When you spend your time, money and energy creating a spectacular aquascape, watching it deteriorate is like a punch to the stomach. But don’t lose faith. Usually, the problem stems from taking the wrong advice. If you’ve ever used forums to try and help, you’ll probably already know that those so-called experts can be very misleading.
1. Decide on carbon dioxide
Not all plants need carbon dioxide to grow – in fact, some do very well without it. But when used properly, it creates stability in your tank and helps your plants to grow faster and look like nature intended. There are two types available: pressurised and liquid.
The most stable type is pressurised, where the gas is stored in a pressurised bottle. These bottles are easy to use and give you complete control over the level of CO2 in your tank. They’re usually the best way to get the kind of stunning, professional results you want to achieve.
The second option is liquid carbon, which you simply add to the tank each day. Liquid is roughly a quarter of the strength of pressurised CO2. It’s designed to be used as a top-up for pressurised CO2, or on its own in low-tech aquarium. Liquid carbon will also help reduce the growth of algae if you double the dose.
2. Fertilisers make all the difference
A common misconception is that fertilisers cause algae. But in fact, algae thrives when plants are restricted of nutrients. Excess lighting, insucient water movement and poor filtration also encourages algae. If you stop using fertilisers, not only will it actually encourage algae, but it’ll starve your plants of the essential nutrients they need to grow and make them weaker.
Stick with one brand of fertiliser, as mixing labels can create issues. Some brands give you a variety of different fertilisers so you can tailor the quantity, depending on what your plants need. Others have a convenient, all-in-one option to give your plants everything in one dose.
The daily dosage is essential for your plants to receive a steady stream of nutrients. If your bottle gives a weekly dose, divide that by seven and add a little each day. If you see any signs of deficiency, increase the daily dose by 25%.
3. Get down with the base
Most plants require gravel or substrate to grow. It’s needed to anchor them down, and provide important nutrients. It’s also an important part of how your tank looks.
Gravel is rock particles with a diameter of 3-25mm. The ideal size for a planted aquarium is 3-5mm – any smaller than that (i.e. sand) and you risk having areas where there’s not enough water movement.
Gravel contains no nutrients, and some need washing. Take care to avoid gravel that looks natural, but is actually coloured glass. If your aquarium has sh which burrow or skim the bottom of the tank, they’ll ware their barbels down. Generally, natural gravel which hasn’t been dyed tends to be best.
Substrates are similar to gravel, but their main advantage is that they’re embedded with nutrients. They can also oer a cushion to absorb excess fertiliser in case of accidental overdosing.
Substrates are made in different colours and each will have a different effect on water parameters. In general, they tend to lower the pH level, which is ideal for aquarium plants which prefer slightly acidic water, so you’ll nd your plants quickly become established. (pH 6.8 is perfect).
Substrates don’t need topping or capping, so you won’t need anything else on your base. If you prefer the look of gravel, you always have the option of adding a substrate base underneath to provide nutrients, but make sure you do this first before adding gravel and water, or it will cloud your tank.
4. Get lighting right
The best lighting tends to be LED, which is cheap to run and lasts far longer than traditional lighting tubes. It’s cool to the touch, has a decent guarantee, and is superb for growing plants.
All light has colour, and the colour temperature of light is measured in Kelvin. A low K (Kelvin) rating is 2500 and gives o an orangey-yellow glow. A high is around 18000 and has a bright white light. Both high and low ratings will grow your plants, but the best tend to be around 8000K, which gives out the nicest colour.
Six hours of light is perfect for the first month when your plants are settling in. Increase that to seven for the second month, then to eight hours of consecutive light from the third month onwards. Any more simply isn’t necessary. Splitting lighting hours doesn’t discourage algae – that’s just another myth.
5. Consider a conditioner
Water conditioners (such as pH adjusters) allow you to control the quality and chemistry of your water and are available in powder, resin and substrate form.
In general, tap water is perfectly safe to use in your tank if a de-chlorinator is added, and you can adjust the water chemistry if necessary. For example, in hard water areas (high KH and GH), use a complete substrate on the base of your aquarium. This will set your water parameters to the correct level, and give the plants a suitable medium to grow in.
