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386 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I've been searching and searching and can't seem to find a basic 101 thread on how to start your planted tank from scratch step-by-step.

I've always cycled my tanks first then threw plants in after, never from day 1.

Can someone explain the fine detail of starting one up?

Please touch basis on: Lighting duration, Dosing ferts, water changes, ammonia dosage, bioload, how long plants take to adapt etc..

(Hopefully the Plant gurus shed some light on this topic, this could be a great sticky for beginners :biggrin:)

11,721 Posts
Planted tank 101

Make a few decisions, and you can go from there to fine tune the details.

1) Pressurized CO2: 'right away', 'later' or 'not in the cards right now'.
2) Tank size.

3) decide from these what sort of lighting. The old 'watts per gallon' guide is going out the window, and PAR is the in thing now, and a better measure. Very basically: Yes CO2 = better light. No CO2 = don't get the cheapest light, but about medium is fine. If you go overboard you will lock yourself into adding CO2 even if you did not want to, but there are ways to make too-bright light better (dimmer) if that is needed. If there is not enough light there is not much you can do. Get another fixture. Lighting is too complex to suggest fixtures at this point.
It used to be, using T-12 and T-8 fluorescent bulbs...
For tanks about 20-60 gallons roughly 2 watts per gallon is low light.
2-3 watts is medium light
3+ watts is high light.

Plants use some wavelengths of light a lot more than others. There are certain reds and certain blues that they use the most of. They do not use much in the yellows and greens. We see best in the yellows and greens. Lighting set up with both sorts of bulbs, some specifically for plants, some specifically for our eyes will usually make the tank look the best, and the plants grow the best. This is what PAR is about. PAR is a measure of how much of the light is at the right wavelengths for the photosynthetic activity of the plants.
Also, PAR is measured at the level of the substrate in the tank, not according to arbitrary gallons. (Same gallons might mean a deep or tall tank compared to a shallow breeder or long tank, and the 'watts per gallon' can get you all messed up with odd tank sizes)
There are some really interesting things going on with LED lighting now.

If you have the wrong wavelengths or low level of lighting, it will not matter how long you leave it on, the plants do not benefit. It is sort of like jumping over a log. If you do not jump high enough it does not matter how often you jump, you are not getting over that log. Same with light: If the wavelength is not right, or not strong enough it will not activate the chemicals in the plants no matter how long the light is on.

If you have the right wavelengths and a bright enough light you can play some games with when it is on or off, but you will highly likely have some sort of light on for about half a day. (12 hours)

4) Fertilizer. Legally, (in the USA) fertilizer is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. However, I will use the term to mean all the elements that plants need except carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Fertilizer is divided into 2 groups, though there is a third group in between these two.
Macros are fertilizers plants use the most of. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Micros are minerals plants use in very small amounts. Includes iron and a long list that I am not going to say more about here.
In between are a few minerals plants use in in-between amounts. Calcium, magnesium and iron are the ones we are usually the most concerned about.
If you are going with pressurized CO2 and high light, then your plants will use more fertilizers. Plan on dosing macros, micros and paying some attention to the in-betweens.
N and P and most micros are found in fish food. Low tech tanks and Walstad tanks usually rely on fish food (either digested by the fish or fallen to the bottom and digested by bacteria) to supply a fair amount of most nutrients. If a tank is already running, and you are doing water changes to keep the NO3 low, then fish food is probably providing enough N, P and micros.
K (Potassium) is not usually found in fish food in enough quantities for the plants. You will probably have to dose K, even in a low tech tank.
Iron is not usually found in fish food in enough quantities for the plants. It is usually included in micro fertilizer blends, but not always in great enough quantity. It is also available separately, and is almost always needed. In high tech tanks, even people who use a micro blend often add more iron to their system. (That is why Iron is both a micro and in the "in between" list.) Iron can get locked up in a way that plants cannot get it, even if there is iron in the substrate. Chelated iron is a form that is bound in a way that plants can use it.
Tablets under the substrate are a pretty good way to provide fertilizer to the plants.
Calcium and magnesium are measured together in the water with the GH test.
If the GH of the water is over 3 degrees there is probably enough of both for the plants. If there is any question that the water might not have both, then do a separate test for calcium and find the formula (it is not quite as simple as subtract one test result from the other) to find out how much magnesium you have in the water. GH is important for the fish, too. Hard water fish want a higher GH, like over 10 German degrees of hardness. Plants use calcium and magnesium in about a 4:1 ratio, but the water does not have to be that close. Just, if there is a problem, try to aim to fix it close to that ratio. GH booster may also have potassium in it. Read the label.

