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DrNic
04-23-2011, 03:48 AM
Lately I've seen a lot of posts and a number of people have asked me about how to go about setting up their first planted aquarium. A few years ago I wrote a freshwater plant primer guide for a different forum. Here is an updated version that I thought people might find useful.
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Setting up a planted tank can be both a frustrating but enjoyable experience. There is a lot of trial and error involved. Things like setting up the plants in a configuration you like and seeing what plants will and won't grow in your setup can take a significant amount of time but by the end hopefully it will be all worth it. I started working with live plants about 10 years ago and never looked back. They are much more pleasing to the eye than most artificial plants and in my opinion are better and safer for the fish. This article will be broken up into 5 parts; (1) equipment, (2) setup, (3) design, (4) optional equipment, (5) misc tips.

(1) Equipment
There are 2 vitally important parts to having a planted tank, light and substrate. Let's start with light. Currently aquarium lights can come in various configurations; T8, T5, LED etc. There are a lot of options on the market and it can be confusing for beginners to figure out what you need to make your plants happy. From my experience a standard fluorescent hood (with a T8 bulb) should generate enough light to grow a good variety of plants. For more exotic or tropical varieties you may need to upgrade to a brighter double T8, T5 or LED system, however it's generally not required for beginners.

Once you have a light fixture the next thing you need to think about are the bulbs. When looking for bulbs there should be a “K” value on the light. This is actually Kelvin, the same Kelvin that you keep temperature in. You see some physicist decided that as Kelvin values get larger they begin to turn from heat into light, but I won't get into the details. Typically you'll see 3 values 4800K, 6500K and 10000K. I prefer 6500K myself. 4800K is a little weak and some plants don't do well in it, think of it as shroudy sun all the time, not enough light for some plants to live in. 10000K on the other hand is like direct sun all day long, again not the best scenario for some plants.

When you have a fixture and bulb picked out the final part of the lighting scenario is timing. I run my lights on standard light timers which come on at about 9-10AM in the morning and go off between 8-10PM at night. As long as the plants get a good 8-12 hours of light a day they should do just fine. One word of warning however, if you're using a timer it's important to ensure that the aquarium lights are set to turn on after the sun has come up. If the lights suddently turn on in a dark room it can startle the fish and increase their overall stress level. Some people also claim that if you set your timer with a 30-120 minute off cycle in the middle of the day you can inhibit some types of algae. Although I have tried this a number of times I found it to be rather useless, however some people swear by this midday off cycle.

Next we need to have something to grow the plants in, the substrate (gravel, sand, etc). There are many different camps on the best substrate to use for a planted tank. Personally I use standard small pebble gravel (a little smaller than pea size) which is available at almost any LFS or retail pet store. I find that this type of gravel is easy to move around the tank, it holds the plants well, gives them good space to grow roots and most importantly it's rather cheap. I've also tried out some other substrates as well in test “farm” tanks so I'll list my conclusions about those below. I'm sure that other people will have different opinions on this as well.
Sand: Although sand can look great in a tank some plants may have trouble in it. Because it is somewhat dense and on a microscopic level can sometimes have sharp edges some plants can have trouble growing roots. After 8 months in sand I still regularly had plants popping out due to lack of root structure to hold them down.
Large stones: One of my favorite tank looks is large stones. They pose an interesting problem however. Because they are so large there is ample room for the roots to grow however the plants often slip out from between the stones and come dislodged. I found my stone tank completely uprooted a number of times by fish merely swimming by.
Multi-layer: A multi layered setup it probably best for plants. Using layers of peat, gravel and sand the plants have a great medium to grow in. Logistically however can be a nightmare. It is difficult to clean with a siphon filter and can cause nasty clouding after cleanings from silt kicking up into the water. It is also notoriously difficult to move around the bottom of the tank. In my opinion not for the beginner although something you might want to try eventually.
Plant substrates: There are a number of plant specific substrates available, most of them are generally based off of some kind of volcanic rock. Most plants love this kind of substrate however it can be rather expensive. As a result this may not be for beginners.

(2) Setup
With lights and substrate in hand it's now time to setup the tank. First install your light source. You may notice a green or blue tint to the light, this is normal. Next rinse the gravel and add it to the bottom of the tank. For a beginner I would suggest adding a layer of about 0.5-1 inch of gravel across the tank. Later as you begin planting you can move it around as needed and even add more if you feel it is necessary. Be aware that too much gravel can be a pain to work with though, cleaning it alone becomes a nasty chore.

With the gravel in place it's time to fill the tank with water and add your plants. If you bought the plants from a source your not sure about you may need to decon the plants to kill any hitchhikers they carry, such as snails. There are a number of ways to decon your plants but for me the easiest is a bleach dip. This can typically be done using a 20:1 water:bleach dilution followed by a GOOD rinse with clean water, I typically toss them in a 5 gallon bucket filled up to 4 gallons and dunk them a few times then rinse them under the faucet for a while. It's good to try a single plant of each type first just to make sure they will survive the bleach as some plants are very sensitive to bleach even in high dilutions. Now that your plants are clean its time to float them. Simply place them into the water of the tank and let them float on the top of the water. I usually float my plants for 24-48 hours before planting. Floating helps the plants get accustom to your tank water and being close to the light gives them an energy boost to make the transition a little easier. Once the plants have finished their float, you can place them in the substrate.

