the tubings prime with fertilizer, and then transferred them to their respective digital timers. Having skipped breakfast I was eager to have lunch!

Somehow the iron pump’s timer, despite displaying the program setting, was actually on, meaning my entire iron mixture was deposited into the tank by the time I returned. I was frantic - I had no pre-mixed water to do a water change, and had to leave very soon. My concern, though high, was mitigated by a few factors.

  • The volume and concentration were very low. Thus instead of the usual 0.01 ppm dose, 1 ppm was added. Yet some people (using EI) add this amount to their tanks every day! Therefore a one time dose is unlikely to lead to irreversible disaster.
  • Ferrous gluconate, the form of iron I use, does not last very long in the tank, degrading quickly (a few hours) from light, heat, etc. This is part of my philosophy - keep the nutrients in the water column for as little time as possible. Thus even though there’s one mega-spike of iron it’s not in the tank for long.
  • ADA Aquasoil has a high CEC and should readily bind any excess Fe ions not utilized by the plants, removing them from the water column before algae can utilize them. Like I’ve previously mentioned, such substrates act as a buffer in case of any dosing program blips.

I’m not sure if plants can store excess iron like with nitrogen and phosphorus, but will abstain from dosing iron until my return next weekend. I figure the plants have taken in enough, and the substrate should be able to supply them should they need any later on.

The key lesson here is: when setting up any sort of automation, be fully present to make sure it actually works before leaving. Had this happened with the potassium bicarbonate instead I could have very easily lost the whole tank to KH swings...

Day 27:

I feared an explosion of hair algae, but no such thing has come to fruition. The tank looks no worse for the wear. The Cabomba furcata has visibly grown quite taller overnight - I’m sure having this iron-hungry plant also helped mitigated the high iron dose’s effects.

Day 29:

The Cabomba furcata continues to take off. My mother (who helps me observe the tank while I’m away) reports the shrimp are very happy and active, which I’m glad to hear. Shrimp are like a canary in a coal mine. This concept’s generally found in saltwater fishkeeping - have fauna sensitive to changes in certain parameters serve as an early warning sign that something’s amiss. Shrimp serve this role for quite a few parameters, such as overly high CO2 and high dissolved wastes - if they aren’t doing well (or worse, going carpet surfing) then something’s amiss and needs addressing.

Day 31:

I finally get to see the tank again after almost a week (and some mild separation anxiety). I nervously head down the basement, but am very happy once I lay my eyes on the tank. The plants are looking vibrant, and there is not a spot of algae to be found. The shrimp are displaying good color and all over the tank, instead of sometimes huddling in one area (as they did shortly after introduction). The Otocinclus are plump (some quite so).

The tank’s success during my short departure is a good sign. It required no input from my fish-sitter besides observation. Hopefully as the tank continues to stabilize it will be able to handle my being away from home weeks at a time for college, with the only inputs being a weekly water change and feeding of any additional future livestock.

Day 32:

Though the tank is doing well there’s still work to be done, so I conduct the weekly water change.

The Cabomba is definitely in need of a trim. In addition to some C. furcata that’s nearly reached the surface (almost doubling in height within a week), some stems in the rest of the tank have outgrown the others, so must be cut back to shape the bush. This presumably results from my replanting of stem tops to fill in areas that had been left sparse by uprooting during the early weeks, as the bottoms that were left in place have not added much height yet. I imagine this uneven growth rate is why Amano said it is best to use the tops for other tanks instead of replanting them.

Some hairgrass old leaf die-off remains. In addition to vacuuming, I pull up some loose plugs with some visibly decaying old roots (this was purchased as a very thick established mat) that have become slightly buoyant, and pull away any old tissue, leaving only young green leaves and fresh, white roots behind.

Interestingly, only certain patches of hairgrass, mainly in the center front have this issue. Perhaps part of it is light - this area is dimmer, and the hairgrass was grown under brighter conditions so the old foliage isn’t suited to this environment. Yet the hairgrass at the front edges doesn’t have this issue either, so perhaps strength of flow plays a role too. There’s plenty of new growth and runners so I’m not concerned.

I had originally planned to change the carbon in one of the filters to bio media, but want to avoid making too many changes at once since I’ve trimmed some stems and disturbed part of the hairgrass carpet. This will have to wait until the following weekend - I don’t want to make a major change tomorrow when I’m not even around for the whole day to observe.

Later in the day the water surface is the cleanest it’s been in a while. Not crystal clear but not filmy or cloudy either - perhaps dusty would best describe it.

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
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