5) Filter:
A filter provides water movement and a way to remove stuff from the water.
Mechanical filter media are sponges and floss. Nitrifying bacteria live on these, too.
Chemical media alter the water by either removing things (Activated Carbon, Purigen, Zeolite, Water Softener pillows, Cuprizorb) or adding things (Peat Moss, Coral Sand). You need to know what is in the water, and what your goal is before you start adding these things to the filter.
Biological media is specialized media for growing Nitrospiros and other bacteria that are involved in the removal of ammonia and nitrite from the water.
Low water movement (under 5 x the tank volume per hour) is OK, as long as it really gets into all the corners. This circulates oxygen, carbon dioxide, fertilizers and wastes for the benefit of the plants and fish. The wastes need to get picked up by the filter, which is where low water movement might not be the best.
More water movement (about 5x) is usually better. You usually cannot get good water movement into all the corners with low water movement, so debris collects there, leading to dead zones in the tank.
High water movement (10x) might be a bit excessive, but if you start by reading the manufacturers labels (also known as wishful thinking) and start with 10x, you probably will end up with about 6-8x, and less when the filter gets full of debris. You may have to move the intake and outlet of the filter around, or add a power head to fine tune the water movement.

Canister filters and HOB (Hang on back) like Aquaclear are the best. The water flows through a thick mass of media, so the maximum debris is trapped, and not released. These filters can be sized so you get about 5x the tank volume per hour.
Filters (usually HOB) with thin cartridge style media are the worst. The filter is not good at trapping the debris, and the debris can get blown right through the media. Usually best to size these at 10x, but even better do not get these at all. If you want an HOB filter, get one with the media set up in a stack like the Aquaclear.

There are other filters that are worth looking into:
Hamburg Mattenfilter (I may have misspelled that)

Simplest guide to water movement: If the fish are getting out their surfboards this is too much. Gentle ripples at the surface is the best.

6) Substrate:
Cationic Exchange Capacity is a measure of how much fertilizer the substrate can hold ready for the roots. Get a high CEC substrate. No need to buy one that comes pre-loaded with fertilizer, you will be adding fertilizer anyway. Like getting a nice set up of plates and bowls. No need to see if they come with food in them.

7) Most basic set up:
Put the substrate in the tank and arrange hills and valley with driftwood, rocks and other.
Plant, misting often.
Put a plate or plastic bag over the substrate and fill the tank, allowing the water to run slowly over the plastic or the plate. This minimizes the clouding.
Start the equipment when the water is deep enough.

8) Cycle: Do the fishless cycle. (I have posted the complete fishless cycle several times. Look for it). If you want to short cut this, then look for Nitrospiros in a bottle. Read the label. All other bacterial nitrogen cycle products have the wrong species, do not waste your money.
With Nitrospiros you can fully stock the tank, and only see a very small blip of ammonia or nitrite, then both go away. For better safety, use only half the bottle, and only half stock the tank. Then, after any spikes are gone, add more fish and more nitrospiros.

9) Plants that are so dense you cannot see the back of the tank are probably enough of a biofilter that you do not need to cycle the tank, but for a beginner I would allow the plants to grow for at least a week so you can see which are making it and which are not. If too many die, and you already have too many fish in there, then you have got a problem. Once you are better experienced you can set up a new planted tank, and know everything will make it, and stock it right away.

10) New set up, water changes:
Do the fishless cycle. Get used to using your test kit. (Practice on the bacteria, not fish- we do not yet feel sorry for bacteria, but we do know fish can get hurt or die if the parameters are not right).
Then, when you do stock, monitor ammonia, nitrite and nitrate until you know they are stable, then I would just worry about nitrates. Having done the fishless cycle you have grown enough bacteria to fully stock the tank even if there were no plants, so adding the fish should still show 0 ppm ammonia and nitrite even from the first day the fish are added.