Planting is pretty straight forward, so long as the plants get far enough into the gravel that they stay at the bottom of the tank and don't float away. Some people use weights to keep their plants down but I find this only hinders their growth later in life. My preferred method is to hold the plant in the palm of my hand with the bottom end of the plant on my pointer finger and the roots hanging over. I then use my finger to drive the plant down into the gravel. (if the plants have large roots you may need to ball up the roots a bit for easier planting but do not clip them). Once planted keep an eye on the tank. Over the next week or so there are bound to be plants that pop up until their roots take hold. Also don't be discouraged by plants which appear to be dropping leaves. This happens with some species of plant, crypts and hygros especially, and will stop once the plant takes hold in the new tank. If there are plants which are obviously dead remove them before they start making a mess and clogging up your filter.

(3) Design
I've found that planted tanks are almost always based on 2 basic design principles; the fore/mid/back-ground setup and the centered setup.

The fore/mid/back-ground setup is my personal favorite. In this setup there are usually small bottom lying plants in the very front of the tank (foreground), medium/large sized plants in the middle (midground) and larger top to bottom plants in the back forming a curtain all the way across (background). Personally I find that this type of setup allows for the greatest distribution of different plant species and proves to be very versatile and attractive to the eye. Good candidate plants for a setup like this are;
Foreground: Glossostigma, Hairgrass, Moss Balls, Bannana plant
Midground: Java Ferns, Apons, Crypts, Swords, Anubias
Background: Anacharis, Hygros, Ludwigs, Foxtails, Watersprite
One thing to note about this kind of setup is that in some cases the background plants will 'lean' toward the middle of the tank where there is more light. By trimming them back you can avoid any potential problems this may cause.

The centered setup is a little different. Instead of spreading the plants out around the tank they are typically centered in the tank (as per the name). This is common when displaying planted driftwood. It is also somewhat popular for some people to mound their substrate in the middle of the tank and plant in the mound. Although it looks nice this kind of setup can be difficult for larger fish since it can restrict their swimming area as the plants get larger. You can use just about any type of plant for this setup. Put the larger ones in the center, the smaller ones on the edges and you're all set.

(4) Optional equipment
When you're talking about optional equipment for a planted aquarium there are two major topics; CO2 and fertilizers. Similar to terrestrial plants, aquatic plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) which helps them grow. By adding CO2 to your tank you can help ensure spectacular growth from your plants. Generally there are two ways in which CO2 can be added; CO2 canisters, which can be purchased and pipe CO2 directly into the water, and yeast reactors which allow yeast to eat sugar and generate CO2 as a biproduct pushing it into the water. Both types of CO2 setups have there pros and cons, but that's a discussion for another day. For beginners, your plants aren't going to require the addition of CO2 but it may be something to look into eventually.

Fertilizers are also another generally easy way to get your plants looking great. Fertilizers can generally be added to your aquarium in two ways; as liquid fertilizer directly into the water or as root tabs which are buried in the substrate. Personally I prefer to use root tabs in my aquarium as I find I get better results with them, however it's worth trying both types if you feel the need. One word of caution however. Whenever you fertalize your plants it's better to under-fertalize than over-fertalize. If over-fertalized a tank can quickly be overcome by algae. This is particularly common for beginners using liquid fertalizers. You have to remember that the instructions on the bottle assume you have a tank full of plants. If your tank only has a few plants in it you'll want to cut back on the amout of fertalizer you add to your system.

(5) Tips
As with anything aquarium related, do your research. Have an idea of what kind of plants you want before you purchase them and know a little about how they grow. Will they get large? Will they need to be pruned often? Do they send offshoots out? Can clippings be replanted to propagate the plant? Are they messy plants (dropping leaves a lot)?

Prune your plants!. Overgrown plants can make a great setup look horrible. Prune your plants using small clippers or even your fingernails. Make sure to pick off any dead material so it doesn't make a mess and clean up the surface with a net when you're done to pickup any lose plant material that may have come lose.

Variety is the spice of life. Try out different plants. Some will grow and some probably won't, no big deal. Once you have a feel for what grows best in your setup(s) you can make decisions about what you want your tank to look like in its final version.

Don't be afraid to clean your gravel. Although the mulm that builds up in the gravel makes great food for the roots of a plant it's still a good idea to clean it out from time to time. Clean what gravel you can on a regular basis without disturbing the plants. But from time to time it's alright to uproot all your plants and clean all the gravel well. This also acts as a good time to trim down your plants and change your setup if you wish. I typically uproot all my plants every 7-12 months.

