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+1 on purigen.

Haven't been doing this long, but the combination of great big filter and tons-o-plants seems to be a winner for good looks and low as possible maintainance.

A finnex LED would be a quick fix to the yellow lighting, go with the Fugeray if you do (the Ray2 is far to strong without Co2 injection.

A black backgound seems nicer to me that open backed on a low maintainance tank. easy and cheap with vinyl sheet from lfs.

I would go dense on the plants, but that is just my preference. Watch the ROAKs and For Sales for a "big pile of stuff" for reasonable prices, stick it all in there, let it get tall, clip in half and plant the tops back in :)

put in some easy shrimp safe fish (cories - I like the little spotted ones and the pygmies) some neons maybe for color, chili rasboras if you like the really tiny ones.

Some Amano Shrimp and ottos for the cleaning crew (fun to watch and not very expensive either)
 

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I managed to speed up things on the wood on my 3 gallon. After soaking for a good while (you've already done that) I followed some of the instructions on the internet for microwave wood drying. Several hours worth of 3 to 5 minute heat cycles with cool down in between. Eventually the liquid being driven out of the wood stopped being brown on the paper towels.

The bigger wood in the 36 I had to soak in a bin outdoors for a month, changing the water every few days.
 
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