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Starting a Planted Tank

Plant Nutrients 101

Phophates in the Planted Tank

Activated Carbon

Fertilizer & the Planted Aquarium

CO2 & the Planted Tank

Algae Control

Safety Around the Aquarium

Cleaning Aquarium Glass

Mysterious Fish Deaths Explained!

Aquarium Photography

New Tank Syndrome

Choosing an Aquatic Heater

Tips for Beginning Fishkeepers

Salt in the Aquarium

Outdoor Patio Tubbing

Malaysian Trumpet Snails



How (and why) to start a planted tank

Plants in aquariums can become just as interesting and engrossing as the fish. Plants perform some useful functions in aquariums. Besides their aesthetic value, plants consume ammonia (fish waste), helping to keep the water cleaner. Indeed, with sufficient plants, an aquarium may be "cycled" on its very first day! Plants provide hiding places for fish, particularly for young fish, or "fry." Many nervous fish can be made to feel much more comfortable, simply by providing some plants in which they may hide.

Growing most plants is not particularly tricky. There are, however, some plants that are better suited for beginners than others. In the beginning, some plants should be left to the experts. Also, some plants sold in fish stores as aquarium plants are actually terrestrial and bog plants. When you submerse them under water, some plants may die because they require their leaves to be above water. When choosing plants, stick with true aquatic plants. In general, aquatic plants have more delicate leaf or frond structure because they have never been forced to support their weight in air. When you see a plant with a thick stalk and firm leaves, it's probably a terrestrial or bog plant, and won't do well submersed in your aquarium. Some examples of true aquatic plants would be Cryptocoryne sp., Java Moss, Java Fern, Anacharis, Cabomba, Hornwort, and Hair Grass. An example of bog plants (that grow better with their leaves out of water) would be Brazilian Swordplants. An example of a plant that can adapt to either living condition would be Lobelia cardinalis, or some of the Echinodorus sp. Keep in mind that the classification of "Cryptocoryne" includes about 250 different species. Some Crypts do very nicely when grown emersed (their leaves out of water).

Before you run to the fish store to buy plants, take a few minutes to learn what plants need for survival. Plants absolutely require light, CO2 and nutrients, in no particular order. If you add nutrients, but do not add adequate light, or short the plants on CO2, you will not achieve the growth you seek. Indeed, you may only succeed in growing a very nice crop of algae. All the nutrients in the world will not make up for inadequate light. Light is the "engine" that makes plants grow. Plants absorb light energy and use it to convert nutrients and carbon (from CO2) into plant tissue. (See CO2 information elsewhere on this site.)

All plants absorb nutrients through their leaves to one extent or another. Some plants, such as Hornwort, do not produce roots, and must obtain all their nutrients through the water. Some plants produce roots (Crypts, Echinodorus), and do much better if you provide a substrate rich in iron and other nutrients. Keep in mind that nutrients in the water column will eventually seep into the substrate, so it is highly unlikely that a plant growing in a water column containing adequate nutrients will become totally starved of nutrients in a sterile substrate. Also, fish excreta settles into the substrate, and does provide much nutrition to root feeders. If you wish to provide extra nutrients to the roots of plants, choose one of the substrates that contains iron-rich clay as a component. Laterite clay can be added to ordinary gravel, and will provide a rich source of iron for root feeding plants for several years to come. There are several other commercial substrate additives that enrich substrates, but they are not completely necessary for most root plants (because all plants can absorb nutrients through their leaves).

To get started in plants, first set up your aquarium and add dechlorinated water. Be sure your light hood provides ample quantities of light. Most plants can survive (but not grow well) on 1 watt of fluorescent lighting per gallon of water. A double-tube shop light fixture (the kind that sells for about $10, tubes included) is a very economical way to provide 80 watts of light to a 48" aquarium (such as a 55 gallon). This provides approximately 1.5 watts per gallon. Used over a 43 gallon aquarium, such a shop light provides about 2 watts per gallon. A 60 gallon aquarium is deeper from front to back, and can easily support two shop lights, providing 160 watts of light. This provides around 2.5 watts of light per gallon, and allows you to grow more difficult plants. The Cool White tubes supplied with the shop light fixture will work well, since plants don't particularly care what kind of light you provide, but only that you provide lots of it. If you don't like the color rendition of Cool White tubes, you can purchase GE Sunshine tubes (marked Chroma 50 on the tube). These tubes are very economical when purchased at Walmart, and provide a nice, bright 5000 degree Kelvin light color, which approximates noon daylight over the Equator. You don't have to spend a lot of money on expensive light fixtures. If the shop lights are not attractive to you, try covering them with wood-grained contact paper. A few minutes with a pair of scissors and some contact paper can spruce up shop lights to make them almost as attractive as expensive fixtures.