Older set up, water changes:
Each person does what suits them.
Constant water change, a plumbed system, is usually used for raising fish, not so much for planted aquariums, but it has been done.
Weekly or more often, 50% or more: See Estimative Index. This is one way to run the tanks.
Almost never, every few months: Can also work, usually a low tech tank. Be very careful that the new water matches the old water for GH, KH and TDS.
In between is probably best for a new aquarium keeper. Do enough water changes to keep the NO3 between 5-10 ppm for the plants, no higher than 20 ppm for most fish (lower for more delicate fish).

11) Stocking levels:
There is an old guide: 1" of fish per gallon of water.
This is valid only for fish 2" and under, and is only a basic guide for oxygen and waste. It says nothing about:
The social needs of the fish
The activity level of the fish
The specialized feeding needs of some fish
What happens when the fish grow (stock according to the adult size)
several other considerations.


Fish thrive when all their needs are met, and not just marginally.
Do not mix fish where their needs do not overlap.
hard water vs. soft
Optimum temperature (This has to do with oxygen needs. Some fish are more efficient at getting oxygen when the oxygen level is low in the water, like when the water is warm. Other fish cannot do this, and they die of low oxygen levels)
Social needs (Schooling? Territorial?)
Feeding needs. (There are some fish that must not be fed high protein levels, so must not be kept with fish that need high protein foods)
Size of fish, both at the time of purchase, and adult size. Even fish that are not generally predatory can eat a fish that is up to 1/4 their size, and most predators can eat fish that are up to 1/2 their size, or larger.
Water movement and tank decor: There are a few extremes, and a wide range of in-between. If you want to keep Hillstream Loaches or similar fish, set up a biotope tank just for them.

Get a quarantine tank, and use it every time. Period. No excuse.

386 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Fert Dosing and Water Changes

Thank you Diana!

That was a great read and very detailed info.

Now that area has been covered, Lets talk more about fert dosing and water changes.

Should one start off slow dosing ferts in the beginning till the plants start to adapt? (For example if ones using EI's method 3x a week maybe 1 or 2x a week?)

How often should one do water changes in the beginning? Once a week or once every few days?

How long does it take plants to adapt to these new conditions?

1,419 Posts
I agree with Diana, and would like to add:

Beneficial bacteria live on solid surfaces, not in the water column. It does no good to add water from a cycled tank to a new tank- you won't get any more bacteria than you would from tap water. Instead, squeeze out a filter sponge from the cycled tank and use the mulm to seed the new tank.

Rules of Thumb for Stocking:
*Always stock your tank based on the adult size of your fish
*If it is a schooling fish, it should be no longer than 1/10th of the length of the tank and no longer than 1/4th of the width.
*If it is not a schooling fish, it should be no longer than 1/4th of the length of the tank and no longer than half of the width.

Choose a fine substrate that won't let mulm fall between the grains. This way it will be easier to plant and you won't have to worry about vacuuming.


Your fert dosing schedule will depend on the type of ferts you are using and the needs of your plants. A high light, CO2-injected tank with an inert substrate will need more ferts than a low-light tank with capped topsoil. The best way to tell if your plants need ferts is to wait until they start showing deficiency symptoms, then slowly add more ferts until the symptoms subside.

Some people do water changes as soon as they see algae; others prefer to leave the tank alone until the algae dies out on its own. Whenever you add new fish to a cycled tank, test your tank twice a week for ammonia and nitrite until you are sure the tank is stable. After that, do a water change whenever the nitrate goes above 20ppm to avoid nitrate poisoning.

Your water changes should be large enough to last; if your tank gains 5ppm nitrate every day, don't expect a 10% water change to last you a week. Instead, do a 50% water change twice a week.

The time it takes plants to adapt to new conditions depends on the plant species and tank conditions. I'm not quite sure if "adapt" is the right word- as soon as the plant starts growing under the new conditions, it is "adapted." Plants will "adapt" sooner in high light tanks than in low light tanks and fast-growing plants will "adapt" before slow-growing plants. So, the better the growth conditions are, the sooner the plants will grow (adapt).
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