The initial cost of doing this is slightly higher but well worth it in the long run. I’ve always used a complete substrate in my planted aquariums. They set the pH and water chemistry perfectly, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Don’t try to over-control conditions. Too many hobbyists over-complicate the process. They test and tweak water chemistry constantly, and that’s just not necessary. Your plants aren’t that fussy and adapt very quickly. As long as they have the right nutrients, water changes, CO2 and lighting, they will generally adapt to their environment.
However, you can also use a water conditioner to speed up the cycling process of your tank, cutting it from six weeks to around three. Cycling is the time needed for ammonia (sh excrement) to be converted into nitrate – a nutrient for your plants.
6. Be fussy about filtration
There’s a common misconception that water filtration should be slow, turning the tank over twice per hour. But in truth, the faster your filtration, the better chance you give your plants to grow. As a guide, for a 100-litre aquarium, aim for a filter with a turnover of 1000 l/h.
Filters can be internal or external. Internal filters are affordable, simple and effective, but are generally geared towards smaller aquariums which don’t have carbon dioxide. However, they can be messy to clean. Plus, they take up space in the tank so they don’t look great either.
External filters cost more than internal filters but are well worth the cash. They tend to look much nicer because they take up less space inside your tank, so the focus stays on your aquascape.
They’re also easy to set up and maintain, As the filter becomes more congested, you simply increase your ow rate by the ow adjusters. They fit most tank sizes, so the best option is to buy the largest external filter you can afford.
7. Get the right tools for the trade
How do you maintain your tank? Hopefully not with the kitchen scissors… It pays to have the right tools for the job – especially if you’re doing everything right and your plants are growing fast.
Here’s a list of items to consider:
Trimming plants is essential – it creates a better shape and encourages growth. Aquarium scissors with a curved tip tend to be best for reaching awkward nooks and crannies. They also give a closer cut.
While it’s tempting to try and use your fingers for planting, ideally you need a pair of tweezers. You’ll be less likely to disturb the substrate and make a mess of your base. Tweezers with a curved tip are best because they allow you to grip the base of the plants more easily.
You should also invest in a rake to smooth gravel and substrate. Often, when plants are first planted or moved, substrates can be disturbed. It helps to have the right tool to flatten and calm your canvas.
Magnetic glass cleaners are a brilliant invention for cleaning algae from the inside of your aquarium.
Lastly, a gravel cleaner will help you perform quick water changes, which you’ll need to do regularly if you want to keep algae away. Rather than plunging the cleaner into the substrate, it’s better to hover slightly above it and suck debris into the spout without disturbing the base
8. Get passionate about plants
This is of course, the main reason you took up your hobby. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching your aquarium come alive with colour.
Planting ‘dry’ is usually best – this is a two-step process. First, add your substrate, rocks, wood, and around an inch of water to your tank. Once you’re happy with how your hardscape looks, you can easily place your plants where they need to be. Because there’s only an inch of water in the tank, you can move plants around without creating problems – and without being arm-deep in water!
Spray your plants with water every ten minutes to keep them moist. Then stand back, assess what you’ve done, and decide whether they’re in the right place. If not, you can simply move them. Remember to take your time and enjoy yourself! Once you’re happy with how it looks, ll your aquarium up slowly (cold water is fine). Avoid trimming plants for a few weeks, so they have time to acclimatise and bed in.
It’s important to do your homework before you choose your plants – you’ll save yourself time and money in the long run.
The simple reason is that a plant is not just a plant. Not all plants are suitable for aquariums. Some shops and online retailers regularly sell non-aquatic plants, and unsurprisingly these will always fail.
Also beware of cheaper plants, which are usually sourced from Asia where they aren’t cultivated in the right conditions. They’re also sprayed with chemicals to kill snails and other pests, but these toxins will kill your shrimp when you place them in your tank. They normally don’t have roots and are simply fresh cuttings placed in a pot, which is both a swindle and a complete waste of money. You get what you pay for – quality is everything when it comes to plants.
When it comes to choosing plants, you should know what size they grow to, what lighting they need, and where they should sit in your tank. If you’re buying online, these details should be printed alongside the picture.