Once you have your light in place, and your tank decorations arranged to your liking, you are ready to add plants. In general, the more plants you add, the better success you will have with your planted tank. It is a mistake to go to the fish store and just purchase 2 or 3 little plants in a pot, thinking that they will eventually grow and fill the tank. They may do that, but it may take 2-3 years to achieve such growth. By adding more plants now, your tank will fill up more quickly with plant growth, and be ready to absorb fish waste almost immediately. Plants come in little plastic pots with a "wool" substance protecting their roots. It's usually better to remove the plants from the pots and gently pry loose the "wool," planting the roots (gently!!) in the substrate. Be sure the roots are well covered with substrate, and be sure you don't damage or break roots in the process.

In general, it's best to arrange shorter plants in the front of the tank, and place tall, bushy plants in the back. This provides for a 3-dimensional arrangement that is pleasing to view. Or, you may place a large, showy plant in the center of the tank, and then group smaller plants around the sides and back. For planting ideas, look at some of the nice planted tanks in magazines or on plant websites. Some complicated arrangements may be beyond your capabilities now, but don't let that intimidate you.

Next, hook up your CO2 generator and begin adding CO2 to the tank. The ideal level of CO2 in a tank with fish and plants is about 10-20 ppm. However, if you have wisely chosen to wait for a few weeks before adding fish, you can increase your CO2 levels to as much as 20-40 ppm. This provides an enriched environment for the plants, and will help them to settle in much faster. Even if your plants are slow growing plants that are generally not thought of as requiring CO2, they will still benefit from added CO2.

Since all plants benefit from nutrients, you can begin adding fertilizer at this time. Naturally, we believe Yamato Green or Yamato Green-N is the very choice (indeed, the ONLY choice) here. Both products provide all the macronutrients and micronutrients your plants will require. Both provide Potassium, missing in most other preparations, and vitally necessary for plants to consume iron. Yamato Green-N provides extra Nitrogen (an important macronutrient), and is the best choice for planted tanks without fish. While some other nutrient manufacturers require you to add Potassium and Nitrate as a separate additive, Yamato Green-N provides everything your plants require, and does so from one (1) bottle. Yamato Green is intended for planted tanks with fish; Yamato Green-N is intended for planted tanks with few or no fish. Put simply, there is no finer choice for a planted tank than Yamato Green or Yamato Green-N. No other single product can match them as a perfect source for plant nutrients.

Put your lights on a timer, and adjust them to provide light for approximately 12 hours per day, the length of daylight at the Equator. You can vary this length of time a bit if you wish. 14 hours per day of light will not harm anything, and if your location permits only 10 hours of light per day, that's OK, too, but to err on the longer time is better. Do not run your lights 24 hours per day. Plants can't use the extra light beyond a certain time, and 24 hour light is detrimental to the fish.

After a few weeks, take some CO2 readings. (See the CO2 article on this site for information about how to calculate CO2 levels from your KH and pH readings). Remember, if your pH test kit is crude and doesn't have fine resolution, then your CO2 calculations will be crude and inaccurate. If your test kit can't make a pH reading within about 0.2 pH, you should probably invest in a pH pen. These instruments sell for between $50 and $100, and permit you to take rapid pH readings at any time. It's important to not overdose on CO2 with fish in the tank. With fish, you'll want to adjust for a CO2 reading of about 10-20 ppm.

With daily or weekly addition of Yamato Green or Yamato Green-N, coupled with weekly water changes of about 10-20%, your planted tank should thrive, and so should your fish!

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