Most of all be creative and do whatever makes you happy!thumbs2:

BLUKOI
05-06-2011, 03:17 PM
:fish: I have been wanting to try live plants in my tank. I think it will look better, but more importantly, it may make my fish happier. I've done alot of reading and all the do's and don'ts make it seem so complicated. I guess that is why I decide to just skip it when this planting itch comes along. I have kept fish for many years but have never had much luck with the few plants I've tried, they all seem to die. But your post has put the basics in one place and have encouraged me to try again. Thanks, we'll see what happens.:fish:

Rue
05-06-2011, 08:21 PM
Good job!thumbs2:

DrNic
05-06-2011, 08:58 PM
:fish: I have been wanting to try live plants in my tank. I think it will look better, but more importantly, it may make my fish happier. I've done alot of reading and all the do's and don'ts make it seem so complicated. I guess that is why I decide to just skip it when this planting itch comes along. I have kept fish for many years but have never had much luck with the few plants I've tried, they all seem to die. But your post has put the basics in one place and have encouraged me to try again. Thanks, we'll see what happens.:fish:
I hope this help you adding plants to your tank. thumbs2:


Good job!thumbs2:
Thanks!

Strider199
05-06-2011, 11:29 PM
Great post DrNic. I cant believe I missed this info until today.

Sticky material for sure. Reason; a straight basic guide for those of us who are new to plants with enough material included to give those who are 6 months into their first planted tank, HOPE!

Thanks for the Tips section. I'm 6 months into my first planted tank and scratching my head on some things. You have given me some re-enforcement DrNik. Thank you.

bemgelado
05-25-2011, 08:24 PM
Thanks for this! I am getting ready to do a major re-do of my tank, switching out substrate, and trying new planting configurations. This is going to be really useful for a beginner like me! :)

funkman262
05-25-2011, 09:01 PM
Once you have a light fixture the next thing you need to think about are the bulbs. When looking for bulbs there should be a “K” value on the light. This is actually Kelvin, the same Kelvin that you keep temperature in. You see some physicist decided that as Kelvin values get larger they begin to turn from heat into light, but I won't get into the details. Typically you'll see 3 values 4800K, 6500K and 10000K. I prefer 6500K myself. 4800K is a little weak and some plants don't do well in it, think of it as shroudy sun all the time, not enough light for some plants to live in. 10000K on the other hand is like direct sun all day long, again not the best scenario for some plants.

Great write-up, but this section bothers me. Kelvin, for bulbs, actually relates to the color of a black pot when it's heated at a certain temperature, which is why it's the same kelvin as temp. In other words, the black pot heated at 6500K will produce the same color as a 6500K bulb. It has nothing to do with the conversion of heat to light.

Kelvin in no way relates to the intensity of the bulb as this paragraph makes it seem. 4800K is not "weaker" than 6500K or 10000K, and none of them will relate to "direct sun". If you want to duplicate "direct sun" you would have to use a bulb with a CRI (color rendering index) of 100 and enough wattage to produce 1500-2000 PAR. Direct sunlight is in no way related to a single Kelvin rating but the proper mixture of the entire PAR spectrum.

And if you want to get technical, you should look at PUR vs PAR, which is the useable light spectrum that the chlorophyll in plants are able to uptake. While PAR is in the range from 400-700nm, PUR is more like 400-550 and 620-700nm. In other words, the 550-620nm light ends up being unused. Based on this, using a mix of 2700K, 5100K, 6500K and maybe some 10000K would be ideal for plant growth.

smaug
05-25-2011, 09:15 PM
Very usable write up Nic. All of it was written in such a way as to not confuse a newbie with a lot of technical gobblyteegook. The section on lighting was very easy to comprehend and allow a future plantkeeper to make a wise choice with lighting types the way they are currently advertised to the consumer. Great job,on all of it.

funkman262
05-25-2011, 09:18 PM
Except the section about lighting (at least the section I quoted) was completely incorrect...

If anything, to not "confuse a newbie" even more, I feel that paragraph should just be removed altogether as it offers no value to a beginner.

DrNic
05-26-2011, 03:08 PM
Except the section about lighting (at least the section I quoted) was completely incorrect...

If anything, to not "confuse a newbie" even more, I feel that paragraph should just be removed altogether as it offers no value to a beginner. I had a couple people explain it to me the way I wrote it up but never really looked it up to verify. Looks like you're right though. Unfortunately I'm not a mod here so I can't edit the post. (You can only do that for 15min after it's posted I think) Hopefully one of the admins can change that.

smaug
05-26-2011, 04:11 PM
Well there funky. If I were a beginner as took nics write up at face value as for lighting selection for my new planted tank. I would go out and get a fixture with 6700k bulbs of the appropriate output. Knowing what I know now vs what I new as a newbie,I know that the 6700k bulbs are the correct choice for a very workable lighting system.

funkman262
05-26-2011, 04:31 PM
Well there funky. If I were a beginner as took nics write up at face value as for lighting selection for my new planted tank. I would go out and get a fixture with 6700k bulbs of the appropriate output. Knowing what I know now vs what I new as a newbie,I know that the 6700k bulbs are the correct choice for a very workable lighting system.

Give it a rest and grow up man. I know you're just going to disagree with everything I say. I couldn't care less what you think, especially since you're the one advising people to use the "watts per gallon" rule even though it has no place in the aquarium. I'm sure you still recommend using the "inch per gallon" rule for stocking fish. DrNic realized his error, why can't you?